Bright Ideas and True Confessions: How and What to Do and Why

The Easiest Way to Tell a Lie
Ælflæd of Duckford

Sometimes when a person is just trying to walk, even if he's a pretty experienced walker, he can fall down or run into something. Sometimes when a person is just trying to talk, even if he's a pretty experienced talker, he can fall into furnishing misinformation. the way I've most often seen this happen is the use of absolute statements concerning what was and wasn't done in period. Nearly any statement which begins "They always. . ." or "They never" can be refuted. While "They never rode bicycles" is pretty safe, "They never wore red" is a danger. As the teachers say, "All dogs have four legs" is belied by a single three-legged dog, and of those there are many. "Most dogs have four legs" is a truth, and so the difference in truth and error is easily made by a single well-chosen word.

There is a concept with which many of you are familiar and that is "qualification." Saying a thing is or was or evermore shall be is inflexible, and inflexible things are easily shattered. No matter how positive you are of a piece of information, you might consider saying "In my opinion," "I understand," "I believe," or "I have read" just before you impart it to others. It will serve as insurance should you be wrong, and it gives enough flexibility to your listener that any question of the information will be just that - criticism of the information and not of the speaker.

Another error is to say "they" when you are thinking "12th Century French peasants" but people in your audience are thinking "people all over Europe for hundreds of years." Try to get in some "who, when and where" when you're reporting.

You will find yourself being a teacher, to a greater or lesser degree, even if you have only been in the Society a few months. Newer members, your relatives, your friends at work will ask you about heraldry or armor, costumes or customs. When you have been around longer, you may find yourself teaching in a more formal situation - a polearms seminar, a Chaucer workshop, or a newcomers' class. It is right and good to admit when you're not sure of the answer, and it is not a sign of weakness to say "probably" instead of "absolutely." The danger of false information coming from a teacher is its life thereafter - one bad statement to a large class, after they go out and repeat what they learned, becomes twenty bad statements with the teacher's name attached. If you present flawed information, the best you can hope for is that no one will repeat what you said.

Bad information in itself is unfortunate but it is like litter - it can be picked up, even by someone other than the person who left it. Worse than the effect on the listener is the effect on the speaker. A statement which is not true is a fallacy or a lie. While one is worse than the other, neither is an aid to greater credibility or integrity. If a teacher gives ten pieces of information, and you know one of them to be false, what is to be done with the other nine? It is a strength in a teacher to give sources, to qualify statements, and to be open enough to consider other evidence. By conscious use of these measures the students' body of information is purified, along with the teacher's soul.

Try these at home!

  • "I think that..."
  • "I read that..."
  • "According to [whatever magazine]..."
  • "[George] told me that..."
  • "I understood [so-and-so] to say that..."
  • "It seems to me that..."
  • "From what I've seen and read..."
  • "I'm not sure, but I think ... "
  • "If I'm not mistaken..."


Even better for teachers:

"If you read [so-and-so] you may find. . ."
(let them interpret the source themselves)
"According to several scholars, . . ."
(get across the idea that authors should be compared)
"I used to believe [x] but lately I've begun to think [y]."
(admit that knowledge grows and changes, so students won't be afraid when they feel theirs changing)


  • "Everyone knows that. . ."
  • "Any fool can see. . ."
  • "Of course. . ." [I hate "of course."]
  • "They always. . ."
  • "They never. . ."
  • "That's WRONG." (Try, in a kindly voice, "Where did you find that?")
  • "YOU'RE wrong." (Try "I've read that they didn't have potatoes yet.")

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