Saturday, March 2, 2013

Verbosity affronts the court

An attorney’s pomposity affronts the court, transgressing a status formality. Since verbosity is a signal for pompous arrogance, it damages attorneys’ credibility—and their cases—more than the profession recognizes.

The social function of pomposity
To identify and understand the phenomenon of pomposity, one must know its social function, which I find no one has addressed. Signaling theory, a hybrid of economics, game theory, and evolutionary psychology, is the analytic tool of choice for discerning what people are really trying to accomplish when they’re pompous. People signal to demonstrate possession of an otherwise invisible high-status trait, using behavior that would be too costly to display if they lacked the trait. A classic example is conspicuous consumption. Owning a huge house confers status because it signals that the owner is rich enough to afford it.

Its link to evolutionary psychology takes signaling beyond Thorstein Veblen’s conspicuous consumption and conspicuous leisure. What makes signals (like owning a big house) effective is not so much their present correlation with status but the correlation in humankind’s evolutionary history. Evolutionary psychology proposes that status is conferred by traits that would make an individual a powerful ally.

Under the signaling framework, pomposity is a costly signal because self-important displays by one unimportant discredits the signaler as a liar. One’s fellows in the primal human environment of bands and tribes could easily discover such exaggeration. Today, the barriers to ascertaining reputation make pomposity both harder to discredit and less convincing. These limitations render pomposity a somewhat desperate gamble by persons who feel undervalued.

Verbosity and pomposity
If the link between pomposity and power is instinctual, so must be the means of expressing pompous arrogance. Verbosity, I contend, signals arrogance because of a deep connection between claims to power and consumption of time and space. The connection can be seen in body language: adolescents wanting to suggest they have the power to resist adult coercion, for example, will assume a posture that occupies as much space as possible, sprawling over their chairs. More controversially, you may also notice that the severely obese are apt to be narcissistic and power-oriented. Analogously, the pompous will consume ten minutes to make a banal ten-second point.

Verbosity, to be sure, isn’t always or even usually caused by pomposity. More often, it’s the result of poor writing skills or lack of grasp of the subject matter, but a strong correlation isn’t necessary when the impressions rest on an instinctual basis.

Succinct writing avoids affront
Adverse repercussions follow for the verbose legal-brief writer. Verbosity is an implied challenge to the court’s status because 1) it signals a claim to power and importance and 2) it does so at the expense of the court’s time. Recall that burdening the court to the attorney’s personal advantage breaches a status formality. The court will perceive verbosity as self-promotion achieved at the court’s expense—in time and, ultimately, in status.

Most criticism of verbosity concerns its shortcomings as communication, but the unconsciously experienced violation of a status formality represents a still greater threat to a brief’s favorable reception. 

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