Is it skepticism or cynicism? How a radio ad helped me figure it out.

Do you know the difference between being skeptical and being cynical?

How would you put it into words?

Go ahead, I’ll wait.

Not bad, not bad.

As for me, while I’ve implicitly understood the difference in my own mind, I’m not sure I would’ve had a good way to explain it to someone else. Hearing a radio ad yesterday helped clarify it for me.

First off, I’ll say that I’ve been called a cynic a lot in my life. Back in the day, that was probably true more often than not. But these days I work hard to try to be a more positive person. I tell myself it’s OK to be skeptical, just don’t be cynical. But what does that mean?

Yesterday, I was listening to a Houston Astros baseball game on the internets radio, as it will be my wont to do almost daily from now through September (and, God willing, maybe even into October).

In between innings, I heard an ad* for a Houston jewelry story, narrated by a sultry-voiced female announcer.

This announcer talked about how meaningful it would be for our ladies if we, the male listeners, bought them diamond engagement rings. As she bullet-pointed the arguments to counter our mental objections to this sudden idea of our spending a shit-ton of money we don’t have to buy diamond jewelry we know nothing about, she emphasized a final point: a “lifetime diamond quality guarantee.”

I immediately thought, “Oh, yeah, right, like someone is going to give his fianceé a diamond engagement ring and someday she’s going to return it because it doesn’t sparkle enough. That’s going to happen!”

And I thought, “That’s skepticism.”

And then I questioned, “Or is it cynicism?”

Which is it?

It’s skepticism. Skepticism is the questioning of received wisdom. Skepticism says, “This may be a good place for me to buy a diamond ring, but is the ‘lifetime diamond quality guarantee’ likely to ever be meaningful to me? Probably not. So as I evaluate whether I want to do business with this jeweler or not, I should not give the guarantee much weight.”

(By the way, as a native Missourian, skepticism is my birthright. Missouri is the “Show Me” state, and “show me” is nothing if not the skeptic’s mantra. That’s why, to my horror, every once in a while I will actually hear the words, “Well, I’m from Missouri, so you’re going to have to show me,” come out of my own mouth. Who am I, my mother?)

So when does skepticism cross the line into cynicism?

Where skeptics question the truth, cynics assume bad faith. Cynics believe that all human behavior is a zero-sum game. A cynic says, “if you want me to do X, it must be because it will be good for you and bad for me.”

Again, my skeptical response to the radio ad was, “Oh, yeah, right, like someone is going to give his fianceé a diamond engagement ring and someday she’s going to return it because it doesn’t sparkle enough. That’s going to happen!”

If I were a true cynic, I would also tack on, “Because the people who run that jewelry store are lying scumbags who are only trying to rip me and everyone else off.”

When it comes to the store in question, I don’t assume that cynical take is true. I’m pretty sure the reason they mentioned their “lifetime diamond quality guarantee” is because they know how hard it is to get radio listeners to consider buying from them versus all of their competitors, much less versus simply doing nothing. They don’t expect the guarantee to move me to buy a diamond ring from them. But they do hope that maybe it will make me a little more likely to step into their store if and when I ever want to shop for a diamond ring.

A skeptic asks, “Is this information true? And even if it is true, is it meaningful for me?”

A cynic says, “That’s definitely a bunch of bullshit, because all people are totally rotten all of the time.”

*I have never done a blog post about the dehumanizing, mind deteriorating poor quality and unremitting repetitiveness of the advertisements that run on the Houston Astros Radio Network (HARN). But with enough therapy, some day I will. For now I’ll just mention that the first couple of games this season, the MLB internet feed of the HARN broadcast was muting out the ads between innings. Silently, I prayed to God—that guy whom I only seem to believe in when I want something—asking that this practice be maintained all season long. What a huge quality of life enhancer it would have been! But, skeptic that I am, I questioned whether it would last.

However, because I am not generally a cynic, I did not assume, “It won’t last, because everything about baseball sucks.”

Now that the ads—God bless ‘em—are back, I’m assuming that they’ll stay there, but not cynically. As I cringe to hear Adam and Diego from the Citgo Fueling Good Road Team in the same ad for the 3rd season in a row, for the 9989th time, I believe it’s possible that whoever was cutting out the commercials in the first few games might start doing it again. I really, really hope so. But, yes, I am skeptical.