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May 27, 2013

Good Cop, Bad Cop, Specificity Cop

By Linnea N. Meyer '14  |  may, 2013, Issue 2
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It's time to get specific!


Has anyone ever asked you to specify your pronouns? You know, asking nitpicky questions such as: "What do you mean by 'it'?" or "Who is the 'they' in what you said?"

If so, you had a run-in with a "specificity cop," someone on a mission to rid the world of vague pronouns and consequently test the patience of friends, family, co-workers...everyone.

My first run-in happened when consulting. One of my managers was a stickler about vague pronouns, correcting subordinates and even superiors for transgressions. As awkward as his interventions were, I must admit his reasoning was persuasive: The ambiguity of an "it," "those" or "they" taken out of context often creates confusion and wastes time.

This struggle for specificity has grown on me recently, in no small part because in improv, specificity cops abound. Improv teachers constantly chide players to replace vague "you" and "this" references with specific relationship labels and object names.

Maybe it's time to join the ranks of specificity cops on-stage and in real-life. Need a specific reason? Read on.

Credibility: In improv, adding specific details – accurate or not – makes your character more believable. During a scene about buying a car (about which I know nothing), my teacher wouldn't let me move forward until my "red car" became a "Toyota 460xyz convertible, with blood-red paint, velvet upholstery, and monster-truck wheels." Ridiculous? Mayhaps...but it sure made my character sound like she knew what she was talking about.

The same idea holds true off-stage. Consider fit interviews. The more specific you are when telling stories about yourself, the more credible you appear. Now, I'm not advocating making stuff up –McKinsey will see right through that – but rather planning ahead to share appropriate, informative details. Another plus: Details tend to be "sticky" (à la Heath and Heath's Made to Stick), so recruiters remember you after a long day of interviews.

Efficiency: In improv, the more specific you are early on, the easier it is for your partner to say "yes, and," building on your ideas to move the scene forward. Starting with an angry "You again!?!?" gives your partner nothing to work with, compared to an angry "You again!?!? Geez Mom, I already told you I'm not hungry!" Such specificity increases improv efficiency.

Efficiently getting on the same page is important not just on-stage but in real-life. Beyond everyday transactions, consider networking. The more specific you are about the jobs you want, the easier it is for others to connect you with the right people. Specificity makes it easier for them to say "yes, and" to your career ideas, thereby making your job search more efficient.

Sensitivity: Now, it doesn't always pay to be specific in improv. Notably, making sweeping generalizations about your partner's character, especially when colorful or insulting, adds comedy and conflict to a scene. Such on-stage insensitivity is inherent to improv, where the goal is to create problems, not solve them.

In real-life, we generally want to solve problems. Being sensitive to others – and using specific language to do so – thus becomes more critical. For instance, if you want to avoid negative stereotyping, don't describe out-group individuals with abstract traits – "Kellogg students are soft" – but with concrete actions – "Kellogg students drew pretty pictures at yesterday's case competition". (Read psychologist Anne Maass for more.) These specifics essentially give others the benefit of the doubt, putting behaviors into context rather than generalizing them into claims about character.

Specificity cops of Booth, unite!

Last Updated 5/28/13
Last Updated 5/28/13