Are You Trapped In An Echo Chamber? (And Why You Must Immediately Find The Nearest Exit)

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We’re building a detached garage. Since the time I bought my home, I had dreamed of building a detached garage. It was a dream Betsy quickly adopted, if only to create a massive storage vehicle for a lifetime of research, source material, and memories that have consumed much of the living space in our house. Soon, we will have a living room again. And a dining room. And maybe a couple of other rooms (and closets), too.

While the garage isn’t yet complete, we do have a roof and the building is adequately enclosed. A few weeks ago, we had Catarina’s birthday party in it. This weekend, we held Cesidia’s birthday party there.

Both parties were excellent. And instructive.

We had bare studs-and-plywood walls for Catarina’s party. By Cesidia’s party, the insulation had been installed (but not the drywall).

For Cesidia’s party, the garage was a nearly perfect sound room. The paper backing of the insulation absorbed all ambient noise. That didn’t mean it muffled our voices. No. When everyone was talking, it sounded like everyone was talking. You could hear each voice very clearly, but when the voices stopped, there was a dead silence.

It really perked up your attention. It also made you quite aware of everything around you. It was a full-bodied experience. Ironically, at the same time you were more attentive, you also felt more relaxed. You could afford to sit back in your chair. It didn’t take any effort to listen. You could easily shift your ears from one conversation to another.

Contrast this to the state of the garage during Catarina’s party. The hard, wooden walls, denuded of any sound absorbing materials, transformed the garage into one large echo chamber. When people spoke, their garage seemed to amplify their voices. When everyone spoke, it was a cacophonic symphony of noise, noise, noise!

You could hear people (maybe) but you had to concentrate. And you could only hear the one voice you were focused on hearing.

Of course, the echo chamber effect created a vicious circle of volume. To be heard, you had to speak louder. This only made things more of a challenge.

Of course, being a party, this level of sound made things more party-like, even when the normal conversation level was low. For example, in both parties, when everyone was talking, it sounded like a party. However, when only two or three people spoke, you could hear them distinctly in Cesidia’s party, but they sounded boisterous at Catarina’s party.

Life, despite our fondest wishes, is not a party. An echo chamber may enhance the aura of a party, but it can be downright dangerous in most circumstances.

Why is this so?

In almost all of life’s many scenes, the key to success is clear communications. Clear communication promotes quick and efficient decision-making. Consider this example:

What happens if you’re in the garage having a party and a rabid racoon crashes the event? You’ll want to clear out the garage quickly and in an orderly fashion. In which party is this most like to occur – Cesidia’s or Catarina’s?

At Cesidia’s party, it’s easier to hear the first person who warns of the uninvited guest. They inform the attendees immediately and they can promptly head for safety outside the garage. Because the covered walls baffle the sound, the exit proceeds quietly. Or at least quiet enough so at to not unnecessarily excite people.

On the other hand, Catarina’s party presents a couple of hurdles. When someone notices the racoon, will that person’s voice be heard over the din of the crowd? How far into the garage will the rabid racoon venture before everyone is aware of the approaching danger? And, when they do finally rush towards the exits, will the echo chamber turn that rush into a deafening roar, stocking the anxieties of all? How many then fall as a result of their ensuing haste?

Do you see where this is going?

Now think of what happens in the office. You need to make a decision and you have a choice between surrounding yourself with a supporting cast that echoes each other or with a bunch of disagreeable cynics.

Here’s what’s ironic. The disagreeable cynics sound like they’ll be louder – and they might be – but they aren’t the ones making all the noise. They’re making sense through open debate.

In the real world, the echo chamber producing “noise” does not pertain to a sense of volume, but to the sense of meaningless data. Because everyone is saying the same thing, you don’t really hear anything.

And anyone in a position to warn you is overshadowed by the consensus of the majority. In the worst case, that warning may not be heard until it’s too late. The exits may all be closed.

Here’s the real problem: for the thirty-thousand-foot level, you may not be able to tell the difference between an echo chamber and a gathering of diverse voices.

For both Catarina’s party and Cesidia’s party, I took a walk down the driveway. When I got to the road I turned around and looked at (and listened to) the garage. They both looked and sounded the same. Whatever the effect of the echo chamber within the garage, it meant nothing when seen (and heard) from a distance.

That makes it more difficult to discern when you’re in the echo chamber and when you’re not.

Here’s the best way to know: think like a scientist.

Ask the questions no know is asking – no matter how stupid, how unpopular, or how politically incorrect. If you’re met with startled silence, impolite stares, or even outright hostility, you’re in an echo chamber.

It’s best to immediately head for the nearest exit.

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