That Guy with a Thousand Inconsequential Objections
November 6, 2013 Editor 0
We all know him at work — he’s That Guy. That Guy finds a reason to object to anything that is said. No matter how inconsequential the matter he can’t help but say, “but…” Here’s a typical script:
Normal Colleague: “I think the new guy is really getting up to speed quickly.”
That Guy: “OK, but what do you mean by quickly?”
Normal Colleague: “He just seems to be doing a good job so far.”
That Guy: “But why shouldn’t he? He’s just doing the easy stuff now.”
Normal Colleague: “Fine. I’m just saying his work so far has been quite good.”
That Guy: “Yeah, but what does ‘quite good’ mean exactly’?”
Talking to That Guy is painful. The conversation never seems to move — it’s always stuck. In meetings he’s worse: he objects to the most minor details in presentations, frustrating the presenter and everyone else. His net impact on the meeting is generally negative, and he makes it 15 minutes longer than it needs to be. And I suspect that no right-minded person wants meetings to be longer than necessary.
You might not know it but there’s a special word for That Guy: he’s captious. To be captious is to raise petty objections.
What’s not easy to do is to give a theory of what constitutes “petty.” However, like pornography, I think most of us know it when we see it. Without having really clear criteria for them, we can identify easily petty objections. And very often, petty objections have a clear causal impact on people in meetings: they roll their eyes. Of course, sometimes people roll their eyes to what are in fact smart objections, but I think most of the time most people (not That Guy) know which objections are trivial and which actually matter. Ultimately, we have to rely on our own (fallible) judgment to decide what’s relevant and what’s trivial, on when someone is being captious and when he’s not.
What’s the prescription from this? Introduce the word “captious” into your office’s lexicon. Having a sharper way of describing That Guy can help you more easily spot him, and also hopefully discourage him (because he’ll know you know he’s captious). Some students of mine went a step further and actually had hats made with “captious” printed on them so that if anyone did behave captiously, they could hat the cat in question. But make sure the word is not abused: if any comment or objection is labeled as “captious,” then you run the risk of silencing smart ideas. Use the word, but use it wisely.
In any case, please don’t be captious yourself.
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