Too much data

An apocryphal sales story has a young and inexperienced salesman about to close the biggest deal of his life.  He hands the contract to the customer for signature and, as the customer starts to sign, the salesman blurts out “Boy, am I glad I got this deal for my company after all the troubles we’ve been having.”  The customer’s pen stops in mid-air.  “What troubles?” he asks.  “O nothing” says the salesman, “You know, just the regular sort of thing every company has.”  “No, I don’t know” says the customer who now places the pen back firmly on the desk. “Why don’t you tell me about it?”

The salesman goes on backpedalling but too late to convince the customer and the deal is lost.  In salesmanship 101, it is given as an example of too much data.  If the salesman had stopped after “Boy, am I glad that I got this deal for my company,” he may later have broken out the champagne and started celebrating.  A lot of us get transfixed by the need to provide more information than required.

Conversely, we often ask for more data than we want or need.  An old joke says that you should never ask old people how they are … because they will tell you.

“How are you, gramps?”

“Well, I don’t sleep well, I’m not regular, it burns when I pee, I get blood in my stool …”


So how much do we really need to know?  I think that we need to know if our pants are on fire, if our house is on fire (unless we are burning it down for the insurance), if our child is missing and the reasons for having complex surgery.  We don’t need to know about someone else’s indigestion, psoriasis, ingrown toe nails or poor grooming habits, especially during mealtimes.  We don’t need to know about their personal relationships either but curiosity gets the better of us.  Of course, these are all just my personal opinions.  You can take surveys that give you choices on what you need to know – geography or auto mechanics, ballroom dancing or philosophy, self defense or making compost … You can take the survey at .

So there are two sides to this question.  One side is how much we need to know and the other side is how much does someone asking us a question need to know.

Often when asked a simple question, we veer off into all sorts of tangential discussions.  I call it “swamp of consciousness” and I am as guilty as the next fellow.  People ask me for the time and I tell them how to build a watch.  Here’s an example:

Friend:  “What does this switch turn on?” (pointing to a middle light switch in a bank of switches.)

Me:  “Well, the left-most switch controls the kitchen lights, the next switch controls the mud room, the next switch handles the garage lights … “

I can’t help myself.  The friend asked for a specific switch and only that switch but my mind says “If she asked for one switch, surely she needs to know about all the switches.”