Years ago, someone gave me a mug that said, on one side, “talk is cheap, and on the other side, “until you hire a lawyer.” According to a posting on the Internet, it was P.T. Barnum who first coined this phrase, a variation on a much older saying, “Talk is cheap, but whiskey costs money.” The original intent of that phrase was to belittle mere braggadocio, and to remind us that actions speak louder than words.
The utterances of President Trump are a reminder that even when we don’t value our own words, they may have a cost.
“Credibility” is defined as “the quality of being trusted and believed in,” and the word itself dates back to the 1590’s, from Medieval Latin “credibilitas.” However, the concept is so fundamental to human society that it must have existed long before that particular term was coined. Even as children, we learn not to trust someone who goes back on his word.*
According to Wikipedia, “Credibility has two key components: trustworthiness and expertise, which both have objective and subjective components. Trustworthiness is based more on subjective factors, but can include objective measurements such as established reliability. Expertise can be similarly subjectively perceived, but also includes relatively objective characteristics of the source or message (e.g., credentials, certification or information quality).”
Lawyers, mediators and arbitrators (and sometimes even politicians) know how important credibility is. The parties to labor negotiations know how important it is. The fact is that credibility plays an important role in our lives almost daily. We believe/trust that the credit card company will honor our transactions, and keep our personal data safe; we believe/trust that the bus, the train, the uber driver, will arrive on time. And occasionally we are disappointed: our credit card is wrongly rejected, or our personal data is hacked, the bus is delayed. And when individuals or businesses or governments lose credibility, when we stop trusting them, the consequences can be severe.
The importance of credibility in our daily lives is reflected in the many ways that it finds expression in colloquialisms. “Talk is cheap,” is one; “say what you mean and mean what you say” is another;** to “walk the talk” is another way of saying the same thing. When you repeatedly say things that are manifestly untrue, when you repeatedly contradict what you said before, when you repeatedly scorn and mock others because of their race, gender, religion or physical attributes, you pay for that kind of talk with the coin of your personal credibility. And when you are the President of the United States, you are also paying with the nation’s credibility. It is fair to say that one year into his presidency, no one on Capitol Hill trusts the President to keep his word, and none of the other countries in the world trust the United States. That is a heavy price to pay for cheap talk.
*The Popeye cartoons enjoyed by a generation of children featured the character J. Wellington Wimpy who was famous for his mendacity in telling others, “I’ll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today.”
**This phrase appears to have originated in a passage from Alice In Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll: “Then you should say what you mean, "the March Hare went on. "I do," Alice hastily replied; "at least--at least I mean what I say . . .”
About the blogger:
Phil Moss is a member of the State of Maine’s Panel of Mediators, and has been active in alternative dispute resolution since he first entered the legal profession. In 1975, Phil was one of fifty attorneys who volunteered to participate in the pilot mediation program for the Boston Municipal Court, and in subsequent years he volunteered as a participant in pilot mediation projects for the Maine Human Rights Commission and the Maine Superior Court system. As an advocate he participated in well over 100 arbitrations and mediations, involving the hospitality industry, trucking and warehousing, supermarkets and public utilities (including nuclear power), among others. For a number of years prior to his retirement from the active practice of law, Phil was included in New England Super Lawyers, and listed in Chambers USA, America’s Leading Business Lawyers and in The Best Lawyers in America. Phil has worked pro bono publico for a number of organizations, including the Jewish Community Center of Portland, ME, the Pine Tree Council of the Boy Scouts of America and the Maine chapter of NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness).