The most recent xkcd comic reminds me of a interesting phenomena I’ve observed…

I’ve noticed that people tend to have an “insider” and “outsider” explanation for their particular areas of expertise. The outsider explanation largely parrots the party line and provides a surface explanation that of how things should be. The insider explanation though, is infinitely more interesting to listen to. People will drop their guard and provide a frank and often hilarious view of how things actually are done because you’ve proven yourself to be someone safe to dish with.

What does it require for someone to assume that you’re an “insider”? In my experience, after having spoken to people from a variety of different fields, the transition point from outsider to insider is surprisingly universal.

2 facts and a joke

The way to pass as an insider is to prove that you know 2 facts and a joke. For example, if Michael and I were strangers and I were to be talking to him about designs for a business card, the conversation might go something like this:

Michael: So do you have any ideas for the basic style of the card?
Hang: Well, I’ve always like minimalistic Swiss school type stuff (fact 1).
Michael: Ok, we can do that, what sort of font were you thinking?
Hang: Hrmm… I want it to stand out so… not Helvetica (joke 1). Something a bit machine like and futuristic. Oh, and make sure it’s nicely kerned as well (fact 2).

Note that the joke doesn’t actually have to be funny. In fact, it’s often better if it’s not funny because funny jokes get repeated to outsiders and lose their insider cachet (making fun of comic sans would not work in this case since there’s so many funny websites lampooning comic sans).

What 2 facts and a joke indicates to someone is that you understand both the content of the discipline as well as the culture. To understand a joke, you have to understand the implicit cultural values and assumptions that are held by lampooning them.

I’ve tried numerous permutations over the years and it’s amazing how consistently this works. I’ve trotted out 20 facts before and still been treated like an outsider until I told that one joke. I’ve cracked half a dozen jokes but couldn’t get anywhere until I threw in some facts.

So next time you want to try reenacting xkcd in real life, just remember, 2 facts and a joke…