THE MAGAZINE

Why? By Charles Tilly

By Ross Johnson, CPP

***** Why? By Charles Tilly; published by Princeton University Press, pup.princeton.edu (Web); 202 pages; $24.95.

From the ancient philosophers to today’s bloggers, men and women have asked, “Why?” This book asks that same momentous question, but not toward the end of philosophical or religious understanding. Instead, it the book dissects how people answer the question. The book is an anatomy of explanations. The way we choose to explain something varies greatly depending on our relationship with our audience, and the approach used profoundly affects the success of the communication. Using the correct approach can reinforce relationships and facilitate understanding; the wrong approach can alienate those we seek to influence and damage our cause.

According to author Charles Tilly, a professor of social science at Columbia University, explanations fall into four categories. The first is convention, or “conventionally accepted reasons for dereliction, deviation, distinction, or good fortune.”

If you forget an appointment and claim that you “had a senior moment” in your defense, you have just used a convention. Conventions tend to be flimsy, so while they may work with relatives or coworkers, they will hardly suffice for the CEO.

When former U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was asked why he had not prepared for violence in Baghdad after the 2003 Iraq war, he responded, “Stuff happens.” This use of a convention when a more substantial answer was expected offended many members of the public and cost him support.

The second category of explanations consists of “explanatory narratives involving cause-effect accounts.” In shorthand, this is referred to as the story. This powerful form of explanation allows us to communicate our message to an audience, limited only by our own ability to convey the message clearly. Good communicators use stories or parables (rules demonstrated by a story) to help people understand events.

Third, people use codes—laws, regulations, and standards—to explain things. Security professionals are surrounded by codes like criminal laws and fire codes. An explanation of a course of action based on codes is easily understood by security professionals, but may need fuller bases to win the support of others in the company.

Finally, people use technical cause-effect accounts, stories narrowly defined by the person telling them. A security professional might explain a breach by saying, “The power failure caused the magnetic locks to fail in the open position, leaving the floor unsecured.” This explanation will work with people familiar with magnetic locks, but will likely be incomprehensible to everyone else, which may be the intent, so people won’t question further.

Don’t expect to find this book on the security shelf at bookstores, but it’s worth a serious look from security practitioners nonetheless. Understanding the concepts presented here will enhance the security professional’s ability to present ideas or requirements more effectively.

Reviewer: Ross Johnson, CPP, is corporate security manager for EPCOR in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. He is a member of ASIS International.

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