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The Tenacity Of Rationalization

The human brain is a marvelous organ, and perhaps the thing it excels at the most is rationalization. Here's an illustration.

I read this post, about a professor so aloof he couldn't engage in small talk with his (suspiciously stereotypical) plumber. The consensus is that this refusal is a form of classisim or elitism, as the professor is effectively saying to the plumber that the plumber is so beneath the professor, his interests so gauche that the professor has gone out of his way to avoid having any common cultural reference points, that the professor can't even show him recognition as a human being rather than a pipe-fixing automoton.

My thought process went something like this:

Well, I probably wouldn't engage in much small talk with a plumber either. But it's not because I'm elitist and I think I'm better than him.

Oh really? Try me.

I don't really make small talk with anyone. It's nothing against the plumber -- I wouldn't make small talk with other academics, either.

The plumber doesn't know, or care, what you do around other academics. The issue is that you've committed an actual slight against him, a slight which, given its context, will function to reinforce class-based elitism. What you do to anyone else is beside the point.

But I'm just not good at that kind of socialization. I'm an introvert -- so where's the sympathy for how these kind of social interaction expectations disadvantage me?

Don't think about pulling that "reverse discrimination" crap. Social interaction is a learned skill -- a skill you can choose to learn, or choose to not learn because you've got something else oh-so-important to spend your time doing. If anything, being able to be introverted (not to be confused with withdrawing as a self-defense mechanism) is a privilege, not a source of disadvantage.

OK, so I won't make this all about me and my needs. But when I try to put myself in his shoes, I think that if I was a plumber, I'd want to be left alone to do my job in peace. After all, back when I was stocking shelves in the grocery store, I hated it when people tried to make small talk with me.

You say it's not going to be all about you, and yet it still is. For starters, what you would want in his position has exactly nothing to do with anything. What matters is what he wants in his position. Then there's your wank-tastic example of being a shelf stocker back in college, as if that means you're down with the hoi polloi. Take a second to think about why you hated people talking to you so much. It's not just some innocent aspect of human diversity. It's probably because you were (consciously or unconsciously) embarassed about working such a menial job.

And if I'm honest with myself, at the end of all this, if I had to have a plumber over tomorrow, I'd still end up going in the other room while he worked. And I can't be entirely sure that my italicized anti-rationalization voice isn't just rationalizing my elitism in a different, sneakier way.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would temper this with being male too. If you were female and had polite small talk with the plumber, it could be construed as flirting.

8:15 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Social interaction is a learned skill -- a skill you can choose to learn, or choose to not learn because you've got something else oh-so-important to spend your time doing

I'd say your italizcised voice falls down right there. Social interaction is a learned skill to some extent, but the voice disregards the importance of natural aptitude. For someone with very low natural aptitude for social interaction, who doesn't get pleasure from social interaction, the cost-benefit ratio is such that spending the time learning things they're good at, enjoy, and find more useful, is the rational choice.

Also: maybe the plumber does want to engagew is small talk, but maybe he *does* want to be left alone to do his job. You're not psychic. If he wants to talk, he can initiate it; otherwise, the assumption he'd rather be left alone is a good one.

(I also note that many of the commentators in that post suggested talking to the plumber *about his work*, which is, by my standards, not "small talk" at all! It's serious intellectual engagement! )

11:13 AM  
Blogger Alon Levy said...

If introversion is a privilege, everything is. People in sales and marketing need to be able to be extroverted. Similarly, cashiers need to be able to do arithmetic quickly, waiters and other servers need to be fluent in the local language (more than one, in many touristy areas) and have good memory, and menial laborers need physical strength and good hand-eye coordination.

One can imagine the anti-rationalization voice say that introversion is a privilege; one can't imagine it say that clumsiness, not knowing math, and not knowing the local language well are privileges.

11:23 AM  
Blogger Stentor said...

Anonymous: For some things, aptitude is not an excuse. I don't have much aptitude for mental math, but that doesn't mean I can go around under-tipping waitstaff. If I have low aptitude for something but also a moral duty to do it, I have to suck it up and work harder rather than penalizing others for my genes.

Alon: I think your reductio is actually potentially a sound argument. Certain jobs require certain skills, and if your job options are limited, you can't just say "oh, I'm not very good at that, so I'll just go find a different job."

12:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If you have bad mental math skills, there are wallet-carry cards that list 15% of fifty-cent increments. There's no substitute for skillful social interaction, and for some people, the celing of what they could achieve with concentrated effort and training isn't high enough to pass for 'normal' on a crowded bus.

However, I'd say this is irrelevant. There is no such thing as a moral duty to socialize or engage in small talk. If you can talk to a plumber without using classist insults, and refrain from actively interfering with his work, you've furfilled your moral duty.

1:43 PM  

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