Thursday, January 14, 2016

The Can't-Fail In-Restaurant Test of Character

Two postings ago, I offered a simple test to winnow useless blood-suckers from potentially productive people. Here's another test, a particular favorite of mine.

All those anthropomorphic comics (Garfield, The Far Side, etc) never struck me as particularly witty with their juxtapositions of human and animal behaviors. I never considered human beings exalted from the animal kingdom in the first place. Cognition's a neat trick, but like everyone with a special skill, we assume it's the end-all/be-all (folks who lack one's special skill always seem like muggles - Harry Potter-speak for the ugly Yiddishism "goyim").

If you want to see the truth, talk to people when their food comes.

Briefly continue your conversation after the steaming plates have been set down, and watch your companion's stress build, eyes darting back and forth between you and their dish, cold brow sweat forming and every muscle trembling from just barely subdued animal instincts. You'll find that instinct nearly always wins. Within three seconds, most people will rudely cease listening to you, and dive into their food. One cannot possibly hope to distract a poodle while kibble flows into her bowl. see if a person has self-control, just take them to dinner, seating them with their backs to the kitchen. When you spot the waiter approaching with food, launch a bright, eager new line of discussion, and see if they can last ten seconds after the plates land.

Those who pass the test will usually vibrate with stress yet manage to continue the conversation. They've demonstrated character (which I define as the rate at which one discards one's values as stakes rise). They spend their lives struggling against impulse, but at least they make that valiant effort. I think of such people as poodle-plus, and they're usually very good people...perhaps the very best.

But a few can entirely unhook from instinct. Possessing perspective, the rarest of uniquely human qualities, they may experience the same drama, instinctual compulsion, and hormonal juju as anyone else, but they don't let such factors drive their behavior. They'll notice their plate, feel a faint impulse, take a small breath, and easily continue the conversation, perfectly relaxed and twitch-less. The food's arrival registered, but it doesn't keep mentally re-registering. They're able to easily let it go to voicemail.

The pitfall with that last elite group is heart. Detached people sometimes detach all the way. If you find yourself hanging by your fingers over a cliff, a 100% detached person may not be your best possible companion! It's rarest of all to find someone detached from drama and instinct - who rises above the petty yadda yadda - yet retains empathy and compassion. The sad truth is that such people often still seem cold, because they're not compelled to externally signify their caring (a compulsion which stems from vanity and neediness).

The most caring among us may strike us as aloof. This is the predicament which gives rise to the cliche of the curmudgeon/hermit/misfit who turns out to have "a heart of gold". In truth, they pretty much all do.


moonjuneswoon said...

I feel that those with manners do understand that it's rude to allow another's food to get cold while one filibusters. I'd be happy to let you talk but briefly interrupt you to point out the food in front of use and let you know that if my food got cold because of you that you were paying for it.

Jim Leff said...

Food won't go cold in the 2 or 3 seconds most people will give you before reflexively diving in. Nor will it go cold in the 10 seconds (or less) required to notice someone NOT doing that.

I never suggested a filibuster. Nothing useful is learned after ten seconds. Either they'll scramble rudely and instinctively for their dish like an animal, or they'll very quickly demonstrate their ability retain their humanity in the face of this extremely minor adversity. You'll know the answer, either way, in just a few seconds.

And I think you'll find that it doesn't matter who's paying. People unable to manage their lower selves aren't using higher cognition to draw distinctions.

Jim Leff said...

I edited the posting to be sure no one else is confused about this.

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