In 2009, Carlton Philadelphia was departing the White House staff after a 2-year stint — which began under president George W. Bush. As had become customary during the tenure of new president Barack Obama, departing staff were allowed to bring in their families on their last day, to see the White House and meet the president.
As part of the meet-and-greet with President Obama, Philadelphia advised the president that his young sons each had a question for him. His youngest son, 5 year-old Jacob, got right to his — as recounted in the New York Times:
“I want to know if my hair is just like yours,” he told Mr. Obama, so quietly that the president asked him to speak again.
Jacob did, and Mr. Obama replied, “Why don’t you touch it and see for yourself?” He lowered his head, level with Jacob, who hesitated.
“Touch it, dude!” Mr. Obama said.
As Jacob patted the presidential crown, Mr. Souza snapped.
“So, what do you think?” Mr. Obama asked.
“Yes, it does feel the same,” Jacob said.
Aside from being a cute story, Jacob’s encounter with the president highlights two important distinctions: knowing vs. feeling, and telling vs. showing.
Show and Tell
It is one thing for an adult to tell a child that he can be president one day. It is another thing for an adult that shares the same background as that child to tell him that he can be president one day. It is another thing entirely for an adult to be president in the presence of that child, and allow the child to confirm that, yes, their hair is the same.
Notice the exchange. The words were barely necessary. Jacob wasn’t asking Mr. Obama if he, a black child, could be president one day. He was merely asking if he could confirm what Obama’s mere presence in the room was purporting to show young Jacob Philadelphia: yes, you can be president — here’s proof. You and I are alike.
The entire exchange was one of showing, rather than telling. And what Jacob got from the exchange was a feeling — and one that transcends what even a paragraph’s worth of reassurances ever could. In that moment, surely, Jacob felt that he could, indeed, be president. Someone with the same hair as him was president — right there in front of him.
This difference between showing and telling is present every day in our lives. Our reassurances to others of our intentions, our plans, of who we are — they all have some value. But what we don’t say, and how we look and act when we’re not saying anything at all — that reveals much more than our words ever will.
Knowing and Feeling
The difference between showing and telling corresponds roughly with the difference between knowing and feeling.
When you are told something, you can, over time, come to know it. Knowing is largely an intellectual phenomenon. You can recite that knowledge on command, and you act with some confidence that whoever told you this thing also has a reasonable amount of confidence in it as well.
When you’re shown something, you experience it. You gain all of the ineffable information that you can’t get from a description — from telling. You gain the answers to questions that you never would have thought to ask in a mere discussion about the topic. You feel the things that you don’t even have words to put into questions and answers anyway.
Think of being next to someone as they die. If you’ve ever done that, it can’t be captured by a long description of what it’s like. You may feel something from a description, but not the same thing you feel when you’re there. If this weren’t the case — if telling was a substitute for showing — everyone could fully understand the mental complexities that war veterans face by just reading All Quiet on the Western Front or seeing Saving Private Ryan. But that’s not how it works.
What Jacob Philadelphia felt when he touched President Obama’s hair was something that no amount of telling could ever provide him. That’s because telling doesn’t usually convey feeling — not nearly as robustly as showing.
Why Does This Distinction Matter?
We encounter so many different occasions every day where this distinction is in play. We tell people things every day, and we’re told things every day. But how often do we show things? How often are we shown things?
Feelings last longer than knowledge. Knowledge can be forgotten, overruled, or fade away in importance. Feeling tends to stick. It’s why we remember tear-jerking scenes in movies, and why intimate moments between people are the cornerstones of our memories. It’s why we remember how we felt during a long speech, long after we’ve forgotten most of the content.
The more important we think it is for someone to know something, the more we should consider getting them to feel it. And thus, the more we should consider showing them, rather than merely telling them. Showing is about doing, not just saying. So the question becomes how effectively can you do things other than just talking about what you want someone to know?
Another key difference to note here is that when people merely know something, or just agree with what you tell them, all it’s good for is talking. When someone feels something, there’s usually action to follow. They are moved to act.
We tend to act based on what we feel, rather than what we’re told. Feelings drive us to take action; the verbal rationale follows afterward. It’s something that researches are find again and again.
So, when we interact with others, and we’d like them to at some point act on what we’re trying to convey — we have two choices: tell or show; get them to know, or get them to feel. Show and feel will win out pretty much every time.