Apr 15, 2022

Summarizers Can Be A Pain In The Abstract

To recap: Summarizers can be a pain in the abstract

By Ed Goldman

Are you an obsessive summarizer?

Here’s an easy test to see if you are. Do you often find yourself starting a sentence with one of these expressions, presumably when there’s at least one other person in the room?

Edgy Cartoon

Summarily dismissed

a. “To recap…”

b. “Cutting to the chase…”

c. “Then what you’re saying is…”

d. “So, if I’m understanding this correctly…”

e. “In short…”

f. “Okay, viewing this from 10,000 feet…”

g. “It may be time for the fat lady to sing…” (Note to “woke” readers: This is not an example of contemporary body shaming. Rather, it’s a reference to classical-opera stereotyping—and sure, classical-opera body shaming.)

Becoming a summarizer is pretty irresistible if you share my impatience with having to endure lengthy meetings, small talk at fundraising events or a friend who’s been streaming reruns of “Game of Thrones” and you’ve made the mistake of saying you never watched a single episode. (Personal tip: Say, “I’ve never missed it.” Then, to keep your self-integrity, mutter under your breath, “And I doubt I will by continuing to never watch it.”)

Summarizing can be hazardous to relationships, whether platonic or romantic. Handled poorly, it can come across as tone-deaf, patronizing or, worst of all, dazzlingly accurate. 

For example, when someone takes exception to your summarizing a conversation or to your condemnation of his or her entire life, your rebuttal should not be Jack Nicholson’s famous line in “A Few Good Men”: “You can’t handle the truth.”

Nor should you fall into the trap of playing the candor card: “I’m sure I just hurt your feelings by itemizing all of the horrible things you are and have done, but you know me: I’m as honest as the day is long.” (Note: You should especially avoid saying this in the beginning of winter, when the day is short.)

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Two of the more ubiquitous examples of summing up come to us via TV and radio: post-game sports highlights and post-debate political analysis.

I have no quarrel with the first one because I rarely watch or listen to sports and think it’s just fine if you do and feel like reliving an exhilarating or infuriating moment. I do, however, feel bad for the sportscasters tasked with dissecting a Sacramento Kings basketball game because they have to expand their vocabulary each time to describe just how many mistakes the NBA team makes on the court—sometimes in only the first quarter. I think an enterprising analyst might parse the reasons for a Kings loss by beginning his or her diagnosis  in the locker room prior to the start of a game.

People who analyze political debates are far more obnoxious. They tell you the meaning and content of each candidate’s answers, an undertaking based on the premise that viewers are total idiots and didn’t just see and hear the same debate the analysts did.

It’s not as though the debaters use big words that need defining nor that they present big concepts that could use some clarification. The language is almost always at a third-grade level—if third-graders knew how to be slippery and obtuse.

BILLY: Gimme back my ball!

TOMMIE: Go suck an egg!

WOLF BLITZER (An hour later): Well, we saw some serious brinksmanship there on the playground this afternoon as Billy, age eight, insisted on the return of a ball he alleges to be his.

JAKE TAPPER: Well, Billy may have a point, Wolf. Our CNN cameraman got a close-up of the ball “in play,” as it were.

WOLF BLITZER: And how were, I mean was it, Jake?

JAKE TAPPER: If you’ll look closely at this enlargement, Wolf, you can see writing on the ball itself.

WOLF BLITZER: And what does it say, Jake? I’m too Blitzed to read it.

JAKE TAPPER: “This Ball Belongs to Billy.”

DON LEMON: Breaking News!

WOLF AND JAKE: What is, Don?

DON LEMON: Oh, did I say that out loud? My bad.—Well, to recap… .

Ed Goldman's column appears almost every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. A former daily columnist for the Sacramento Business Journal, as well as monthly columnist for Sacramento Magazine and Comstock’s Business Magazine, he’s the author of five books, two plays and one musical (so far).