The non-answer answer


I’m Irish so I have an affinity for Irish tradition even if it has given rise to all sorts of stereotypes. But perhaps my favorite is the oh-so Irish gift of gab, the ability to tell stories and turn a phrase.

There is even a word for that. It is Blarney. When someone can speak for several minutes and never really say anything, never really answer a question, never really come to a conclusion, we say that person has the gift of Blarney.

The word “blarney” has a royal pedigree and its roots in Blarney, County Cork, Ireland. Queen Elizabeth wanted to deal with the problem of the Irish with diplomacy if she could, prefering not to employ a military solution. So, she frequently met her Irish subjects face to face.

As the current lord of Blarney Castle, Cormac McCarthy tried to keep his independence. They wanted his castle but he didn’t really want to yield to the Crown. So the Queen’s demands were met by extensive elaborations on why it could not be done, at least not immediately or without modification. In short – Cormac tried to talk and bluff his way out of it.

One day Elizabeth cracked and screamed, “This is all blarney, what he says he never means.” With this the Virgin Queen had given birth to a new phrase in the English language.

We’ve just finished our latest election cycle here in the US and I am constantly amazed at the ability of candidates to speak for several minutes and say absolutely nothing at all. On Tuesday morning, Election day, I watched an early morning news program on which several candidates from both political parties were interviewed. Nearly none of them, from either party, could take the interviewer’s question, but they did look right at the camera and proceed to dance all around the point. Seems that they have the gift of Blarney, too.

It is a tactic not limited to political candidates, however. Many leaders are gifted with the skill to bluster and bluff their way through the day. I am not talking about baloney which is much too easily seen through. Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen explained it this way – “Baloney is flattery laid on so thick it cannot be true and blarney is flattery so thin we love it.”

It goes like this as explained by an unknown Irishman – An unknown Irishman explained, “Baloney is when you tell a 50-year old woman that she looks 18. Blarney is when you ask a woman how old she is, because you want to know at what age women are most beautiful.”

In most cases it is a harmless pursuit and can make the exchange of ideas entertaining at least, and downright fun at most.

But, in serious issues, it can get in the way. It can pave the way for pandering, for misleading, for avoiding unpleasantness. Everyone blarnishes the truth once in a while and usually it is not a problem. And blarney in normal human exchange is entertaining. But if you do it so much that no one ever really knows who you are or what you stand for, well then, blarney has gone too far.

Flattery is inherently manipulative, ingratiating, and by definition, insincere. Blarney is a bit better…and by my definition at least, a bit more fun. While flattery is an attempt to gain advantage over another, blarney can be a tactic to avoid revealing what you think or feel or to postpone agreeing or disagreeing, as demonstrated by blarney’s original user.

This is not the forum for a discussion of ethics and it is not my intent to draw too fine a point on this. My intent is to highlight the all too prevalent art of the non-answer answer and to further the case for being forthright.

Why? When those politicians gave non-answer answers most everyone drew their own conclusions anyway and it wasn’t particularly in the candidate’s favor. Your associates will do the same.

The vacuum left by a lack of information will quickly be filled by rumor, speculation, and gossip. If you resort to flattery, it almost always provokes the thinking that you want something. If you resort to blarney it almost always provokes the thinking that you’re hiding something. Flattery and blarney, like gum, should never be swallowed.

Answer inquiries if you can. If you cannot answer or prudence suggests you shouldn’t, then say so and explain why. Never resort to manipulative techniques and never dissemble. Say what you mean. Mean what you say.


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