Trying To Change, Or Changing The Subject? How Feedback Gets Derailed

npr hiddenbrain finalart3 72dpi wide 988595db0b7b5eadbcb11ea1fc444132c5095f45 1024x576 - Trying To Change, Or Changing The Subject? How Feedback Gets Derailed
Switchtracking, as defined by author Sheila Heen, is when “someone gives you feedback, and your reaction to that feedback changes the subject.”

Pour yourself a cup of tea, turn your (right) ear toward your speakers and take a listen to the very first episode of the Hidden Brain podcast. We’re talking a lot about feedback. First, we’ll hear from author Sheila Heen about a common communication problem that pops up in many relationships.

Then, host Shankar Vedantam and author Daniel Pink will play a rapid-fire game of Stopwatch Science. They’ll give you some tips that might help you communicate better — and perhaps even have better luck bumming a cigarette.

After that, Vedantam sits down for tea with comedian Meshelle, the Indie Mom of Comedy. They talk about the importance of rituals — until they get sidetracked by an unexpected visitor.

This week, NPR’s Adam Cole also joins the podcast for a game we’re calling ColePlay (with apologies to a British pop band you may have heard of). He’s listening in to all the segments and then composing a song stitching them all together. Listen all the way to the end of the episode to hear the song!


Welcome to the first episode of the HIDDEN BRAIN podcast. I’m Shankar Vedantam. You may know me as NPR’s social science correspondent or the author of “The Hidden Brain,” a book about unconscious bias. I love making connections between the things I see every day and the worlds of psychology, sociology and economics. This podcast is going to be a conversation about the unseen patterns in our lives.


VEDANTAM: Today, I’m going to tell you about a communication problem in many relationships. It’s not obvious, but it’s so common that as you hear about it, you’re going to think of half a dozen examples where this has happened in your own life. I’m also going to play a rapid-fire game with a friend to tell you four ways you can become a better communicator. Then I’m going to talk with comedian Meshelle about the importance of incorporating rituals into our busy lives.


VEDANTAM: We’re going to talk about human behavior in lots of different ways on this podcast. We’re going to have stories, conversations, and we’re also going to play lots and lots of games. Today, we’re going to play a music game. I’ve asked a colleague on NPR’s Science Desk to join me. He’s Adam Cole. Hi, Adam.

ADAM COLE, BYLINE: Hi, Shankar, great to be here.

VEDANTAM: Adam runs a science YouTube channel called Skunk Bear. He’s a musician, artist, all-around renaissance guy.

COLE: What an intro.

VEDANTAM: Adam, for today’s music game, I’m going to give you a challenge.

COLE: All right.

VEDANTAM: I want you to listen to all the segments in today’s episode and come up with a song that stitches all of the science together. Are you ready, Adam?

COLE: I am uncapping my pen.

VEDANTAM: All right, let’s get started. First up, author Sheila Heen.


VEDANTAM: Along with Douglas Stone, Sheila recently wrote a book called “Thanks For The Feedback: The Science And Art Of Receiving Feedback Well.” One concept in the book focuses on something called switch-tracking.

SHEILA HEEN: So switch-tracking is a pattern in feedback conversations that is so common that it’s instantly recognizable, which is that someone gives you feedback. And your reaction to that feedback changes the subject.

VEDANTAM: That’s Sheila.

HEEN: So a switch-track is that place where the track is going along, and then there is a switch. And depending on which way the switch is turned, the train will glide smoothly onto a second track or stay on the first track.

VEDANTAM: She uses a scene from the 2006 TV series “Lucky Louie” to illustrate how switch-tracking works. Louie and his wife, Kim, are getting ready for a child-free romantic weekend. And Louie has just bought Kim some red roses.

HEEN: So what’s happening is a conversation starts.


PAMELA ADLON: (As Kim) Listen, try not to take this the wrong way, OK? But if we’re going to be married for the next 30 years, I need you to know that red roses are not my thing.

HEEN: The first person stays on their own track. The second person actually smoothly switches to a different topic, which is their own reaction to the feedback and often the feedback that they have themselves for the first person.


LOUIS C.K.: (As Louie) OK, well, can I critique how you just told me that?


HEEN: And they just get further and further apart, right? And they don’t even realize that they’re going in different directions.


ADLON: (As Kim) I’ve told you before that I don’t like red roses, remember?

C.K.: (As Louie) I just think that you should have thanked me for the flowers first and then said the thing about the roses.

HEEN: There are really two topics on the table, right? Kim’s topic is, you don’t listen to me. And Louie’s topic is, you don’t appreciate me.


C.K.: (As Louie) Still, it’s a gift. So I guess I don’t think it matters what it is. You should still thank me, right?

ADLON: (As Kim) Yeah, but you see, I don’t necessarily think I should thank you for giving me something that I’ve specifically told you that I don’t like. That’s all.


HEEN: And each of them is hearing the whole conversation through the lens of their own topic. So in this case, they’re not even really realizing that there are two topics on the table, I think.

VEDANTAM: What I find fascinating, Sheila, is that the person who is receiving the feedback initially doesn’t realize that they are switching tracks, that they don’t actually – it’s not a conscious decision to say, I recognize this person is giving me feedback; I’m uncomfortable with this topic; I am strategically going to change the conversation to something else. It’s not happening at that level, is it?

HEEN: It’s not happening at that level at all. And what’s interesting is – so for the person doing the switch-tracking, you’re just thinking, well, that’s actually not the most important thing that we need to talk about. What we need to talk about is your problem. The person who started the conversation sometimes actually does realize that the other person is changing the topic. And they view it as making excuses or distracting or trying to take us off on a tangent. And to the second person, it’s not a tangent at all. It’s the most important thing going on. So that’s what the fight then becomes about. So we’re both aware we’re having an argument. And the real argument is about what’s the most important topic here between us.

VEDANTAM: What happens when both people feel their topic is so much more important than the other person’s topic that neither is willing to give way?

HEEN: You’re sunk.


HEEN: But that dilemma, in and of itself, then is the topic of the conversation, which is, I’m so frustrated or upset or whatever that I can’t actually engage with your topic.

VEDANTAM: Yeah, I think this happens so often in conversations. And one of the things you point out in your chapter which I found really intriguing is sometimes the switch-tracking happens inside one person’s head and not actually saying it aloud. Can you talk about that for a second?

HEEN: Yeah, and I think that that’s even more common in hierarchy, when it’s the person lower in the hierarchy, right? So your boss is chewing you out. And you’re not saying anything out loud because you’re, you know, actually smarter than that in that moment. But what you’re thinking, of course, is, OK, first of all, this is not my fault. And second of all, you’re even worse at this than I am. And third of all, I can’t believe that you’re doing this in front of everyone and you’re this unprofessional.


HEEN: You know, and everybody, by the way, hates you.


HEEN: Right? So you are switch-tracking to about four other topics of your feedback for him or her.

VEDANTAM: Right, right.

HEEN: But it’s a silent switch-track. So your boss isn’t necessarily aware that you’re not paying any attention at all.


C.K.: (As Louie) Hang on. All I’m asking for here is a tiny bit of gratitude.

ADLON: (As Kim) I said thank you.

C.K.: (As Louie) No, you didn’t. I was standing there with the flowers, and you didn’t…

ADLON: (As Kim) I said thank you the first time you gave me red roses, remember? It was my birthday. I said, thank you. And then I said very politely that I would prefer it in the future if you never again gave me red roses. So either you didn’t listen or you don’t care. Which is it?


VEDANTAM: When you think about it, hearing feedback like this from a loved one or a close colleague can be really difficult. I asked Sheila why it seems easier to receive feedback from strangers than from the people who are close to us.

HEEN: I think it’s because it removes the tension of that wanting to be accepted and respected and loved. You know, I’ve had my husband come home and say, gosh, this new colleague had such an insightful comment; I think it’s really going to change the way I teach. And, you know, he tells me what it is. And I think, uh-huh. And he says, what? I say, nothing. He says, what? I’m like, OK, I’ve only been telling you that for 10 years.


HEEN: You know, now you’ve known this guy for 10 minutes, and he’s, like, the voice of God about what’s true about you. And I think that the fact that it’s coming from someone who is a stranger or an acquaintance makes it less threatening in a way that enables us to hear it sometimes.

VEDANTAM: There’s a sadness to that – isn’t there, Sheila? – which is that we actually don’t listen to the people who know us the best when, in fact, they’re the people who could help us the most.

HEEN: Yeah. You know, they’re the people who know us the best and love us the most. But they’re also the people who want us to change the most (laughter).


ADLON: (As Kim) When I tell you things and you don’t listen, it’s a huge insult to me. It makes me feel like I don’t matter.

C.K.: (As Louie) Believe me, I totally get this. You want me to listen to you and then later remember the things that you say.


VEDANTAM: Well, this has been wonderful. Sheila Heen, thank you for joining me today on the HIDDEN BRAIN.

HEEN: It was such a pleasure.

VEDANTAM: Sheila Heen and Douglas Stone teach negotiation at the Harvard Law School. They’re also the authors of the best-selling book, “Thanks For The Feedback.”


VEDANTAM: Sheila, that was awesome. I have to say that if you write a book about how you should be better at receiving feedback, there is a real peril here, which is that people are going to start giving you feedback and expect that you’re going to be good at receiving it. Has that happened to you?

HEEN: Oh, my goodness. If you want an extra helping of criticism in your life, write a book on receiving feedback.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

HEEN: Holy cow.


VEDANTAM: OK, Adam Cole has been furiously taking notes so he can come up with a song about all the ideas in this podcast episode. Of course, being a typical artist, Adam neglected to bring in paper. So he’s writing on his own hands. Are you getting some ideas, Adam?

COLE: I think I’m about to run out of hand space, got to roll up my sleeves, use my arms.

VEDANTAM: All right, I’m afraid you’re going to have to take off your shirt and start writing on your biceps soon. Anyway, we’ll be back in a moment for the next segment. We’re going to play a game called Stopwatch Science, rapid-fire ideas about human behavior with my friend, Daniel Pink.

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VEDANTAM: This is Shankar Vedantam. I wanted to give a shout out to some friends down the hall. I think you might really like their podcast, too.

STEPHEN THOMPSON, BYLINE: Thank you, Shankar. By way of introduction, I am Stephen Thompson.

LINDA HOLMES, BYLINE: And I’m Linda Holmes. And we are the co-hosts of Pop Culture Happy Hour.

THOMPSON: So every week on the show, for those of you who haven’t heard it, we’ll talk about the latest in movies and music and books and whatever’s on our minds. Each episode is stuffed with recommendations.

HOLMES: That’s right. And we have all kinds of wonderful guests who come and join us on the show. So give it a listen, and we really very much appreciate it. Shankar, where can they find our show?

VEDANTAM: You can find Pop Culture Happy Hour at and on the NPR One app.

Back now for a new segment we’d like to introduce to you, we are calling it Stopwatch Science. I’m joined by Daniel Pink, whom we have anointed our senior Stopwatch Science correspondent. Hello, Dan.

DANIEL PINK, BYLINE: Hey, Shankar, great to be here.

VEDANTAM: Dan is going to be a regular on the HIDDEN BRAIN podcast. He’s the author of “Drive,” “To Sell Is Human,” and other books. And like me, he has a passion for social science research.

PINK: Totally.

VEDANTAM: Let’s explain to the listeners how this is going to work. Dan and I are going to share some interesting ideas from social science research. But we each get only 60 seconds to do it.

PINK: Can it be done?

VEDANTAM: We found a way to keep each other honest. Dan’s going to give me a warning…


VEDANTAM: If I bump up against my time. And I’m going to play this sound…


VEDANTAM: If he hits one minute. OK, as we’ve heard, giving and receiving feedback can be difficult. Dan and I are going to tell you four ways you can become a better listener and a better giver of advice. Dan, your 60 seconds starts now.

PINK: Well, Shankar, as you said, we’re always trying to get people to pay attention – at school, in the office, at home. But there’s some research showing that we have a powerful weapon at our disposal, one of, in my view, the greatest inventions in American technological history. And that is the Post-it Note.

VEDANTAM: The what?

PINK: The Post-it Note, the sticky note. Randy Garner at Sam Houston State University did this amazing experiment a few years ago. And here’s what he did. He was dealing with a really recalcitrant group of people, faculty members. And he wanted them to fill out a survey. And he did a study where he gave some people just the survey. He gave some people with the surveys – and a cover letter saying, please fill out the survey. And he gave others the survey with a little Post-it Note – handwritten – saying, would you please fill out the survey? Well, in the first two groups, fewer than half of the faculty members returned the survey, completed the survey. But when he put the Post-it Note on there, the personalized Post-it Note, nearly 70 percent of people completed the survey.



PINK: And I think the reason is simple. It’s personal. And it’s a little bit reciprocal. So if you want someone to do something, put a Post-it Note.

VEDANTAM: I really like that, Dan. So the next time I know when you bump up against your 60 seconds, instead of playing an ineffectual buzzer, I’m just going to hold up a Post-it Note.

PINK: That’s actually probably a pretty good idea. So I don’t have a Post-it Note right now, but I do have a timer. And Shankar, your one minute starts right now.

VEDANTAM: All right, when someone gives you feedback, there’s two ways to think about it, Dan. You can say, OK, I’ll take this advice. Or you can say, why is this person telling me this? You can question the motives of the adviser. A few years ago, Max Gunther at Vanderbilt University and his colleagues, they analyzed the brains of men. They stuck them in a brain scanner and piped in the voices of their wives…

PINK: Oh, boy.

VEDANTAM: Giving them advice about some issue. And he found that when the advice was in a subject where the man thought of himself as being an expert, advice from the wives activated a part of the brain that is observed when we try to guess what’s happening in another person’s mind. So Gunther and his colleagues are speculating that when these men received advice on a subject that was close to home, their reaction – their first reaction – was to question the motives of their wives.


VEDANTAM: So instead of evaluating the advice on its own terms, these men are asking, why is my wife giving me that kind of advice? So here’s the take-home message. Be really careful about offering advice. If you’re given advice, listen to the advice…


VEDANTAM: Instead of questioning the motives of the person who’s giving it to you.

PINK: That is actually great advice – truly, truly, and – because again, when I hear something that I disagree with, I basically want to question the motives of the person who’s giving me the advice or telling me what I want to think.

VEDANTAM: I do it all the time too.

PINK: That’s very, very good, yeah. I think there’s a great guidance out there, simply to navigate life, to assume positive intent. And let people disprove that rather than do what I do, which is assume negative, insidious intent.


PINK: And wait for people to be shown to be good people – great advice.

VEDANTAM: Well, I completely agree with you, Dan. But that doesn’t relieve you of the opportunity to actually deliver your next piece of social science research in under 60 seconds. If you’re ready, your time starts now.

PINK: So many decades ago, there was a famous commercial that said, if you want to get someone’s attention, (whispering) whisper. Now, that might be true. But here’s a other question. If you’re going to whisper, (shouting) into which ear should you whisper?

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

PINK: Well, it turns out that two Italian cognitive scientists…

VEDANTAM: Oh, boy (laughter).

PINK: Luca Tommasi and Daniele Marzoli have analyzed this question. They went to a nightclub. And they wanted to see, in this crowded, noisy nightclub, are people talking to each other into their right ear, into their left ear? And an overwhelming number, 72 percent, they were favoring the right ear. Then it gets even more interesting. They conduct an experiment in that nightclub asking people for cigarettes. Were people more likely to give a cigarette if you asked them in the right ear or if you asked them in the left ear? And lo and behold, big numbers, you got a cigarette if you asked people in their right ear. Now, there’s a brain reason for that. Our brains are contralateral…


PINK: Left hemisphere controls the right side of the body; left hemisphere controls verbal communication. So if you want to get someone’s attention, whisper into their right ear.

VEDANTAM: I’ve got to remember this. I don’t know what my editor is going to think when I sidle up next to her and whisper in her ear. I suspect HR might get called in at some point.

PINK: Yeah, I don’t – I want you to avoid – I want you to avoid that. Just, you know, bias yourself toward the right. But more important, bias yourself toward doing your assignment here, Shankar. Your next one minute starts right now.

VEDANTAM: All right, as we know, it’s hard to get people to listen to the things you have to say. But besides whispering in their right ear, researchers have also found another technique that shows some promise. Basically, it’s self-flattery.

PINK: Self-flattery.

VEDANTAM: Here’s what I mean. The reason people resist threatening information is that it’s painful. If you can boost the person’s self-esteem before he or she is given threatening information, that might make them more receptive to this kind of information. Tracy Epton at the University of Manchester and her colleagues recently analyzed 144 experiments into the effects of self-affirmation. They find a pattern. When you ask people to reflect on some value they hold dear or when you ask them to write a short essay about their personal positive qualities, they’re more likely to accept information that is threatening or unpleasant. So in other words, the next time, before you tell me what I’m doing wrong, Dan, please make sure you compliment me…


VEDANTAM: On my courage in the face of adversity and the kindness that I display towards soft, furry animals.

PINK: Well, that’s great. You are a wonderful human being, a great father, a wonderful husband, a brilliant journalist.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

PINK: But you blew your time by 10 seconds.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter) I’m going to take that to heart. That was Stopwatch Science. I’m Shankar Vedantam.

PINK: And I’m Daniel Pink.


VEDANTAM: (Whispering) Adam, can you hear me?

COLE: Well, you have my attention, but unfortunately I’m wearing stereo headphones. So…

VEDANTAM: Oh, drat, I forgot about that. OK, I was trying to whisper in your right ear.

COLE: But I will say that is probably the most Italian study I’ve ever heard of, the, you know, cigarettes and nightclub study.

VEDANTAM: Yeah, I suspect that if we polled people in Italy about it, they would say, those are tax dollars well spent.

COLE: Very much so, yeah.

VEDANTAM: All right, when we come back, I’m going to play Adam one final segment. I decided to sit down with a friend at a nice tea shop and talk about the importance of quiet rituals in our lives. But that conversation got switch-tracked by an unexpected visitor.


VEDANTAM: Stick around.

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VEDANTAM: OK, I know you’re eagerly awaiting our last segment so Adam can sing you his song. We’re going to be using music, art, books, movies, to talk about science on this podcast. And that made me think about all the recommendations you can find on a Pop Culture Happy Hour. Let’s let the hosts tell you more about what’s on tap this week.

THOMPSON: Thank you, Shankar. I’m Stephen Thompson.

HOLMES: And I’m Linda Holmes. And on this week’s podcast, we are talking about the Toronto International Film Festival, from which I have just returned with NPR’s movie critic, Bob Mondello.

THOMPSON: You can hear all about the movies that everyone will be talking about months from now. You will get to be first.

HOLMES: That’s right. We are here to give you an edge in your Oscar pool, which will not happen for months and months. OK, Shankar, where can they find our show?

VEDANTAM: You can find Pop Culture Happy Hour at and on the NPR One app.


VEDANTAM: Welcome back to HIDDEN BRAIN. I’m Shankar Vedantam. I want to introduce you to a friend of, Meshelle, the indie mom of comedy. What’s an indie mom? I’ll let Meshelle explain.


SHIELDS: An indie mom is a woman who believes that it’s OK and great to be a mom and it’s awesome to be a wife, but you’ve got to hold onto yourself as well. You got to have some balance in your life. And my mantra is in order to be a good indie mom, you still have to be innovative and independent in a lot of ways. And what has helped me stay innovative is leaving a Ph.D. program and becoming a stand-up comic. That was a very innovative idea.


VEDANTAM: If anyone knows how to slow things down a little bit and to manage a very busy lifestyle, that would be Meshelle. Now in addition to being the mother of three, she’s also a comic, an actress, a public speaker. And despite leaving that Ph.D. program, Meshelle is still very much interested in psychology, which is why I thought she would be the perfect friend to talk about the importance of ritual in our daily lives. I caught up with her at a delightful tea shop in Washington, D.C., called Capital Teas.


SHIELDS: Let’s go get tea.

VEDANTAM: Oh, my God, look at these choices.

SHIELDS: You see all the choices?

VEDANTAM: There’s, like – how many teas are here? It’s like…

NADA: So the trick is to open the jars and smell the teas.

VEDANTAM: May I smell that?

NADA: It’s roasted almond.

VEDANTAM: Oh, so good.

SHIELDS: Like, it’s a bucket of awesome.

VEDANTAM: Our host, Nada (ph), began to make our tea, first scooping out delicate mounds of tea into glass pots and drowning the leaves in steaming, hot water.

SHIELDS: See all these little nuances that we learned from being in an authentic teahouse?

VEDANTAM: I would just pay to watch this, let alone drink this. I would just pay to watch.

SHIELDS: This is a culture.

VEDANTAM: You know there’s a researcher at Harvard Business School called Francesca Gino, and she’s done a lot of work looking at the effects that rituals have on our enjoyment of things, that if you actually build ritual into the process of enjoying something, which is exactly what we’re doing here…

SHIELDS: This is what we’re doing.

VEDANTAM: I suspect it’s going to greatly increase our satisfaction with this cup of tea.

SHIELDS: I concur, and I’m not a scientist. What I do know for sure is that I’m very excited in this very moment.

VEDANTAM: I am, too.

SHIELDS: And I think the ritual has, you know, really added to the excitement ’cause typically when you think tea, you think hot water and a tea bag, typically. Isn’t that what you think?

VEDANTAM: That’s why I do, and a micro…

SHIELDS: I like the cushy chair.

VEDANTAM: Would you like the cushy chair? Please sit on the cushy chair.

SHIELDS: But, you know, here’s a cultural thing for me, though. I’ve been raised to never allow the man to sit with his back to the door.


SHIELDS: Yes, because I was taught that if anything unforeseen were to happen, the man should be ready to protect you.


SHIELDS: So if I sit in that chair, I’m breaking culture.

VEDANTAM: So there’s two problems with that theory.

SHIELDS: OK, what’s the theory?

VEDANTAM: The first thing is that we’re sitting in this very peaceful tea shop…

SHIELDS: This is true.

VEDANTAM: …Where it’s very unlikely anything were to happen. But the second problem – and the bigger problem – is if something were to happen, I am not the kind of guy…

SHIELDS: (Laughter).

VEDANTAM: …Who would actually be able to save you, Meshelle. That is very, very unlikely. Now explain to me, are you allowed to clink mugs before you drink tea?

SHIELDS: I think we can.

VEDANTAM: All right.


VEDANTAM: Sublime. Sublime.

SHIELDS: Sublime is a great word.

VEDANTAM: Absolutely wonderful. Thank you so much.

NADA: You’re welcome.

VEDANTAM: That’s a great cup of tea.

SHIELDS: Oh, mine turned out great.

VEDANTAM: But I have to say it’s the whole ritual of it that really, I think, is doing it for me because it’s made me slow down. It made me watch. It made me observe as the tea was being made. I never do those things. I never slow down. I’m always – I pop the tea into the microwave and then I…

SHIELDS: You don’t even boil the water anymore?

VEDANTAM: Are you kidding me? Are you kidding me?

SHIELDS: Yeah, my daughter pops hers, and I need the water. For me – it’s what you said earlier about the research about ritual because as a stand-up, you have to be very quick. You have to be on your feet. You have to be very improvisational if you’re going to have any level of success, right?


SHIELDS: And yet I believe the reason why I have any level of success at stand-up is because I have employed so many rituals into my daily life.

VEDANTAM: So let me ask you a question. When I leap out of bed in the morning, every morning, saying, oh, my God, I’m late. Oh, my God, there’s six things that I have to do and I have time for only three. But if I do this every single morning, does that count as a ritual?

SHIELDS: No, that’s pandemonium. I don’t know what the ham sandwich that is. That sounds a bit like…

VEDANTAM: Meshelle tried to convince me of the benefits of slowing down.

SHIELDS: This right here…


SHIELDS: …Gives me an immense amount of pleasure – this, this right here. Listen.


VEDANTAM: I can see that, and I’m so happy for you.

SHIELDS: Like, I’m very happy in this very moment.


SHIELDS: I just don’t – and then I have the – is that – what is that walking in there? What was that?

VEDANTAM: Much to our surprise, a rat from the patio outside decided to join us. It stood up on its hind legs and poked its head through the doorway.

SHIELDS: O-M-G, Shankar, he’s out there. Close the door.


SHIELDS: Do you see him?

VEDANTAM: I will note that in this instance even though I said I would be unable…

SHIELDS: You would not protect me?

VEDANTAM: …And unequal to the situation…

SHIELDS: You certainly did.

VEDANTAM: Meshelle did not leap up to close the door.

SHIELDS: (Laughter).

VEDANTAM: Meshelle, who turned her face to the wall and said O-M-G – that was her response…

SHIELDS: (Laughter).

VEDANTAM: …To the coming catastrophe. And she turned to me, the person who is not widely advertised as being the leading man, you left it to me to close the door.

SHIELDS: But look what you did. You rose to the occasion.

VEDANTAM: I did, indeed.

So maybe there’s something to these traditions and rituals after all. From now on, I’m going to make sure I sit facing the door so I can always deal with incoming rodents. After my heroic gesture, we finished our tea almost 90 minutes after entering the tea house. It was a rare pleasure to slow down to discover the ritual of tea-making and to see how much it enhanced our experience.

SHIELDS: She has to make the tea that way in order for it to turn out this way. If not – if she breaks that ritual – it’s a different taste.

VEDANTAM: Yeah. If she microwaves it and sticks it in, that’s not…

SHIELDS: Yeah, like if she does the Shankar method…

VEDANTAM: The Shankar method, yes.

SHIELDS: …We won’t have this experience.

VEDANTAM: We wouldn’t have this experience. It would be much more efficient, though, I would add, but we wouldn’t have the experience.

SHIELDS: Efficiency doesn’t always equal happiness.

VEDANTAM: So people have been telling me for many years.

SHIELDS: (Laughter).

VEDANTAM: Meshelle, I want to thank you for talking with me today. This has been a pleasure.

SHIELDS: It’s been a pleasure, too, Shankar. Thank you.

VEDANTAM: OK, Adam, I’m relaxed after that cup of tea, the ritual of the tea-making. But what do you think? Do you have enough material to come up with an original song?

COLE: Well, I’m not relaxed ’cause I’m going to have to put this all together. But I’m going to go back into the old Skunk Bear cave and see what I can come up with.

VEDANTAM: All right, let’s see what you do. See you in a bit.


VEDANTAM: Through the magic of audio, Adam has gone away for several days and now has re-emerged from his Skunk Bear cave. How did it go, Adam?

COLE: Well, it went OK. I sort of was going off this sort of back-and-forth nature of this whole episode. So imagine a less talented Gershwin brother…

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

COLE: …Writing a musical probably called something like, “All Aboard,” with a train theme.


COLE: Ginger Rogers, Fred Astaire have a little back-and-forth here…

VEDANTAM: And you did this all by yourself?

COLE: Well, I got a friend Amanda McQueen to help me out, so yeah. Here we go.

VEDANTAM: All right. Let’s hear what you came up with.

COLE: (Singing). I think you’ll find I’ve got a one track mind with just one train of thought. It’s you my love, I’m thinking of, for you a gift I bought. I’m just a romantic, I suppose. So without further ado, here’s my present for you – one red rose.

AMANDA MCQUEEN: (Singing). You should know this. I don’t like roses especially when they’re red.

COLE: (Singing) Hey, show some restraint, save the complaint and maybe start with banks instead.

MCQUEEN: (Singing) You just don’t listen. I already said it.

COLE: (Singing) But when a gift is given, I mean – come on. You just don’t get it. Now we’re switchtracking, I’m this close to sending you packing. You don’t exude much gratitude.

MCQUEEN: You’re not hearing. You’re just reacting.

COLE: But I love you, and you love me. So let’s slow down and share a cup of tea. Well, I won’t fear the things I hear if you prime my mind with praise.

MCQUEEN: Whisper dear in my right ear, and I’ll accept the whispered phrase.

COLE: And if something irks you just like that rose did. This might work you just put your problems on a Post-it. Now we’re switchtracking I’m this close to sending you packing. You don’t exude much gratitude.

MCQUEEN: You’re not hearing. You’re just reacting.

COLE: But I love you and you love me. So let’s slow down and share a cup of – I just cannot get enough of – let’s slow down and share a cup of tea.

VEDANTAM: Adam, that was fantastic.

COLE: Aw, thank you so much.

VEDANTAM: You don’t exude much gratitude – I love that.


VEDANTAM: Adam Cole, thank you so much for playing our game.

COLE: Well, thanks so much for having me on.

VEDANTAM: Will you be back again?

COLE: I definitely will.

VEDANTAM: Great. Let’s give this game a name. Here’s what I’m thinking. How about “Coleplay”?

COLE: Well, let’s keep thinking on it.

MCQUEEN: (Laughter).

VEDANTAM: Since this is our very first episode, there are a lot of people we have to thank. The Embrey Family Foundation, specifically Lauren Embrey and Diane Hosey helped us get off the ground. And so did Heather and Paul Haaga, Paul and Marcia Ginsberg, Anne and John Herrmann, Antoine and Emily van Agtmael, John R. and Tawna B. Farmer, the Mosaic Foundation of R & P Heydon, Howard and Barbara Wollner and Patricia Papper. We couldn’t have gotten off the ground without you. Special thanks today to Adam Cole and Amanda McQueen. You can see more about Adam’s work on Tumblr and YouTube at Skunk Bear. This episode of the Hidden Brain podcast is produced by Kara McGuirk-Alison and Maggie Penman. Join us next week when we talk about the consequences of near misses and the surprising way losses can motivate us. I’m Shankar Vedantam, and this is NPR.

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