Tarly and the Pilot
Sometimes you have to share news with people close to you. Sometimes it’s best to tell the truth. Sometimes it’s best to lie. Honesty is not always the best policy.
Whoever said, “Never tell a lie,” was a callous bastard. But when should you tell the truth and when should you lie? How do you decide whether the truth or a lie is better? Two simple rules can help.
The Pilot’s Rule applies when the person’s well-being or survival depends upon knowing the most accurate information possible. This rule applies to people who need to use your information as part of the factual model of their situation. The pilot’s rule applies when the hearer needs a rational response. It applies when the hearer’s fate is in their own hands.
The movie The Right Stuff (1983), directed by Philip Kaufman, dramatizes the lives and flights of the Mercury Astronauts at the outset of the space program. During John Glenn’s flight, a warning light starts flashing on a panel at Mission Control. The light indicates that the heat shield on Glenn’s capsule might be loose. Nobody is sure what to do or even whether to tell Glenn (played by Ed Harris) about the potential problem. Alan Shepherd (Scott Glenn), who served as CapCom (capsule communicator) for this particular flight, asks the mission control boss (John P Ryan) how much longer they intend to keep Glenn in the dark about his potentially loose heat shield.
They’re not sure that the telemetry is reliable, and maybe if they leave the retro rockets strapped on behind the heat shield, he will be saved. But there’s a chance that Glenn and the capsule will burn up on reentry.
The boss reveals that he isn’t a pilot, that he doesn’t have “the right stuff,” when he asks Shepherd, “What will you tell him?”
Shepherd replies, “He’s a pilot. You tell him the condition of his craft.” That is the pilot’s rule: you tell him the truth.
It turned out that Glenn’s heat shield wasn’t loose, but this could not be known until Friendship 7, the space capsule in which he flew, had reentered the earth’s atmosphere and been recovered.
The pilot knowing the condition of his craft can mean the difference between crash and burn or a ticker-tape parade, like those given John Glenn and also Charles Lindbergh when he was the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic.
Tarly’s rule is named for Samwell Tarly of HBO’s popular television show, Game of Thrones. Tarly’s rule calls for providing an answer that is emotionally supportive to the hearer.
When there is no way of knowing what is going to happen, and there is nothing people can do, sometimes the best thing to hear is, “Everything is going to be all right” even though the real outcome is unknowable.
Tarly’s rule applies when the hearer needs emotional support more than information. It applies when the hearer’s fate is not in their own hands.
Here is an example from Game of Thrones 4.9, “The Watchers on the Wall.” You might recall that in this episode the Wildlings attack Castle Black. Samwell Tarly hides Gilly and her baby in a larder where they will be safe during the imminent fight.
Gilly presses him first to stay with her, but when he cannot do that, she insists that he not die and that he return to her when the battle is over. She does not need to hear the hard truth that Samwell Tarly has no idea whether he will live or die in the coming battle. She needs the soothing comfort of Samwell’s promise that he’ll come back to her.
Sometimes the uncertain promises I make according to Tarly’s rule actually work out. There is no guarantee. And sometimes when the promises go badly, we’re not around to realize it anyway. But in hard times, sustaining the human spirit with hope can be more valuable than the most precious truth. That certainly turns out to be the case for Sam and Gilly.
If you live with someone close to you and they ask, “How do I look?” Most people are going to apply Tarly’s Rule unless the outcome of the outfit of the day would be disastrous, in which case they’ll usually apply the Pilot’s Rule.
Back in college a classmate and I would chat and smoke cigarettes on the Classics Department’s porch before Latin. The ornate building had lots of ledges for pigeons, and one day my friend got bombed by a big fat pigeon turd that landed just above her hairline. I should of course have invoked the Pilot’s Rule immediately, but I got bashful at the worst possible time. I really knew her well enough to tell her this difficult but important truth. A few seconds later she asked, “Did a pigeon just shit on me?” I said yes, and she dashed into the building and never spoke to me again.
So Tarly’s and Pilot’s rules apply not only in times of war and spaceflight, but also in quotidian moments in day-to-day life, and that is why you need to know them.
Mason West alternately lies and tells the truth in Austin, Texas. There is a video version of this idea.