Thursday, July 31, 2014

"What Are You, Crazy?"

To grimace at someone after they've said something silly - and ask them whether they've lost their mind - is a demonstration of respect. It shows you normally expect them to say sane, smart things, and it invites them to clarify or re-think. We only react like this to people we highly esteem.

If, on the contrary, someone says something batshit crazy and you respond by smiling blandly and nodding your head in feigned agreement - never flinching or questioning - this means you hadn't expected any better. This is how one reacts to known crazy, beyond-the-pale people.

Yet these two reactions are interpreted backwards. These days, patronization feels like gentleness, while respectful challenge feels like disdain. This is a new thing.

Up until a couple decades ago, it was common to tell people you respected that they were being idiotic. But since then, corporate modes of communication have came to prevail even in private social dealings, and that style of communication is entirely about never, ever chancing even the slightest offense. So patronization has became the default reaction. There was a time when patronization was the worst thing one could do. Now, honest challenge is the worst thing, while well-concealed patronization strikes people as soothing.

As challenge grew rarer and rarer (and people perfected their poker faces - i.e. patronized much more professionally), a vicious circle was created. Less challenge, over all, makes any errant challenge sting that much more. Challenge has thus grown rarer and rarer, to the point where people only dare contradict each other with the blandly passive-aggressive jujitsu of an HR exec.

It's now offensive to let a smart, sane person know they've coughed up a conversational hairball. We've learned to smile blandly and nod; to patronize even those we respect. There's less offense, but also less respect - the institutionalization of patronization makes people feel more silently superior than ever. Also: way more stupid and crazy stuff is being said, because we've lost the vital gauge of peer feedback. Finally, this change makes people absolutely hate family events (comedians make way more Thanksgiving dinner jokes than they used to), because more naturalistic interplay feels like a shooting gallery - whereas, in decades past, it just felt normal because society itself was more naturalistic (and less corporate).

The other day I walked out of a public rest room with a bit of toilet paper stuck to my shoe. My small group of friends said nothing, but their embarrassment was palpable. I proceeded to check myself - wiping my nose with my napkin, glancing down at my fly, etc.. It was unnerving. Finally, at long last, one of them leaned in towards me, and in the most gentle, honeyed, truckloads-of-sugar-making-the-medicine-go-down tones, apologetically clued me in, letting me down very very very very gently.

If they'd just pointed at me and laughed, I'd have felt like a regular guy who just happened to get toilet paper on my shoe. But this uber-gentle coddling made me feel like my toilet paper problem is, like, congenital or something! When people let you down gently, doesn't that mean something grievous just happened?

Here's something similar.

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