Alan Alda Gets Passive and Punchy with Etiquette

The actor shares how a bad dentist visit sparked the idea for his new book on communication and tells our listeners how to deal with thankless relatives, forced nicknames, and more.

Photo courtesy of Alan Alda

Rico Gagliano: Each week, you send us your etiquette questions, and here to answer your questions this time around is actor, writer, director, and science advocate, Alan Alda. He is, of course, beloved for starring as “Hawkeye” Pierce in what’s widely considered one of the best TV shows of all time, “M*A*S*H.” He was a regular on another great show, “The West Wing,” and he hosted another great show, the PBS series “Scientific American Frontiers” for over a decade.

More germane to our conversation today, he helped found the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University. Its goal is to help scientists communicate better with the public, and his new book is about how we can all communicate better. It is called “If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?” And, Alan, it’s an honor to have you on the show.

Alan Alda: Hi, thank you.

How a terrible dentist appointment sparked the idea for his book

Brendan Francis Newnam: It’s going to be hard reading each other’s faces since we’re in studios around the world. We are speaking to you from a different studio.

Alan Alda: No, I can imagine your face, so this won’t be a very long conversation.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Oh no. You can see how vacant I am from there? This is upsetting.

Look, I want to hop right into your book. You talk about how your obsession with communication started at the dentist office, and it wasn’t laughing gas. Can you share with us what happened there?

Alan Alda: I had to have a front tooth taken out, and the only explanation he gave me before he stuck the knife in my face was, “Now there will be some tethering.”

Brendan Francis Newnam: “Tethering.”

Alan Alda: “What tethering? Tethering? What do you mean tethering?” He said, “Tethering! Tethering!” He started screaming, and that’s all he said. It was like he was impatient with me because I didn’t know what this common English word had to do with my mouth. And what had turned out was he cut a little tissue up there that kept me from smiling normally.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Yeah, yeah. You’re a man who needs your face!

Alan Alda: I needed to smile sometimes. And then he sent me a letter designed to keep me from suing him. So, he really was like, non-communicative from the word “Go.”

Why storytelling is essential for communication

Rico Gagliano: Sure, so this all, of course, makes you think, maybe these guys should learn how to communicate better with people. And you begin your book with that anecdote because it’s a story, and stories, as you also discuss in the book, are a fundamental way brains organize information. Why is that?

Alan Alda: Who knows? I don’t know. I always love it when somebody discovers something in science and says, “And this makes sense because surely when we were prehistoric, we needed it for this or that.” But you can make anything up that goes with that story because there is nobody around to test it on.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Yeah, but what do stories do that captivate us?

Alan Alda: Well what they do — according to scientists I have interviewed who use functional MRIs to study the storytelling encounter — is they actually seem to sync up the brain in a real way. The brain of the person telling the story, say for instance the story of a movie, when he tells it to someone else, her brain lights up or is activated in a very similar way to his brain as he tells the story. I think you could say we synchronize through stories.

Rico Gagliano: That sounds almost science fiction almost like we’re mind melding.

Alan Alda: That’s what I love about science. It’s more fun than science fiction to me.

Art vs. Science

Rico Gagliano: It is interesting though. You divide your time between two very different worlds, the world of art and acting and of science. If you had to choose between the two of them, which would you pick?

Alan Alda: Well, I’m an actor and a writer, and I don’t think I could really be happy without doing art. But you know, teaching is very similar to that. The more I run workshops and the more I try to help people understand what we’re doing, the more I realize that it’s a very similar process and it’s almost as satisfying, not quite. But I did, I acted in a web series with Louis CK…

Brendan Francis Newnam: Yeah, “Horace and Pete.”

Alan Alda: Yeah. And I had such a good time, and I respected that material so much, I haven’t wanted to do anything that has been offered to me since then because it didn’t seem to match up. So I guess maybe somehow that’s the answer to your question.

Rico Gagliano: Yeah, you’d rather be an actor as long as the material is good.

Alan Alda: Yeah, right, that kind of matters.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Well, now you’re going to have an opportunity to teach because we’ve let our audience know that you’re here, and they have some etiquette questions. Some of them involve communications, some of them do not. Are you ready to help these folks out?

Alan Alda: I certainly am.

Passive-aggressive Pronunciation

Brendan Francis Newnam: Well, this first question comes from Roland in Los Angeles. And he writes: “Let’s say someone way smarter and better qualified to talk about science than me is over for a party, and they’re talking about science but repeatedly mispronouncing a scientific term. Do I correct them?”

Alan Alda: Well, I’ve had this experience, and I didn’t make the correction. I said, “Oh, is that how you pronounce the word?” And he was embarrassed in front of other scientists. And I would suggest — not as a matter of etiquette, but as a matter of not being stupid — that it’s not a good idea to correct an expert on what they know better than us.

Brendan Francis Newnam: It’s also a little bit passive-aggressive so that seems to be a theme in etiquette. You’re saying, “Oh is that how you pronounce it?”

Alan Alda: Well, I meant it. I think it was passive-aggressive. I think you analyzed me correctly.

No Thank Yous

Rico Gagliano: Here is something from Kylie, via our website. Kylie writes: “My partner and I are aunt and uncle to more than 15 nieces and nephews, and we despair as we fail to get a thank you of any kind for any gift we send them. Our siblings also fail to thank us on behalf of their kids. How do we indicate that in these times of instant communication methods, thanks should be forthcoming, and how do we do this without offending these people, or should we just give ourselves more gifts?”

Alan Alda: Give ourselves more gifts. I trampled on the gag at the end. Now that’s a good idea.

Brendan Francis Newnam: That’s OK.

Alan Alda: I feel the same way. I think that I’m generous, but the one thing I want in return is a thank you and acknowledgment that it happened. Maybe that’s selfish of me, but that’s what I want, damn it! There it is.

Brendan Francis Newnam: So what would your tactic be?

Alan Alda: So, here’s a strategy that might work: where you enlist the parents who themselves are recalcitrant and list them as magical helpers, collaborators. “What can we do to help little Mary to learn that she should thank you when she is given something? Because some people, like me, don’t like it?”

Rico Gagliano: You’re basically like listen, “Yes, I know that you’re a person, sister, or brother, who is a good person, surely you want your child to behave well. Let’s work together to make that happen.”

Alan Alda: That’s a little formal for me. I’d do it like we’re already cooperating on this great project.

Brendan Francis Newnam: That’s right. You assume that they’re on board. Once again, a little bit passive-aggressive, right? Because you’re kind of saying, you’ve raised these feral creatures…

Alan Alda: I’m getting sick of this instant therapy here.

Rico Gagliano: Yeah, we are mere radio hosts.

Brendan Francis Newnam: That was just aggressive. OK, here we go.

Rico Gagliano: We got it. We get it, Alan.

Brendan Francis Newnam: We’ve had a breakthrough! We’ve had a breakthrough.

Alan Alda: OK, that’s good. I can walk.

Asking your pals to pay up

Rico Gagliano: Here is something from Lindsey from Minneapolis, and Lindsey says, “My husband and I have season tickets to our major league soccer team. We often extend invites to friends to join us at a match, but we would like them to cover the cost of their ticket. How do we avoid the awkwardness of the, “Hey want to join us for the match? Oh, and by the way, you have to pay” situation?

Alan Alda: Well, you have to put that up front. I have friends who do that. “I have two extra tickets for sale, can you use them?”

Rico Gagliano: You don’t try to like underplay that?

Alan Alda: If you want their company and it’s important to have their company, then treat them. Otherwise, you’ve got tickets that are worth something, so you want somebody to pay for them.

Rico Gagliano: But you don’t want to seem mercenary if you lead with the money, then it can almost seem like, “I know you might try to weasel out of paying me, so I’m telling you right now, you can’t.”

Alan Alda: No, no. You’re honest, you’re direct. Etiquette is not pretending to something that you’re not going through; it’s making the rails run more smoothly.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Precisely! It’s like a social lubricant.

Alan Alda: Yeah. “I can’t spring for these tickets for a person like you,” how about that?

Brendan Francis Newnam: “P.S. What do you think, I’m made of money?”

Alan Alda: Yeah, yeah.

Brendan Francis Newnam: There you go, Lindsey from Minneapolis, by the way, where they’re known for just being very super direct, confrontational. So we’ll see how that works for her.

Forced nicknames

Brendan Francis Newnam: OK, our last question comes from Susan in Paoli, Pennsylvania. Susan asks, “Under what circumstances ought one refuse a nickname.”

Alan Alda: This is an interesting question because it assumes that there are people coming up to you all of the time giving you nicknames. I don’t remember ever being given a nickname.

Brendan Francis Newnam: That’s true!

Alan Alda: However, my children were young enough to go to camp, a representative of the camp came to our house to tell us what a great camp it was, which included the information that every morning at 6 o’clock when the lake was freezing cold, everybody had to take a swim in the lake.

And then, on the first day, everybody would get a nickname that would stick with them for the whole time, and it would be based on some feature of their face or their body or something like that. Like, “Hey, freckles.” “Hey, hook nose.” You know? I said, “Thanks very much, we won’t be giving our children into your care.”

Rico Gagliano: That’s a nightmare. It’s like, “Basically, we’re going to haze your child. Are you ready for that? Let’s do it.”

Alan Alda: I think when somebody starts nicknaming you, if you don’t like it, you tell them.

Rico Gagliano: Doesn’t that then make it, “Oh you don’t like it, well then I’m just going to nickname you even harder.”

Alan Alda: Well, then you’re talking to a bully. Then you’ve got to bring the bully apparatus into play.

Rico Gagliano: Which is?

Alan Alda: Sock ’em in the puss.

Rico Gagliano: There you have it. Etiquette.

Alan Alda: This is etiquette, right?

Brendan Francis Newnam: Alright, there you go, Susan in Paoli, or as I call you, Suzy Q. Thanks for sending in your question.

Rico Gagliano: Alan Alda, thank you so much for telling our audience how to behave.

Alan Alda: Yeah, well, they need it.