The Long and the Short of It: Answering Questions in a Complex World
Last week, I was driving home from work at a local university, where I teach freshman writing. As usual, I was listening to NPR. A story came on about how Alaska Airlines had struck a deal to buy Virgin America. I wasn’t really paying attention to the details until someone asked the reporter a question about the takeover. The reporter said “The short answer is — ” and then proceeded to answer the question.
At that phrase, my ears perked up. “What a wonderful way to frame information!” I thought. Life is complicated. There are short answers, and there are long answers. It struck me as very smart to begin explanations by saying either “the short answer is” or “the long answer is.”
This framing method seemed particularly useful to me, perhaps because I am a teacher. I am constantly answering questions from students in my classes. Giving explanations is my bread and butter. So I knew I could use this knowledge-framing method in class. (Thank you, Mr. Reporter.)
Of course, I’ve heard phrases like these before (“it’s a long story,” “long story short,”) but that day, the reporter’s use of the phrase “the short answer is,” struck me hard. Maybe I was looking for ways to become a more effective teacher and thinker. (Actually, I’m always looking for methods to better my teaching and thinking. This is one of the main reasons I write.)
But these two phrases are useful beyond the classroom. They are almost essential in today’s world, a world so complex that it can drive us crazy. Let’s face it. It’s hard to stay mentally healthy in the chaos called “the present day.”
So what is good mental health?
Good mental health means one is able and willing to recognize our world’s intricate complexity, accept it and move forward. Here’s an (ugly) illustration: We live in an era of mass shootings, but we still have to find a way to feel safe and comfortable in our day-to-day life as we move around the dangerous world. To top it off, if we have children, we have to discover ways to make our offspring feel comfortable. Parents, especially, know that this can be excruciatingly difficult. This is complexity of the highest degree.
I propose that to constantly embrace the world’s complicated nature, we should all get in the habit of framing information with the phrases “the short answer is” and “the long answer is.”
I, for one, have decided that I’m going to give explanations with full mindfulness of the intricacy of life, and, therefore, I will always use these phrases, not only in my college classes but outside of them as well.
Think about it. Our language is powerful. The words we use can help us think better and live better.
Sisters photo available from Shutterstock
Yeager, L. (2018). The Long and the Short of It: Answering Questions in a Complex World. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 7, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/the-long-and-the-short-of-it/