Advice · From the workplace · Smart Thinking

“Say the third thing that comes into your head” (contains rude words)

“Say the third thing that comes into your head.” This is advice I heard a year or two ago in a TV interview given by the comedian Reginald D Hunter. He is from the American South but has lived in the UK for many years. When he returns to America his English style of humour can get him into trouble. Sarcasm, it seems, can be a lynching offence in some of those Southern States. So he has learnt to ignore the first two things that come into his head and say the third. It’s safer that way. It’s good advice.

There are times when ten or twenty possible responses enter my head and I know that only one of them might be acceptable, or maybe none of them will be. At these times I’m reminded of an episode of “Friends”, “The One with All the Resolutions”. Chandler has resolved not to make fun of his friends and sits there, silent, tortured, unable to say anything when, for instance, Ross turns up in leather pants. By the end of the show he can stand it no more and he lets it all out. He pays the agreed penalty for breaking his resolution, and says all the things he previously couldn’t, including the line, “And Ross, phone call for you today, Tom Jones, he wants his pants back!”

While weighing up possible responses I am also sometimes reminded of a scene in the first “Terminator” movie. The cyborg, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, has heard many phrases since landing in 1980s LA. Over halfway through the movie he’s undertaking some running repairs in a men’s room, there’s a knock at the door and the cleaner enquires after him. A few possible responses go through the cyborg’s processing unit. According to this IMDB page they are:



He chooses “Fuck You, Asshole”, a phrase that he heard right at the beginning of the movie when asking the leader of a gang of punks to give him his clothes. I remembered this sequence from watching it on video back in the mid-80s, and saw the movie again on TV a couple of years ago. The visualized screen of options doesn’t look dated at all, thirty years later.

Some years ago I was working on a project where I often had to ignore the first three (or ten or even twenty) things that came to mind. There are many people who work in IT departments who, it seems, wish they were working for Microsoft. Maybe deep down they believe that they are working for Microsoft. They are certainly doing their work for them, rolling out new versions of software as a matter of course, without testing whether all the functionality that their users (or clients) previously enjoyed will be available in the later version. And when it turns out that the new version renders their clients unable to do their jobs in the way that they used to, they expect these clients to change the way they work, for the sake of the later version. No blame or criticism could possibly be directed at themselves, or to their favourite software firm, for changing the way that other people have to work. (Don’t get me started on the removal of OCX components in Access 2013, requiring either a customized install of the software, or rewriting databases that have been working For Years.)

One such IT person, introduced to me as a real asset to the project, a “Completer Finisher” who could get things done, would take many seconds to give a response to any question. Initially I thought that he was doing the same thing as Reginald D Hunter, or the Terminator, evaluating and discarding inappropriate responses, but the longer we worked together the more it appeared that it took him this long to come up with the first thing that came into his head. He wasn’t discarding anything. It just took him 20 seconds to say, “No, we can’t do that. Microsoft wouldn’t want us to do it that way.” I managed to get through the whole project without once using the Terminator’s response, but came pretty close sometimes.


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