What The Snipe Hunt And Other Foolishness Taught Me About Trusting People

Photo: Matt Callow

I grew up trusting two men who lied to me. They arranged snipe hunts and told outlandish stories from long ago (their childhoods and young adult years in the 1920s, '30s, and '40s). Of all the adults I remember from my growing up years, they were the most honest and authentic.

As a young child, I loved visiting my cousins with my two older sisters, partly because of the excitement that my dad and uncle created when we were all together. Though we lived in the city, we were close to expanses of woods and stretches of backyards that were big enough to hold a snipe hunt for imaginative children. Oddly, though, we never captured a snipe despite our preparedness with proper equipment (flashlights and sacks large enough to hold a chipmunk) along with comprehensive education on the nocturnal habits of snipes. (Re: a snipe hunt, a type of practical joke, I especially like Frasier's comment to Diane from a "Cheers" episode: "A man does not crouch in the woods for two hours and not have a revelation or two.")
At some point, we realized that there were no snipes to be captured. We were left, then, to wonder about the truthfulness of the stories they told. Were they completely false? Or, were there grains of truth in stories that may have been embellished for entertainment’s sake? Or did our parents have unusual friends, who, for example, pretended to have a hook as a replacement hand (not unheard of among their WWII veteran peers), which was often accidentally dropped from a shirtsleeve and then forcefully reinserted with anguish while walking down crowded sidewalks? And, did my dad really tell a surgeon that he heard someone sawing his chest bone while recovering from open-heart surgery as the hospital nurses reveled in the surprised look on the doctor’s face?
As we grew older and hopefully wiser, we dissected the stories, recalling details, and making comparisons among tales told separately to each child and set of siblings. This detective work was a form of amusement, as we tried to discern the probable and possible from the improbable and impossible. Besides the fun of hopefully exposing untruth, here’s what I learned:
Challenge those you deeply respect.
I have found that those who truly deserve respect and trust are the men and women who welcome questions and encourage dialogue. They really want others to understand, not just buy whatever the expert is selling. 
I won’t say that my challenges to those in authority (of a business, school, or whatever) have been embraced. They haven’t. I am often made to feel as if I am labeled as a complainer and the only one to ever have had an issue with certain policies or behaviors. (Being the only one to notice a problem doesn’t mean that there isn’t a problem, though, I should be clear.)
So, I was pleased to hear that polite protests are encouraged from the principal of my son’s high school when I went to a meeting to learn about a new system-mandated hybrid schedule. The principal, a 30-year veteran, started the session by telling parents how they were the ones who truly cared about their children; then he corrected himself and said that he felt that all parents cared about their children but that others not there were the ones who likely trusted the system but that we, those in the auditorium, represented parents who questioned the system and, by implication, questioning the system was what responsible parents did.   
Though there are plenty of times that I have gone along with what is expected, I learned at a pretty young age that the system and those in charge don't always consider individual rights or fully grasp the implication of their policies. And, though, I could certainly argue for personal accountability and suffering consequences rather than benefiting from poor decisions, I now realize that, collectively, we should question, rather than accept, financial systems that offer negative amortization mortgages and teaser credit card rates that tend to fleece rather than serve their clients.  
Don’t believe everything you read or hear, or at least, defer decisions.
I’ll admit that if I read a news account in the paper or hear a story on the news, I tend to believe that the facts are accurate, though not necessarily the interpretation. And I’ll admit that, initially, I believe what people tell me or at least want to believe that most people won’t intentionally mislead me. I suppose that makes make me gullible or too trusting.
Though I haven’t yet dispensed of my hope that what others are telling me is true, I have learned to defer decisions. I can listen, then ponder and research. Taking action is the step that I carefully consider. If someone presses me to make a quick decision, then I will quickly abandon trust. And, there is a difference between listening to an investment pitch and placing your life savings in a single investment.
Look for inconsistencies.
Has someone told you a great story embedded with seemingly inconsequential facts that change? Do the claims that someone makes seem inconsistent with what you already know or have experienced?
My son was watching a clip of a marathon finish where the female winner was questioned by a reporter about interval training; I was listening from another room and thought it was odd, though not totally implausible, that an elite runner had never heard of interval training. She may have developed her own training program that allowed her to run 26.2 miles without breaking a sweat. Or she may have been perpetuating a fraud. It turns out that my son was watching a story on Rosie Ruiz’s attempt to win the 1980 Boston Marathon without actually running the race.
Closer to home, my husband thought it notable but not impossible that a guy we were hoping to hire for a bathroom remodel (based on a recommendation of another tradesperson) had a sudden change in the destination of an international mission trip. I can’t remember all the details but he had been extremely busy and had to delay a visit to our house for an estimate because of an impending trip to a country in the Pacific Rim. When he returned and was in the process of scheduling his visit to our house, he mentioned that he had visited another country. My husband noted that it was odd that he could have changed destinations so quickly, given the visa requirements at the time. So, was the guy lying or just lousy at geography? Or was he a passport- and visa-ready world traveler? I don’t know, but we have yet to see the project estimate promised within the week, about 5 years ago.
Understand that nobody’s perfect.
I expect the professionals I engage, whether a financial advisor, CPA, tile installer, or veterinarian, to be knowledgeable, diligent, thorough, and honest; I don’t expect them to predict the future with 100% accuracy. Who should I trust: someone who is confident and makes money using complex, proprietary methods or someone who is confident, has a consistent record, but has a bad year or two and admits to not understanding how technology companies make money?  Would you choose Bernie or Buffett
Talk with other people about their experiences.
I like to talk with people who are honest about their experiences, not people who will tell me what I hope to hear or what they think is the right thing to say. I like to hear from those who have made sound decisions and made mistakes, getting insights into what they might have done differently, what their regrets are, how they have succeeded, and what factors influenced their actions. Often I will find that they have struggled with some of the same hopes and doubts that I have, and can offer perspective based on years of reflection.
Just because everyone you know believes something doesn’t make it true.
Several years ago when my husband was considering the investment of a lump sum amount, he told me about a plan that several of his co-workers were likely going to use. They would receive a 12% annual return on their principal. I decided to do some research and consulted with my friend, Nita, who ran a government-funded money management center and had Doctorate in Financial Education. She told me that no one could guarantee that high of a return.
I looked further into the program and realized that this is how it would work: the financial advisor would take the lump sum, invest the money, and give a payout (not an investment return) of 12% of the original principal for a period of time (say 3 years); then, depending on the value of the principal, the payout amount would be adjusted. The payout would come from earnings plus principal: if the annual return was 15% then investors would receive 12% and the remaining 3% would be added to the principal amount; but if the return was 5%, then 5% would come from earnings and 7% would come from the principal. If 12% returns weren’t earned each year, the principal would eventually be depleted. The FINRA (Financial Industry Regulatory Authority) has an alert on this type of early retirement sales pitch.  
One of my more recent memories of my uncle was a time when some of my cousins and I were downstairs in their family’s den. We were jabbering in multiple, separate conversations and my uncle introduced some sort of device (kind of a perpetual calendar), which he claimed could help him in telling the day of the week of any date in history. He responded confidently to a few requests and heads were nodded in slight astonishment and approval, before they returned to other discussions. I waited my turn and then tested him with a few dates, specifically my sisters' and my birthdates, which I knew all fell on Tuesday. He guessed incorrectly and I called on him on his trickery. We had a great laugh about that one.
My dad and his brother: their legacy to me is not cynicism from being fooled but healthy skepticism of those who should be trusted. 
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Guest's picture

Critical thinking is simply not practiced, for the most part, by most people.

I loved, loved, loved this article because it details a lot of the key elements needed in rationale thinking and decision-making, which is so sorely missing on an individual and corporate basis. (How many of us have been told, for example: Stop thinking. Don't make me think about that! Or chastised when we stopped to question something and delve into its accuracy or validity for us.)

I hope tons of people pick up this article online and link to it.

Julie writes:
"I won’t say that my challenges to those in authority (of a business, school, or whatever) have been embraced. They haven’t. I am often made to feel as if I am labeled as a complainer and the only one to ever have had an issue with certain policies or behaviors. (Being the only one to notice a problem doesn’t mean that there isn’t a problem, though, I should be clear.)"

Oh, how I can identify with this from my years working in corporate America. Those of us who, for example, focused on the clients'/consumers' needs, raising questions and concerns about safety, etc., were always viewed as negative or troublemakers. (Hell, whistleblowers STILL get a bad rep while the companies who had illegal and/or immoral practices still thrive!)

We live in a world where speaking up, dissenting is punished in many ways--and can, and has, ruined many a career of the very people who have a company's best interests at heart.

Rational folks, who take time to think, are generally (Obama a huge exception) dismissed.

I believe in intuition and gut instinct, but I temper it with rational and logical thinking and questioning.

You're correct in that we should always be suspicious and concerned about those (individuals or organizations) who discourage questions and polite inquiry. What's not to discuss?

FYI: I went to Journalism school and worked for many years as a journalist.

I always take any piece of information and look at it in many ways to understand a possible bias, missing info, etc.

No matter what any "media" puts out there, it's still up to us to vet it and to attempt to get answers to any questions we need before we determine its validity for our own lives.

The world we live in now is largely a result of lots of people who refused to confront unpleasant realities--and really think about what is/was going on; who stopped questioning and took NO (as in NO, the SEC will not investigate Madoff, the banks, etc.)for an answer when their questions where sluffed off or ignored.

If more people asked more questions and thought more about the information they use to make decisions, this would be a far better world. If more people were held accountable to have to give HONEST answers (not PR-driven pap and outright lies), we might not be in this mess we're in right now.

Think more, not less. Ask questions and beware those who get defensive and 1/Do not answer; 2/lie and/or divert and 3/put you down for asking.

Don't work with those people, don't invest with them and don't have them in your life.

Guest's picture

That was a great story about the snipe hunting! Your dad and uncle sure knew how to entertain a bunch of kids!

Unfortunately, I've come to conclude that even the supposedly factual statements found in news reports are not entitled to credence. As politics has come to dominate virtually everything, from economics, science, culture, to history, medicine and religion, and journalists now see themselves first and foremost as "agents of change," good reporting has been jettisoned if it doesn't advance the desired change.

A good example is a supposed news story that ran today, claiming 1 in 50 children in America will experience homelessness this year. Only one source was reported, a non-profit organization devoted to working with the homeless, and the journalists who worked on the story (four of them! - no wonder papers are going broke) seemed to have done little more than parrot the organization's news release.

I felt that statistic didn't pass my smell test and, sure enough, if you looked at how homelessness was defined, it turned out to be wildly exaggerated, including children whose families were "doubling up" by living in relatives' homes or who lived in "substandard" (undefined) housing. I have two family members who moved in with me a couple of years ago; I guess by this group's standards, my nephew has been a "homeless child" all that time, even though he has his own fully furnished room in an view home in an expensive suburb, with his own cable TV set and computer!

Ridiculous statistic, but even more ridiculous that four journalists were so inept or deceptive as to report it without qualification or question.

As to Obama's rationality - surely that remains to be proven! I do recall that he misreported throughout his campaign that there were 47 million uninsured Americans, where the actual number is closer to 37 million Americans and about 10 million non-naturalized immigrants. Since the error is common, I don't know whether his campaign was aware of it and intentionally lied, or simply never bothered to verify their claims, but with statistics these days, accuracy can never be taken for granted when they are offered for political purposes.

Julie Rains's picture

"Think more, not less. Ask questions and beware those who get defensive and 1/Do not answer; 2/lie and/or divert and 3/put you down for asking." - Amen. Getting put down for asking is, sadly, a common response and one that is particularly frustrating to me; sometimes escalation to the boss next level is helpful, sometimes it reveals further dysfunction. There are (infrequent) times when I find folks who don't feel as if I am attacking the organization and see the legitimate complaint. 

@AnnJo -- there are many times when I just want to say "define ____" and see that a common or reasonable definition doesn't exist (as in what homeless means - the common definition might be living on the streets or in a shelter; another definition might be not living in a home that the parents own). In my 12% "return" case, it seems as if someone (either the advisor or the listener) confused "payout" with "return." Though some may say it's just semantics, I would say that the meaning is crucial to understanding and making decisions.


Philip Brewer's picture

... misreported throughout his campaign that there were 47 million uninsured Americans, where the actual number is closer to 37 million Americans and about 10 million non-naturalized immigrants.

I don't think it's a lie or even necessarily misleading to use the term "Americans" to mean something other than "citizen of the United States."  Using it to mean "people who live in the United States" seems fair.  (In fact, using it to mean "people who live in north or south America" seems fair, although that's obviously not what most US politicians mean when they use the term.)

But I think this gets to Julie's point.  There are lots of ways to mislead people, both on purpose and by accident, and there are also plenty of ways to mislead yourself.  One job of parents is to give their children the tools to evaluate claims and get to the truth.  Going from there to evaluating the people--to decide whether they've lied, dliberately misled, accidentally misled, or simply view the world differently than you do--takes another set of tools--ones that we generally have to construct on our own.

Guest's picture

When you're talking about health insurance, I'd suggest that the group counted should be the same as that counted as the general population. So there are estimated to be about 300 million Americans - I bet that covers at least legal residents, which means that 47 million (or around 15%) is the figure of interest. But with statistics it's really, really important to know that you're counting the same things.

Guest's picture

It is (OUCH) possible that your dad heard the surgeon sawing his chestbone. I have heard stories of surgery without enuf anesthesia.

Myscha Theriault's picture

Great article, Julie. This would be a good one for classroom discussion as well, at various grade levels. Hmmnn . .. maybe I just found my recommended link for this month's newsletter . . .

Guest's picture

Both Philip Brewer and plonkee highlight the importance of definitions, which is exactly my point - that casual or muffled definitions allow the message to be distorted or manipulated, sometimes intentionally. As highlighted by the two examples I gave, the statistics are used precisely because they alarm people, and therefore the incentive is to maximize the impact by inflating the numbers.

I suspect a fair number of people are, in fact, mislead by the "47 million Americans" and if they were aware that 10 million of those are non-citizens, would wonder whether part of the problem was not a health care reform issue but an immigration reform issue. Others may not care, believing that even if we are importing part of the problem (and will surely import more with the added incentive of guaranteed coverage), the solution should still remain the same.

But we'll never know, since that figure (sometimes one or two million above or below that mark) is now accepted without question by people who don't actually know what it means. Likewise, you'll often find the same number linked to phrases about how those people "can't afford" health insurance, even though 20% of the uninsured live in households with incomes of over $75,000 a year, or even "can't afford health CARE" even though about 50% qualify for Medicaid if they choose to sign up.

Thus my suggestion that Julie was being overly optimistic by assuming factual news stories, at least if they have policy implications, were likely "true." There is very little reporting today, even of the seemingly factual kind, that is not substantially distorted by reporters' biases. I don't mean to imply that bias was not present before - it's inherent in our natures - but journalistic standards and ethics have changed dramatically in recent years in a way that many people don't realize, to actively encourage particular biases and view them as positive goods.

So, caveat lector.

Guest's picture

Oops, "misled" not "mislead."

Guest's picture

First time here. I came here via Simple Dollar. I just want to add as a Jew, we are taught to examine and question things we are taught about our faith. A famouse Jewish joke is "two rabbis, three opinions" I always liked that we are taught to question and understand and not to accept things blindly.

Guest's picture

Great post! Sometimes someone need to stand up and say that the emperor is naked. Always question!

That skill can save you time, money, and heartache. I am a firm believer in asking questions-- the right questions.

Here is my approach: