Today on The Writer’s Almanac, Garrison Keillor reads a poem called In the Coffee Shop by Carl Dennis. I see the poem as highlighting our inability or unwillingness to appreciate the motives of others. An excerpt:
The big smile the waitress gives you
May be a true expression of her opinion
Or may be her way to atone for glowering
A moment ago at a customer who slurped his coffee
Just the way her cynical second husband slurped his.
Think of the meager tip you left the taxi driver
After the trip from the airport, how it didn’t express
Your judgment about his service but about the snow
That left you feeling the earth a tundra
Only the frugal few could hope to cross.
One might see the actions described above as a sort of correspondence bias. As Eliezer Yudkowsky puts it:
We tend to see far too direct a correspondence between others’ actions and personalities. When we see someone else kick a vending machine for no visible reason, we assume they are “an angry person”. But when you yourself kick the vending machine, it’s because the bus was late, the train was early, your report is overdue, and now the damned vending machine has eaten your lunch money for the second day in a row. Surely, you think to yourself, anyone would kick the vending machine, in that situation.
We attribute our own actions to our situations, seeing our behaviors as perfectly normal responses to experience. But when someone else kicks a vending machine, we don’t see their past history trailing behind them in the air. We just see the kick, for no reason we know about, and we think this must be a naturally angry person – since they lashed out without any provocation.
Expats must grapple with an exaggerated version of this tendency often. When living in a foreign land, great is the temptation to attribute the (bad) actions of indigenous others to some national disposition: That icy Mädel spurned my advances last night at the club–what typical German brusqueness!
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Last night I had a dream.
I was in a church, and behind where I was sitting was a plaque inscribed in German. I tried to read it, but I didn’t recognize one of the words. My former boss from Germany was sitting next to me, so I asked him about it. He explained that there were actually two words. One of the words was an abbreviation (“und” was written as “u.“). The tight spacing had fooled me into thinking it was part of the next word. With that clarification, everything made sense. I woke up.
- How could I “be fooled” or “figure something out” if all of this took place in my head?
- Didn’t Batman: The Animated Series teach me as a child the impossibility of dream reading?
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A phenomenon “raging like wildfire” throughout social networks is nothing more blasé than a chain letter. In the current iteration, folks are asked to write a note listing 25 things about themselves and then tag the note with 25 friends. These friends are then to write up their own list of 25 things, tag another 25 friends, and on it goes in perpetuity. I’m not sure what the point is, but I think Bernie Madoff somehow made billions off of it.
Armchair economics theorizing might tell us that the type of people who engages in this activity is either those who derive a relatively large satisfaction from the activity and/or those who incur a relatively small opportunity cost by engaging in the activity. This would lead us to postulate that those chain latter devotees whom we’ve all gotten to know a teensy bit better in the past few days are likely to be either relatively self-involved or are leading relatively dull lives. They may even have both bits going for them. Thus, we arrive at an unfortunate equilibrium where those who are most likely to participate in chain letters are the least likely to have anything worth writing about.
Then, if the armchair is comfy and time is rife, we might theorize about the type of person who does economic analyses of those who participate in chain letters. Unfortunately time is not rife, however, as packing must be done for Pennsylvania. Nonetheless it’s probably safe to conclude that that type of person would be a pretty righteous dude.
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Two days ago, as I made the ten minute walk from work to my car, a man, evidently of modest means, crossed over from the other side of the street to just a few paces ahead of me. No sooner had his well-worn shoes hit the sidewalk than he stooped suddenly and plucked a dollar bill from the concrete. His pause allowed me to catch up to him, and I congratulated him on his lucky day and chuckled at his beaming countenance as I passed him by.
A nanosecond later, it dawned on me that his gain had been my loss, and fortune’s grim way quickly dissipated my good cheer. But for this man’s crossing the street, that dollar would have been mine! What’s more, the man had jaywalked when he crossed the street, meaning his windfall had been illicitly acquired. Based upon my reading of the philosophy literature, I’m pretty sure it would have been ethically sound for me to have punched the scoundrel in the face and liberated my dollar from his pocket.
Pondering this, I was turning the corner into the parking lot when my iPod’s earbud wires became entangled in a low hanging branch, immobilizing me. Just then, a small man brandishing a bar dart leapt from nearby bushes. He poked me a half-dozen times, all the while yelling:
“Joab jabs you! Joab jabs you!”
Sensing that feigning death was my only recourse to further cutaneous cutting, I went limp and allowed the fellow to extricate my slumped form from its ensnarement. Summoning a strength belied by his tiny stature, he dragged me to a nearby construction site, placed a few loose bricks atop my body, and disappeared into the dusk without a word.
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