The Rolling Stock Trick

The Rolling Stock Trick

When you're a kid, you often notice things you don't quite understand. TV is different from films—it's not as wide, why is that? If you work out how to frame the question right you'll be told by an adult or the internet that this is called aspect ratio. Most people will leave it there. A few may develop an obsessive interest in the technology behind the moving picture. But if you're a particular kind of kid, you'll learn the lesson that things have names and you can seem to know stuff by knowing those names.

I've been listening to podcasts for a long time. In general, this isn't a good thing, but it has allowed me some small degree of insight into the ways that people choose to present themselves via the medium of audio. A lot of the time, they're trying to create the impression that they're a particular kind of omni-directional smart and knowledgeable etc etc and one of the ways they do this is something I like to call the Rolling Stock trick.

The way this works is—as I've suggested—that you signal you're knowledgeable about an area by using its specific technical lingo, often when it's unnecessary to do so and whether or not you have any understanding of the subject beyond knowing some words about it. It's named after 'rolling stock' which in the context of the rail industry just means 'trains' but sounds more impressive so people will use it to signal they Know Stuff. The more technically complex, recondite or extra-cultural—ideally in another language—it is, the better it seems to work. For some reason white people using terms from Islam is a particularly popular one, at least judged by how often I've heard it done.

This isn't quite the same as people who have a specific job with a lot of jargon associated using that to talk about other stuff—I used to listen to a podcast where Scottish lawyers would talk about comics, and occasionally they'd drop in something about Scots law, which I always found quite fun. (It also obviously wouldn't apply to people using jargon while talking about something they actually do know a lot about—if the aforementioned lawyers decided to do a  jargon-heavy podcast about Scots law... well, I wouldn't listen, but I wouldn't have these objections.) I'd also carve out an exception for using wrestling terminology to describe the real world because I do that frankly it's so widespread that pretty much everyone knows what it means by now.

(I'm crap at this trick because I have subclinical anomic aphasia (you'll notice the trick works less well in writing because as you can see, even someone who is crap at it in person can just Google to remind themselves what things are called). I often forget what the names of things are, but not seriously enough that it's a diagnosable condition—I just find myself referring to objects, people, concepts etc as "lads", to the point where one of my friends has taken to using the phrase "put the lad on the lad" to make fun of me.)

The problem I have with it is that it incentivises a certain kind of shallow rhetorical flashiness. Understanding things is often difficult and it takes time to do. It will doubtless be more difficult still if you're someone whose existing expertise is not at least somewhat related to the subject at hand. But acting like you understand and learning a few words to say is pretty easy, especially if you're already good at talking, and if you do that across a number of topics over a period of time, you can create the impression that you understand basically everything when you in fact understand very little.

This is bad in itself, but I also realised that (having been subject to it for many years) it creates a desire in the listener to be like that too. This isn't the person-repeating-a-bit-they-heard-on-a-podcast phenomenon, annoying though that is: it's the belief that it's possible to be someone who fully apprehends and understands everything with no effort (and become friends with the cool kids thereby) simply by adopting a pose. Even when you're aware of it, I think it's difficult to fully resist, and one reason I've been trying to rein in my listening to podcasts recently, or at least of those kinds of podcasts.

Not to turn into a dad about this, but you can listen to over a thousand episodes of In Our Time and get a bunch of genuine experts on just about any topic you choose to name. They're not pals having the banter with Melvyn (at least until the bit at the end where the producer asks them if they want tea or coffee) but you're more likely to encounter some genuine knowledge, and the reading lists (available with more recent episodes) are pretty good too. Have a look on the Braggoscope

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