Friday, December 11, 2009

Gretchen Rubin doesn't understand lists

Wherein everything that follow is extremely boring Extremely


Take a look at Gretchen Rubin's Eight Tips to Know If You're Being Boring. Having read a few of her previous articles and become highly annoyed by her uber-extroverted approach to happiness, I guessed I'd nail at least six items on her boring list. Unfortunately, this list was so poorly written I had to redo it.

Maybe a quick review of lists would help. First, from Read Me First! A Style Guide for the Computer Industry:
Lists are used to extract information from the paragraph format and to structure the information into an easier-to-read format....You do not want the reader to confuse a list with steps, which denote actions....Use [bulleted] lists when the entries are not dependent on the sequence in which you present them....make the list items parallel....Make sure that the items in a bulleted list are similar in value

And from the Chicago Manual of Style:
All items in a list should be syntactically alike....

The first problem is this is not something that needs to be structured in a list. These are eight paragraphs with introductory headers. Or they could be paragraphs if she took the time and care to treat them equally. Her #1 is two sentences stating "this is boring." Her #5 is a journal of personal reflection concerning some anecdote about something while she scoffs her feet and stammers a bunch of "I suspect," and "In general," along with a "probably" and a "maybe." Also, if we can restructure these as paragraphs then we can do away with discussing whether there's a need to number them or does a bulleted list make more sense.

With that out of the way, the main problem is the lack of structure of the headings. Whether numbered, bulleted, in a table, or even chapter headings, parallel construction goes a long way towards keeping the reader focused on your message. Take the first two:
  • Repeated,perfunctory responses
  • Simple questions

We can probably figure out where she's going, but a more helpful, and parallel structure would be:
  • Repeating perfunctory responses
  • Asking simple questions

Isn't that better? Now you know the offense and if you want more detail you can read further.

Now based on the introduction I'm expecting eight boring behaviors that are followed by an explanation for each. In a glancing fashion, skipping most context, I should be able to cruise through the topics -- yes, no, no, yes -- and come up with a score. Even in the original and uncorrected form, the first two work this way. Then there's third and fourth:
  • Interruption
  • Request for clarification

Because the first two were examples of being boring, I'm expecting the same here. I can understand interrupting but asking for clarification is being boring? Turns out that's not what she means. Rubin "thinks" interrupting is a good sign and that an interested person will ask for additional information. Fixing,
  • Repeating perfunctory responses
  • Asking simple questions
  • Not interrupting
  • Not asking for clarification

I have created a parallel construction problem by starting the first two with gerunds and the next two without, but at least the logical agreement is correct. Once we get all eight pointing in the same direction, then we can get down to nit-picking.

Numbers five, six, seven, and eight are also vague. However, "imbalance" offers even less of a clue where Rubin is going. Since I was burned by assuming that interrupting was bad, I'm not guess on what she thinks of talking time. Changing it to "Talking too much" would be a huge help.

Skipping ahead, here's my first draft rewrite.
  1. Repeating perfunctory responses
  2. Asking simple questions
  3. Not interrupting
  4. Not asking for clarification
  5. Talking too much
  6. Abruptly changing topics
  7. Leaning
  8. Slouching

Basically this boils down to displaying a lack of enthusiasm, failure to act interested, and assuming a posture of someone trying to escape. Again, Rubin is assuming the tyranny of the extroverted is pleasant behavior. These aren't signs that you are boring, they're signs you're doing a poor job covering up that you find your chit-chat partner to be boring. Relax, it's their fault, not yours. Of course a large part of social interaction is pretending you care, but that can be another ill-thought out list.

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