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Essay: Explainers and Non-Explainers - Let Me Explain!


Lake Effect essayist Jim Spangler has been thinking about how we understand each other - or fail to. We’ll let him explain...

It is a natural tendency in this complicated world to simplify, and one way is to divide everything into two separate camps, winners and losers, players and spectators, southerners and northerners and on and on. But I’m not touching Republicans and Democrats. If what passes for political discourse continues, I’m investing my money in the dueling pistol business.

What strikes me as needing further discussion is the division between the explainers and non-explainers of the world.

Let me explain!

My wife is an explainer. Recently she bought a blouse one day and took it back the next. I happened to be with her because we were running other errands. She and the sales clerk, another explainer, entered into a lengthy analysis of her entire wardrobe it seemed and why this particular item was not exactly, not precisely right.

Now, this explainer thing is not sexist. I know men who have to delve into every nuance, every possibility with anyone who happens to be on the receiving end. As you can guess, I am not an explainer. “The windshield washer doesn’t work,” I told the car service guy. And they didn’t. And he fixed them, and now they do. End of story, except for paying the bill.

It’s no big deal you say, just a difference in communicating. Unfortunately, it’s more complicated than that.

Let me explain!

Explainers have a long attention span. Not only do they examine every nuance, every angle, every detail and possible outcome, no matter how mundane, they have the uncanny ability to listen to every word of another explainer. That’s where three-hour lunches come from.

When two non-explainers get together you’d think somebody was charging them by the word.

“Cold today.” “Sure is, tomorrow too, maybe snow.” “Right.” “See ya!” that’s where twenty-minute lunches come from, including the sandwich.

You can see the problem coming. Of course, it is when an explainer and a non-explainer try to have a conversation. The explainer drones on about how the Murphy’s had remodeled their kitchen and couldn’t decide on the counter, then the paint, then the cupboards, had trouble with the plumber and on and on. But in the middle of all this she, in this case, slips in, “We are going to the Murphy’s for dinner on Saturday.”

The non-explainer, being a lousy listener – the two go together – has tuned out long ago. His, in this case, mind has wandered to a problem at work or fixing the garage door or whatever.

“You better get dressed.” “Dressed? Why?” “We’re going to the Murphy’s for dinner.” “What? You never told me.” Of course, you’ve never had a conversation like that at your house. Naa, I didn’t think so.

Being a retired newspaper guy, I have yet a different slant on all this explainer-non-explainer business. For there is a place for both in every newsroom.

Let me explain!

Feature writers are explainers. They write the stories that start like this: “John Jones had no way of knowing that last Tuesday would be a life changer, not only for him but for his family.” “Stop off at the grocery store for bread and milk,” his wife texted. Ten paragraphs later we learn he bought a lottery ticket at the store and with that winning ticket he became an overnight millionaire.

The non-explainer writes so-called hard news. Ever hear of the five W’s: who, what, where, when and why? All of that information should be in the first sentence or for sure in the first paragraph. Here’s how the story would sound from a non-explainer, hard news reporter. “The Quick-Trip on Phillips and 6th Avenue picked up its third big lottery winner this year when John Jones, age 37, of the 1800 block of Simpson Street won a million dollars Tuesday in the Wisconsin School Lottery. ‘Good-bye mortgage, good-bye car payment, hello vacation,’ said the excited winner at a news conference held at lottery headquarters.” End of story.

Now comes the question – can we cure the explainer non-explainer dilemma? Can we somehow move their communication styles closer together? Probably not, but even if we could, would that really be such a good thing? Isn’t there room in this world for feature writers and hard news people? If we were all one type or the other, would not life, not to mention conversation, be just a little less interesting? Let’s celebrate each other’s communication style more and criticize it less.

“And yes, dear, I’m getting dressed now for our dinner at the Murphy’s, and I can’t wait to see their new kitchen.”

Lake Effect essayist Jim Spangler is a retired newspaperman who now lives and writes in Brookfield.

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Jim Spangler comments on the life experiences we all share, drawing on a 40-year newspaper career in Human Resources and labor relations, following a business degree from the University of Iowa and a stint in the Marines.