Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Dorkiness Equation -- PartII

Read part I first.

I understand if at this point you are in awe of me. If you have trouble believing anyone could be this insightful. And that’s fine. That’s natural at such life changing moments. But, really, I cannot take full credit. I happened to witness an event early in my professional career that gave me a vital clue to the puzzle. Without it I would not have figured this out. I had help. In fact, it was more or less spelled out for me.

Here’s what happened:

I was doing an internship at a large corporation. My first involvement with the corporate world. With the ‘nine-to-five grind’. With the ‘picking each other up for lunch and suffering each other’s company in the cafeteria’ kind of deal. The lunches were mostly boring, because the only thing everyone at the table had in common was their jobs. But one day something strange happened. Something that fascinated me. A scientist-type sitting diagonally across from me decided to fill his glass from a jug of water. He did this by holding his glass over his plate and heaving the jug above it. On that particular day, he managed to spill a great deal of water over his plate before realizing what he was doing. And I do mean a great deal of water. His potatoes were basically floating. I watched him do this in awe, and then I watched him silently put the jug back and continue his meal.

What happened next taught me much more about my colleagues than the whole week of working with them had. Because what happened next was: nothing.

Not a single thing. Although I couldn’t possibly be the only one who witnessed this incredible display of dorkiness, not a single person at that table gave any sign they’d noticed. They were embarrassed enough for the guy to pretend nothing had happened. And the reaction of the victim himself told me this was unlikely to be the first time he’d done this.

If it had been me, I’d have slapped my forehead and grumbled profanities, followed by something like, ‘I can’t believe I just did that!’ Then I’d follow it up by joining in with my colleagues as they fired off the mandatory jokes, after which I’d inspect the damage to my meal very carefully. I would do this to assess whether there was any way I could finish my lunch without having to walk back to get another one (choose the lazy solution whenever possible, you’ll live longer). I might indeed continue my meal, true, but not before very serious deliberation!

That day I understood, at least on some level, that I’d witnessed something of monumental importance, even though it would take me years to figure out exactly what that was.

Thinking back, another vital clue was the fact that I didn’t for an instance feel like sniggering. Without ever having spoken to the guy, his general demeanor had already informed my subconscious that he was indeed a dork, and so my initial reaction was one of sincere pity and compassion.

Which wasn’t very nice of me. I realize this now. And so, if by some strange coincidence I ever run into this guy again, I will apologize for joining in with the rude behavior of my colleagues, and then I’ll finally do the decent thing and laugh at him.

I'm really interested in hearing about similar experiences you may have had. Please abuse the comment section below to chronicle your ideas and happenings.

Graham Parke is responsible for a number of technical publications and has recently patented a self-folding map. He has been described as both a humanitarian and a pathological liar. Convincing evidence to support either allegation has yet to be produced.

No Hope for Gomez! is his fiction debut:

Boy meets girl.
Boy stalks girl.
Girl already has a stalker.
Boy becomes her stalker-stalker.

Friday, April 15, 2011

The Dorkiness Equation.

I’ve finally figured out why we laugh at someone when they do something dorky. When they almost trip, when they stub their toe, when they stack a number of paper cups, only to find that the bottom cup wasn’t quite empty.

For years I assumed it was some kind of mean streak we have tucked away deep inside our subconscious. We might think we’re nice people, ready to lend a helping hand, ready with words of kindness and encouragement, but, as soon as our neighbor puts that hammer down on his thumb, we can’t help but snigger. Obviously there’s a real bastard inside us. What’s the harm, he thinks. There’s no way to help in time, so I might as well enjoy the pain of others.

But that would be the easy answer. And it’s one that simply doesn’t feel right. We snigger, yes, but do we actually feel happy? Do we actually think; thank goodness John finally stubbed his toe, that friendly, helpful bastard had it coming! Serves him right for all those times he helped me paint my garage! I don’t think so. Barring a few errant cases where we actually do hate someone, I’d say this isn’t what’s happening.

So I’ve wondered about this for years (I have done other things in between, I assure you, but the thought kept coming back to me.)

One of my later theories was that it’s a snigger of relief rather than joy. The idea being that a certain amount of dorkiness is inevitably going to be displayed on any given day. The best you can hope for is that your involvement will be minimal. Years of walking the tightrope of possible ridicule at high school has taught us how damaging the smallest slip-up can be to our social status. So, whenever we see someone do something dorky, we immediately let out a chuckle of relief; thank goodness that wasn’t me! We might think something along the lines of: I’m not happy about what just happened to you, but, on the upside, consider this; at least I wasn’t involved!

But that’s not it either. The real reason we can’t help but snigger when someone does something stupid or painful, is that we actually want to make them feel better. We want to ease their pain, and we do this by paying them a compliment. That may sound strange, but it’s true. By sniggering we’re sending a very clear signal:

“I can’t believe you just did something THAT stupid!”

And, when you think about it, that’s the kindest thing to do. Much kinder than the alternative signal. The signal we’d send if we did absolutely nothing. If we made no sound at all and pretended we didn’t even see the dorkiness going down. Because the alternative signal is:

“I fully expected you to do something THAT dorky, and I’m so embarrassed for you that I’m going to pretend I was looking the other way.”

When your friend slams the car door on his thumb and your initial reaction is one of pity, then you think he is a dork. When your initial reaction is to laugh at him, then you think he’s basically a cool guy who just did something dorky.

See the difference?

Which signal would you rather get?

Don’t get me wrong, it’s fine to be concerned and helpful a mere microsecond later, but in that initial, no-thought-only-action moment, you’d better laugh your ass off. You’d better snigger away or your relationship will be damaged forever!

To be continued....