Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Meta-Faux Pas: When Do You Say Something?

Last week, I taught the fallacy tu quoque in my critical thinking class. The idea is that just because you do it too doesn't mean that I should disregard your advice not to do it. I reinforce the point by asking the students if any of them have done something REALLY stupid. Of course, every hand goes up. It started me thinking about embarrassing things.

It seems like there are three categories of embarrassing acts. The first is the "oh shit" moment. It's like being in third grade and leaning just a little too far back in your chair and there is that instant when you suddenly realize that no matter how hard you swing your arms in large circles, you are going to tip over backwards. You say something and the very second it comes out of your mouth, you realize that it was entirely inappropriate and wish you could grab the cartoon balloon out of the air.

The second is the "your fly is down" category, the sort of thing that you do and go on embarrassing yourself until someone points it out to you. Of course, in these situations, the right thing to do is to casually hint or whisper to the person that there is a piece of spinach between their front teeth. Indeed, we have a whole vocabulary of euphemisms and little behaviors to indicate these things subtly.

But the category that interests me most is the third one, cases where the person is not only embarrassing himself and unaware of it, but is completely oblivious to the fact that the action is, in fact, embarrassing. The problem is not only the action itself, but at the next level up. It is a failure to understand the context and meaning of the action. It is a meta-faux pas.

Often this happens because someone has a mistakenly inflated image of himself or grossly underestimates the difficulty of some question. When I was adjuncting for a large state university in grad school, there was a bar around the corner from the campus and some of us used to have a beer and shoot some pool occasionally. One day, there was a guy at the table next to us who had struck up a conversation and when he learned I was writing my dissertation on aspects of relativity theory proceeded to tell me that he had disproved Einstein. He was a nice guy, certainly not stupid, but he had graduated high school and never gone to college. It was clear, he didn't really understand the theory, but had constructed an intricately detailed conversation about what the theory of relativity supposedly entailed and where it's logically flaws laid. His conversation was absolutely wrong, start to finish, but he was deeply passionate about it. It no doubt came from some bad pop science books he no doubt read and reread.

What do you do with a meta-faux pas? It is not like you can simply whisper, "the train is leaving the station" and the person will flush as they glance around and quickly zip their fly. The person is obtuse in a way that will take time and probably great effort to dispel. It will cause more than a moment's "oops," but likely will induce some sort of existential crisis because now you are touching what they consider a central part of themselves. Very possibly, they won't accept your correct diagnosis because they have so much invested in their self-image. At the same time, they are embarrassing themselves. Shouldn't you try to help them?

So two questions then. 1) When should you step in with a meta-faux pas? How far does out responsibility go to help people not make fools of themselves? and 2) What's the most embarrassing thing you've ever done?

Here's my story for #2 (not the most embarrassing, but a good story): It was after a Dead show and I was heading home with You Know Who and a car full of other friends and I could not figure out why my lights were dimmer than usual. The car had started ok, so there didn't seem to be a problem with the battery and I wasn't getting a warning light on the dash about the alternator. I got out and checked to see if one of the headlights had burned out, but they were both on, just dim. I was worried because it was a long line of traffic and getting late. After about ten minutes of fretting, I suddenly realized that the lights in the car were fine...it was my own headlights that were a little dim -- I had forgotten to change out of my prescription sunglasses which I put on that afternoon. As a subtly tried to change my glasses, blushing, You Know Who busted me. Man, did I feel like an idiot.

Here's my favorite student story for #2: The kid had gotten a little bored after finishing a drink and took the empty glass, put it up to his mouth and sucked out some of the air. The partially evacuated glass stuck to his face like a suction cup. Thinking this was cool and being really bored, he continued sucking the air out of the glass for quite a while even though it was getting progressively more difficult. After a while, he blew air back in and released the glass, not realizing that the more air he had sucked out, the greater the pressure applied to his face by the glass. He had created such a vacuum that the forced had broken all of the blood vessels immediately beneath the rim of the glass and for about a month, he had to walk around with a bright red perfect circle around his mouth.