Jeffrey Paul: Don't Talk About Your Health Unless It's Good

Jeffrey Paul

Don't Talk About Your Health Unless It's Good
4 February 2020
( 802 words, approximately 4 minutes reading time. )

The title of this post is a bit of wisdom passed down from my grandfather. It’s sage advice, and something that I think more people should hear.

Health issues are one of those things like vacation photos: they’re really only interesting to you, or perhaps your immediate family. Beyond that, nobody really gives a shit. Talking about any feature of your health whatsoever in anything other than a positive light is a bad move for your social or professional life. Here’s why.

Information Transfer In Society Is Tremendously Lossy

Think of your closest personal friends. Do you know their favorite foods? Their favorite colors?

How about your co-workers, associates, and staff? Do you know the names of their pets, all of their children?

Perhaps your circles are small enough or your memory sharp enough, but most people have relatively low bandwidth for receiving and memorizing details about others. When we construct our mental models to form our overall impressions of others, we do so with a startlingly limited amount of information (compared to what is available, either obviously or for the asking), and it’s biased toward the most memorable of the attributes we know about them.

This means that others’ impressions of you are going to, for the most part, be limited to a very terse summary that will primarily only be affected by the loudest or most frequent of your actions or attributes. Be aware of the effect your words or actions have on those around you!

But It Feels Good!

Something’s wired in us humans to chit-chat with those around us about whatever we have top-of-mind. It’s a dangerous, seductive habit, for some reason that remains mysterious to me. Don’t fall victim to its song!

If you must chat up those in proximity, talk about things that are positive or beneficial, or ask others about themselves. Don’t bring up your own negative attributes (poor health, even sporadically, even in the past, is absolutely a negative attribute) for any reason. It can only hurt you!

The Map Is Not The Territory

This goes as much for personal relationships as it does professional ones. I came to the realization of how much this sort of information transmission bias hurts us whilst talking to one of my best friends a few years ago. I had a partner at the time who had some minor chronic (but well-managed) health issues. She’d be in the hospital (not admitted, just treated) probably about once per year for something or other, and she’d broken a small bone in her foot the year prior as well.

I was talking to my friend and mentioned something about her, and he spouted off with a grossly exaggerated (but sincere) belief: “oh, she’s just a fuckin’ hypochondriac.” To him, she was always sick or otherwise troubled: he only heard me mention something about her health when there was an anomaly, not the 99% of days when she was happy and healthy and otherwise fine. The only information he had received was biased toward the exceptions, not the norm.

People love to talk to others about themselves, about their own impressions and thoughts and feelings, and especially about their beliefs or impressions of third parties. These impressions are never formed on scientifically sampled, unbiased data. Be aware of the fact that opinions will be formed and likely shared about you solely on the limited data available to listeners—primarily based on what you say or write. Communicate deliberately.

Don’t Be That Guy

The effect, personally or professionally, is pretty much the same: talking about your health (in the common case of mentioning something less than entirely positive) in any way whatsoever tags you to others as someone who is sickly, infirm, less than hardy, or otherwise involuntarily sidelined (if even only occasionally), even in the case where the listener is sympathetic to your situation. Even if you experience health issues no more frequently than average, speaking about it creates a memorable record that people can use to assign these negative attributes to you. Why would you ever want that?

Silent, unconscious bias follows. In the best case, it gives people a concrete basis for (perhaps unfairly) thinking less of your capabilities. In the worst case, uncertainty about your future abilities means that you actively get deprioritized for the promotion, for the date, as the vendor. In the famous words of Remo Gaggi: “Why take a chance?”

Do the cost/benefit analysis. Does talking about these negative things help you or anyone else in any way? We know it has the potential to hurt. Is that potential offset by the benefit?

Keep your mouth absolutely and universally shut on these topics unless you’re at the doctor’s office. Follow the 100+ year old advice: Don’t talk about your health unless it’s good.

About The Author

Jeffrey Paul is a hacker and security researcher living in Berlin and the founder of EEQJ, a consulting and research organization.