Sunday, February 05, 2023

Just because you wear it doesn't mean you are it

How responsible are we for giving off an incorrect impression about who we are and what we’ve accomplished?

A reader we’re calling Prudence regularly watches the live feed of a radio program that features local experts on various topics ranging from world events and entertainment to sports and home cooking. On a recent episode, a local chef with whom Prudence was familiar was being interviewed about how to re-create in the home kitchen favorite dishes from area restaurants.

“He was wearing a college T-shirt from a college I know he didn’t go to,” wrote Prudence. “Isn’t that misrepresenting himself?”

My high school classmate Mark MacIntyre is fond of saying that we should “never underestimate the power of imprinted wearables.” But Prudence’s concern that the radio chef might be misrepresenting himself by the college T-shirt he chose to wear overestimates just how much that power can be. Simply donning the garb doesn’t translate into a self-declaration of a specific membership or any entitlements by garment association.

Many of us wear imprinted wearables from colleges or institutions. Sometimes these items represent places we attended, work for or buy stuff from. Sometimes they don’t. I alternate the baseball caps I wear between one from the University of Rhode Island (URI), where my youngest grandson is a senior, and one from the 4th Infantry Division of the U.S. Army, in which his older brother serves. I never attended URI, nor have I ever served in the 4th Infantry Division. I also occasionally wear a Stihl baseball cap when I use a battery-powered chainsaw to clear up fallen tree branches. Few people would assume I work for Stihl simply because I wear a cap with its name on it.

Don’t get me wrong. It is wrong to misrepresent yourself. Claiming to have earned a degree from a college when you’ve only completed a one-week executive education course, for example, is wrong. Listing jobs on your resume you never held falls into the category of lying and is not good. Posting a 20-year-old photo of yourself on a dating app that asks for a recent photo? Totally misleading and certainly bad form.

But wearing a T-shirt from a college you didn’t go to? There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. In fact, many colleges have a side hustle selling imprinted wearables for all to wear regardless of their affiliation. At a store near the university where I teach, you can even purchase T-shirts with names of the various sports teams. My youngest granddaughter wears a Harvard field hockey shirt that we sent her because she’s a field hockey goalie at her high school. To my knowledge, she hasn’t once pretended to be a member of the Harvard field hockey team, nor has anyone asked her if she was.

When it comes to stuff like this, the right thing is to not assume someone is claiming to be something they’re not simply because they wear affiliated imprinted wearables. They may or may not have an affiliation. When my oldest granddaughter graduated high school last year, we gave her a baseball cap from the college she was planning to attend. It’s bright red with bold letters. A handsome cap. We bought one to wear ourselves.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of "The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice," is a senior lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of www.jeffreyseglin.com, a blog focused on ethical issues. 

Do you have ethical questions that you need to have answered? Send them to jeffreyseglin@gmail.com

Follow him on Twitter @jseglin

(c) 2023 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC.

Sunday, January 29, 2023

It's your turn to fill the silence. I'm listening.

“[S]ilence is the weapon, silence and people’s need to fill it — as long as the person isn’t you,” wrote Robert Caro in his book Working: Researching, Interviewing, Writing. Caro is the author of a four-volume (so far) biography of U.S. President Lyndon Johnson. In Working, he wrote about how to interview people successfully. His advice about silence, however, is something each of us might find useful in our relationships and conversations with other people.

It was reassuring to read Caro’s words when his book came out four years ago since I’ve long advised students in the writing classes I teach to avoid trying to fill any awkward silences when they were interviewing someone for a piece they were writing. Be patient and let the other person fill that silence first, I advised, and they will often find that some of the most forthcoming responses result. I have given similar advice to people going for job interviews. I also once told a crowd of high school students about to be interviewed by college professors for a potential scholarship that they’d be wise to get their professor interviewers filling as much of the silence in the interview as possible.

Caro recounted techniques used to fight the urge to fill every silence. Mystery writer Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret would clean his pipe while waiting for a suspect to talk. John le Carre’s George Smiley would use his necktie to clean his eyeglasses that he held in his hand. Caro himself wrote that he writes “SU” regularly in his interview notes to remind himself to shut up.

Silence indeed can feel uncomfortable. But rather than rush to hear our own voices to alleviate that discomfort, we’d all do better to have the patience to listen to what others have to say.

For almost 25 years, I’ve written some version of “The Right Thing” column in which I try to address ethical issues people face or ethical choices they have to make. While I often rely on email from readers to provide grist for the column, the column itself is pretty much me talking to you about whatever issue is the focus on the column that week. Sometimes readers respond to a column with their own takes on the topic, to express agreement, or to tell me how wrong they believe my take was. But mostly it’s me filling the silence.

As I’ve done from time to time over the years, I’m inviting you to fill that silence.

Email me (jeffreyseglin@gmail.com) your stories of an ethical challenge you faced, what you did in response, and why. Share an episode you witnessed of others around you choosing to do the right thing when they could have done otherwise. Let me know who or what influences your decisions when it comes to doing the right thing. If a book, movie, television show, piece of art or some other work has been influential in shaping how you look at challenging choices, send the details along.

If ethics is indeed “how we behave when we decide we belong together,” as Margaret Wheatley and Myron Kellner-Rogers wrote in their book, A Simpler Way, then here’s the opportunity to share some of your stories about how you or those around you have behaved together. Here’s the opportunity to share your stories about how you’ve chosen to do the right thing. I’m listening.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of "The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice," is a senior lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of www.jeffreyseglin.com, a blog focused on ethical issues. 

Do you have ethical questions that you need to have answered? Send them to jeffreyseglin@gmail.com

Follow him on Twitter @jseglin

(c) 2023 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC.

Sunday, January 22, 2023

Must I want to buy to get the prize offered?

I’m not fond of getting in between a couple arguing about an issue, but I’ve come to realize that often doing so is the nature of the column I write. Here’s the latest.

Often when they are on a vacation trip, a reader we’re calling Gregory tells me that he and his partner, whom we’re calling Stacy, find offers to view a timeshare or other real estate offering in exchange for some sort of voucher for their time. Stacy is, according to Gregory, always eager to take advantage of such offers. Over the years, they’ve had several lovely dinners mostly paid for with the vouchers they got for spending an hour or so touring a property.

The thing is, according to Gregory, they have never had any intention of purchasing a share in any of the properties they’ve agreed to tour. “We do it for the vouchers,” wrote Gregory, who insists they still have no intention of ever making a purchase.

For years, Gregory felt he and Stacy were wrong to express an interest when they each knew they were only in it for the vouchers. Stacy disagrees. According to Gregory, she believes that if the company makes a no-obligation-to-buy offer, all she and her partner are doing is agreeing to spend some of their vacation time making the tour in exchange for the reward offered.

Gregory wants to know if they were wrong to continue to present themselves as interested parties when they are clearly only interested in the vouchers.

I’m going to have to side with Stacy on this one. If the only stipulation the company makes is that the prospective voucher awardees commit their time, then the only obligation Gregory and Stacy have is to commit their time. It’s not without cost, after all. Spending an hour trying to be sold a property eats into otherwise relaxing vacation time. But even if either of them finds it relaxing to take such tours, they are still meeting their end of the obligation.

If the company asked the couple outright if they had any intention of making a purchase, Gregory and Stacy would be wrong to lie simply to get a free voucher. So far, however, Gregory indicated that that’s never been asked. Just time on the tour in exchange for the voucher. If Stacy wants to continue taking such tours and Gregory agrees to tag along, it’s OK to do so as long as they don’t misrepresent themselves to the companies making the offers.

Generally, after such tours, the company representative typically sits with the tour takers to try to sell them on the benefits of making a purchase. That’s OK too, as long as the company delivers on its promise to give whatever it promised upon the tour’s completion. I’m not sure that’s the way I would want to spend my vacation when I could be taking a stroll or reading a good book, but then I’m not Gregory and Stacy.

The right thing is for Gregory and Stacy and any companies offering vouchers for tours to be clear on what the agreement is that they are entering into and then for each to honor the commitment they made. If Stacy secretly would like to own one of the timeshares they visit and hasn’t told Gregory, that’s a different conundrum for another vacation — and perhaps another column.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of "The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice," is a senior lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of www.jeffreyseglin.com, a blog focused on ethical issues. 

Do you have ethical questions that you need to have answered? Send them to jeffreyseglin@gmail.com

Follow him on Twitter @jseglin

(c) 2023 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC.

Sunday, January 15, 2023

The output you submit should be your own

There has been quite a bit of buzz about ChatGPT, an artificial intelligence chatbot that was launched in November 2022 by OpenAI LP, a for-profit offshoot of the not-for-profit OpenAI Inc. After typing in a prompt, the chatbot spits out a readable essay, memo, email, piece of code, poem or other piece of writing the user asks for.

Often the results are remarkably readable and coherent, though not flawless. One former student, for example, sent me the results of their request to ChatGPT to “write an op-ed about Professor Jeffrey Seglin.” ChatGPT spit out a coherent six-paragraph column broadly capturing some things about me, but the resulting essay also got wrong the titles of two of the books I have written.

There were some accurate details in the essay: my name, what I write about and where I work. What ChatGPT got wrong: what it is I teach at the place it has me working. As a result, it misrepresented how influential I had been in certain fields of study without offering any research or detail to support its claims.

Given the factual errors in it and the lack of evidence and support for claims, it would have received a poor grade had it been turned in as an assignment. But if I hadn’t been told by the former student, I’m not sure I would have known for certain that the op-ed column had been generated by an AI chatbot.

Admission application essays are typically short and broadly stated responses to some prompt given to all applicants to the college or university. It is harder to verify the facts applicants write about themselves than it is to verify the title or author of a book or what someone teaches at a particular university. Can, for example, the reader of an application really verify how involved an applicant was in their community cleanup campaign?

Nevertheless, asking ChatGPT to respond to an application essay prompt is simple, and the results get spit out in seconds. It might seem a tempting shortcut. So why not do it?

Because just as hiring someone to write an application essay is dishonest and doesn’t reflect the work of the applicant, so too does farming the work out to an AI chatbot. Although someone somewhere might get away with using an AI chatbot to complete their homework without getting caught, the student will not learn how to think through and do the work themselves.

There might always be people who try to cheat. There might also be those who simply want to get through a course without having to do all of the thinking and work themselves. It should be made clear to applicants or students why trying to pass off an AI chatbot’s output as their own doesn’t result in them learning what they are presumably there to learn.

Although AI chatbot detectors are likely to be developed just as plagiarism detectors developed, the main reason not to pass off a chatbot’s work as our own is that it’s dishonest. Until we start admitting AI chatbots as students, the right thing is for each of us to do our own work even if we might not get caught having someone or something else do it for us. And if we didn’t contribute to that community cleanup effort, we shouldn’t claim we did — though there’s likely still time to pick up after ourselves.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of "The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice," is a senior lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of www.jeffreyseglin.com, a blog focused on ethical issues. 

Do you have ethical questions that you need to have answered? Send them to jeffreyseglin@gmail.com

Follow him on Twitter @jseglin

(c) 2023 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC.