Beware the Curse of Knowledge

A friend of mine tells the story of visiting a Quaker meeting for the first time. Many of the elements were familiar to him from his few visits to other churches – announcements, prayers, a couple songs. But then, all of the sudden, everyone went completely silent.

My friend had just begun his journey into recovery from drug addiction and had little patience for this display of religious piety and passivity. So he went up the microphone and said: “Well, if no one is going to say anything, you could at least pray for my friend, whose mom just died…”

As you probably know, this meeting had settled into a time of open worship. But no one introduced or explained the transition. They assumed everyone there would understand what was going on.

We do this a lot in Quaker circles. We do a lot of “inside baseball” talk, full of acronyms and jargon that makes no sense to outsiders (and sometimes to insiders). Not exactly “plain speech.”

I don’t think our lingo is necessarily bad. Sometimes unique language provides a way to talk about unique spiritual experiences and aspirations. When you become an insider, it’s nice to feel like “one of the gang” when you’re able to talk about “that of God” and “the rise of meeting.”

However, insider talk can create real barriers for visitors and seekers. They shouldn’t have to burn so many mental calories to figure out the time for the potluck or the purpose of a meeting. It can also become another thing that makes them feel “othered.” Lingo can also create unnecessary confusion and even conflict between Friends.

I’m not proposing we do away with all our favorite Quaker words and phrases. But I do recommend we beware the “curse of knowledge.”

The “curse of knowledge” refers to a common cognitive effect: after we learn something, we forget what it’s like to not know that something. And we end up assuming everyone else knows it as well. So, once we learn that FCNL stands for “Friends Committee on National Legislation,” we soon forget that some people don’t know the acronym. Once we figure out how to “center down,” we assume everyone else knows how to quiet their mind and pay attention to God as well.

How do we avoid the pitfalls of the curse of knowledge? Here are a few suggestions:

  • Assume a visitor is present —- Even if you’re not aware of any visitors (by the way, this could be one reason there are no visitors). Talk as if someone present is unfamiliar with Quaker ways of doing and saying things. Because sometimes even Quakers aren’t familiar with Quaker ways. Also because it’s worthwhile to recall the purpose and meaning of a term or practice. Furthermore, when a visitor does show up, you’ll already be in the habit of visitor-friendly communication.
  • Translate acronyms —- Most of us know the greatest hits of Quaker acronyms like FCNL, AFSC, FUM, FCG, etc. They are convenient shorthand for us as insiders but inconvenient for everyone else. So use the acronym then say what it stands for.
  • Interpret your tongues — I appreciate the use of language that draws from our tradition and speaks to communal and mystical experiences. But many experience this speech as a kind of “speaking in tongues.” By all the means, speak in tongues, but also give an interpretation (to borrow from the Apostle Paul). So, say the meeting was “covered,” but add: “We felt closely connected to one another and had a strong sense of divine presence.” Say “First Day” but also say “Sunday.”
  • Provide a Glossary — If explaining words or norms during worship doesn’t make sense for your meeting, or gets laborious, provide a glossary of Quaker terms with your bulletin or on a welcome table.
  • Prioritize your peculiarities — If you’re going to be weird, do it selectively and strategically. Many of our peculiar practices and patterns of speech are worth preserving, but we don’t need to use all of them all of the time. We can prioritize them according to our context and the people we most want to serve. So, we may decide that “holding in the Light” is important to use because it conveys something that “praying” doesn’t quite cover. But we can also use “question” or “reflective questions” instead of “query” for ease of understanding.
  • Own it — Acknowledge that Quakers can be a peculiar people so it takes some work to translate our message and interpret our tongues. Normalize conversations about making worship visitor-friendly. And have human conversations with guests. Be playful about our weirdness and make room for questions. A word of caution: be careful not to go to the other extreme, as some have, where we can’t stop talking about how different and unique we are. We can own our weird without making it core to our identity.

Friends worship and witness are worth sharing. We want to invite people into the experience of divine presence and out into missions of peace and justice. So we can leave behind navel gazing. And we can beware the curse of knowledge that helps us communicate our best invitations to the world.