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The Whippet #30: Cash in on the other fellow's experiences

McKinley Valentine — 8 min read

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I am gonna tell you about a real useful linguistic concept - one of those things where you're like "oh there's a word for that, that's so useful! Now I have a way talk about it."

You know how when you say something, sometimes you want them to literally hear the content of your message ("pass the salt") and sometimes it's a social action that happens to use words - but the words themselves don't matter ("you're welcome"). And a whole lot of awkwardness comes about when people can't gauge whether they're supposed to listen to the content of the words, or treat it as a social action ("How's it going?")

And of course, most things you say operate on both levels. If you message your partner to tell them about a funny thing someone said at work, you're saying both the funny thing, and "I think about you when you're not around."

So backchannel is one of the kinds of speech that's all action, no content. It's the mm-hmms, yeahs, right of courses that you say when you're listening, and it means "I'm still paying attention."

It's super important! And different cultures have different ideas about the amount of backchannel that's appropriate. East Asian people tend to do a lot more of it than Westerners, for example. Too much feels like the listener is bored and trying to hurry you along; too little feels like the listener has drifted off, so cultural mismatches cause problems. There's also confusion around "Yes" (I heard you, I get what you're saying) and "Yes" (I agree with you, I'm going to do that).

I often use "that makes sense" as backchannel, and occasionally people respond with annoyance - "I know it makes sense!" like I've said "I'm judging you, and you've passed" (which is just as insulting as "I'm judging you, and you failed"). But now I can say "no it's just backchannel!" and then I have to explain what backchannel is and then I've totally derailed the conversation, which is even ruder. I should probably just try to wean myself off "that makes sense."

And sometimes I go blank because I can't think of the right backchannel to give. A Facebook Like is kind of like backchannel, and you know, before reacts, when someone posted some bad news, you didn't know whether you should Like it or not? Does it mean "I Like that" or "I read it and hear you"?

But now that more people know the word, if I can't think of the right backchannel, I can just say "backchannel" instead of "um, I'm listening, I just don't really have anything to add."

The jewel caterpillar

"The glutinous cones break off extremely easily—one can gently tweeze them off or even pull them off by accident—suggestive of the way some lizards' tails snap off in a predator's mouth."

"The few ants that chomped down got their mouths temporarily stuck in the larvae's jelly coat or pulled away quickly and cleaned the gunk off their mandibles. In subsequent tests, Epstein found no evidence of toxic chemicals in the larvae's goo, suggesting that it deters ants purely because of its stickiness." [Source]

The founder of MI6 was a terrible spy

Some highlights the biography of Sir Mansfield Cumming:

"He carried a swordstick, wore a gold-rimmed monocle and possessed a "chin like the cut-water of a battleship". He enjoyed gadgets, codes, practical jokes and tall tales, and took children for rides in his personal tank. He was so pleased to discover that semen made a good invisible ink that his agents adopted the motto: "Every man his own stylo".

"He tested potential recruits by stabbing his wooden leg through his trousers with a paper- knife. If the applicant winced, Cumming said: "Well, I'm afraid you won't do."

Upon arriving in Germany for his first mission, "Cumming immediately lost his weapons expert, who got out of a hotel lift on the wrong floor and couldn't find anyone to give him directions in English."

"On one occasion he was caught in a consulate trying to get some letters that were being used for blackmail, and professed himself astonished because the people questioning him were disrespectful "even though he'd taken off his hat."

"On another he tried to have a conversation with a German spy despite speaking no German, spent most of it consulting a phrase-book in a panicky fashion, and only afterwards realized that they both spoke French.

"On still another, he and a fellow spy once tried to book a quiet room with a source, but mistook a brothel for a hotel. "The madam, faced with two men wanting a private room who said they were not interested in having a woman sent to them because they were waiting for another man, assumed they were homosexuals about to take part in an illegal act," threw them out and called the police."

[The fact that homosexuality was illegal is more horrifying than Cumming's incompetence to be honest. I try to keep The Whippet light, but the world creeps in.]

The Quest for C: Mansfield Cumming and the founding of the British Secret Service by Alan Judd

Reverse Fahrenheit 451

"Published in 1953, Fahrenheit 451 by US writer Ray Bradbury is set in a dystopian America, where books are prohibited and 'firemen' are ordered to burn any that are found."

451 Fahrenheit (233 Celsius) is the temperature at which paper spontaneously combusts.

This copy of Fahrenheit 451 is pitch-black and totally unreadable until you set fire to it. Made at Charles Nypels Laboratory, part of the Jan van Eyck Academie in the Netherlands.


Iberian ribbed newt has horrifying defence mechanism

It has sharp, pointy ribs, which it PUSHES OUT THROUGH ITS OWN SKIN, hurting the mouth of whatever predator is trying to carry it off.

It also secretes poison on the sides of its body, which the ribs get covered in as they puncture the skin.

So the animal gets poison injected directly into stab wounds in its mouth. And then the ribs retract and the skin heals after a bit, ready to stab again.

"Though they are quite able to walk on land, most rarely leave the water, living usually in ponds, cisterns, and ancient village wells that are common in Portugal and Spain."

Also they have been to space ten times. [Wikipedia]

Unsolicited propaganda

From Live Auctioneers' Vintage Poster & Print Catalogue. I love that they made this seem like a canny scam.
(Oh man - you guys know that Mitchell and Webb sketch about farming, right? YouTube link. Spare 1 minute 26 seconds for a funny sketch, go on.)

Solicited Advice

Kitchen etiquette at work and unspoken rules

“There is apparently a certain tea in the communal cupboard that is understood to be "the director's tea" and that implicit in that is the notion that other people shouldn't drink it. I found myself getting quite passionate about the discussion though because I really hate when there are unspoken rules like this that can have interpersonal consequences (especially at work!) Do you think there are any circumstances in which "unspoken" rules are useful/good?"

Hm, there's kind of a few things going on here!

1. I would argue that this is not really an unspoken rule, since you know about it? It wasn't spoken to you directly by the director (heh) but it's pretty common to not hear all workplace rules from the top boss personally, but to have them passed on by lower-down folk.

2. That said, come on man, if you have a personal tea you don't want other people to drink, keep it at your desk.

3. This unspoken rules thing falls into an amazing comment someone left on a MetaFilter thread about Ask vs Guess Culture.

In some families, you grow up with the expectation that it's OK to ask for anything at all, but you gotta realize you might get no for an answer. This is Ask Culture.

In Guess Culture, you avoid putting a request into words unless you're pretty sure the answer will be yes. Guess Culture depends on a tight net of shared expectations. A key skill is putting out delicate feelers. If you do this with enough subtlety, you won't even have to make the request directly; you'll get an offer. Even then, the offer may be genuine or pro forma; it takes yet more skill and delicacy to discern whether you should accept.

When an Asker meets a Guesser, unpleasantness results. An Asker won't think it's rude to request two weeks in your spare room, but a Guess culture person will hear it as presumptuous and resent the agony involved in saying no. Your boss, asking for a project to be finished early, may be an overdemanding boor – or just an Asker, who's assuming you might decline. If you're a Guesser, you'll hear it as an expectation.

The official position you're supposed to have is that neither is right or wrong, they just clash badly. But also clearly Guess culture is wrong. Like, I'm sorry you were raised in unhelpful ways, but it really is on you to unlearn that. Guess culture only works within the same cultural background, class, ingroup, etc etc. So Guess doesn't even work for the majority of Guessers! And man, it sucks to be an Asker, and find out someone has been happily agreeing to something and secretly resenting you for the last 6 months.

That said - I think I'm a pretty stark Asker, and there's still times when I don't think it's okay to ask. People asking you out when they know you're in a monogamous relationship, for example. "I was just asking, so the answer's No, no big deal" wouldn't cut it.

If it's my birthday, and my partner and I have a fancy dinner planned, I'm gonna be upset if they say "Hey do you mind if I go see a movie with Friend instead?" I want them to not even consider saying yes to Friend. (Obviously some people don't care about birthdays, or care a lot about movies, and wouldn't mind this scenario at all. That's the point: Guess culture is fraught and unreliable. But I still hold to a little of it.)

If you want solicited advice, send questions to or just reply to this email.

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