A view of the world from my own unique perspective

Archive for the ‘Society’ Category

Do You Think Life is Unfair? Blame The Matthew Effect!

If you’ve ever spent time looking after young children, then you know that they seem to have an innate sense of fairness. If they are playing in a group, then it’s only a matter of time before someone shouts “Hey – that’s not fair!“. As we grow older, and despite our collective efforts at creating a kind, just and egalitarian society, we are still falling short of our goal. So what’s happening?

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Fairness vs. Equality

First, let’s compare fairness with equality. They are not the same thing, and one should not be confused with the other.

Occupy Wall Street

The fall of 2011 saw the emergence of the Occupy Movement, characterized by protests in major cities across North America and around the world. Hundreds of protesters in their 20s were marching against social and economic inequality. The message I gleaned from this movement was that the marchers were bitter because people in their 50s and 60s – who have spent 30+ years working full-time and saving prudently – have more money than they do, and are generally living more comfortably. For some inexplicable reason, they feel that they – fresh out of university (or even high school) – should be doing as well financially as someone who has been in the workforce for two or three decades. There is certainly a financial disparity between these two generations of workers, but it’s not unfair.

As a personal example, I attended a local university, and used public transit to get to class, as did many of my fellow students (who weren’t living in residence). There were some who were able to borrow their parents’ car from time to time, but there were also a few who had their own car. How could an 18-year-old afford a car? Most of us had only a part-time, retail job that paid minimum wage, and whatever e earned went toward tuition. As you’ve already guessed by now, they had rich parents who bought them their own car so that they wouldn’t have to take the bus to university.

There will always be inequality in just about every aspect of your life. In fact, this inequality, manifested as the material rewards for years of hard work, can even be motivational… but that’s a topic for another blog post.

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The Motivational Myth of the Meritocracy

Luck Quote

Growing up, particularly in the age of social media, we are inundated promises of a meritocracy – a society where power is held by individuals who possess talent and a strong work ethic, and one in which gender, race and wealth are unimportant. Advancement in a meritocracy is based on continual effort and hard work, rather than business connections or family ties. Naturally, this appeals to everyone; unfettered upward mobility is one of the tenets of the American Dream. However, as we grow into adulthood, we begin to see an increasing number of examples that suggest that this is not always the case.

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The Matthew Effect

To turn $100 into $110 is work. To turn $100 million into $110 million is inevitable.” – Edgar Bronfman Sr.

The term The Matthew Effect was coined in 1968 by a sociologist named Robert K. Merton. It originates from the Bible, in Matthew 25:29 “For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” (English Standard Version).

Merton originally connected it to academic work, arguing that well-known researchers will often receive more credit for their work than lesser-known ones. If a prize is awarded, it will go to the most eminent scientist on a team, even if the bulk of the work was done by others. However, The Matthew Effect extends far beyond academia.

Admittedly, the argument that “those who have will receive even more” does, at first, seem counter-intuitive. Most of us donate to one or more charities, and our money goes to those who need it most. We would never donate to people who are extremely well-off. Or would we? In practice, though, that’s exactly what we do, and to some extent, that’s how our society is structured.

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Societal Structure

Take a look around you, and you’ll see many examples of how society reinforces The Matthew Effect, and ensures that those who already have, continue to receive more, while ensuring that those who don’t are punished.

Payday Loan Companies: If your financial circumstances prevent you from opening a bank account, or if your credit score prevents you from qualifying for a loan, you may be forced to use the services of a payday loan company. They provide short-term loans to people living paycheque-to-paycheque, but they also charge exorbitant interest rates. TV commentator John Oliver broadcast a segment on payday loan companies and how they take advantage of those who can least afford it.

Minimum Balance Service Charges: Banks are notorious for this. If you open an account and deposit a modest amount of money, then you’ll have to pay a monthly service fee. However, if you reach a certain minimum balance, then that fee is usually waived.

Bank Service Fees

Here is a typical example. I’ve pixellated the information that identifies this bank, but it doesn’t really matter – most banks will waive service charges and monthly fees if your balance is high enough.

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GIC Rates v2a

GIC Rates: It’s no secret that the more money you deposit, the more interest you will earn. People who can afford to buy a $1 million GIC will earn an annual rate of 1.35% instead of 0.90%, which is a 50% greater return.

The Oscar Swag Bag: Actors and actresses who are nominated for an Academy Award receive a bag of goodies worth (as of 2018) $100,000. These people are all millionaires; an Academy Award alone (or even just a nomination) will increase their future earning power substantially. They, of all people, don’t need an additional $100,000 in gifts.

Deceptive Dollar Stores: You wouldn’t think that dollar stores would be a poor value for poor people, but according to this article, they are. The author did some comparative shopping and found that many dollar store items cost more (by quantity) than regular store items, which in turn cost more than bulk purchases at Costco. If you can afford an Costco’s $60 annual membership, then you will be rewarded with lower prices, which, depending on your shopping habits, will usually more than make up for the fee.

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We Promote This Voluntarily

I saw the first example of The Matthew Effect in one of my sociology classes, during a unit on social stratification. Our professor recounted a social experiment in which two men in a large city asked strangers on the street for bus fare, so that they could get home. One was wearing a suit and tie, and the other was dressed more casually. To no one’s surprise, the well-dressed man collected almost twice as much money as the other man, during the same amount of time. One stranger offered gave the well-dressed man some extra change so that he might buy a newspaper to read on the bus.

Bus Fare Experiment

More recently, in Sweden, a similar social experiment was conducted. A man tried to board a public bus, told the driver that he had forgotten his wallet, and asked if he could be allowed to ride for free. He first wore a tuxedo, and tried again while wearing shabby clothes. While he was dressed in a tuxedo, he was always allowed to ride for free; while wearing the shabby clothes, he was turned down by the bus driver each time.

The Matthew Effect also applies to respect. A while ago, I read an article on a similar subject, and the writer quoted someone who had an intuitive grasp of this concept. “When you go out wearing a T-shirt, people call you ‘buddy’; when you wear a (collared) polo shirt, people call you ‘sir’.

The Toronto Blue Jays’ José Bautista earned US$18 million in 2017. However, in this article, he brags that he hasn’t paid for food since his famous 2015 post-season bat flip. Whenever he goes to a restaurant, people always offer to pay for his meal. Why are we buying food for a man who earns $1.5 million each month?

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The Chasm Widens

This is why the rich are getting richer and and the poor are getting poorer. It’s a part of our society, but it’s also our complicit behaviour that is widening the chasm. Sadly, the egalitarian society we envisioned while we were growing up is still a distant blip on the horizon.

Ball On Hill

I like to visualize The Matthew Effect like this: you are a ball placed on a hill. The x-axis represents your wealth, or perceived wealth. If you can position yourself past the crest of that hill, then you will continue to be propelled forward with increasing speed. However, if you can’t make it that far, then society will push you in the opposite direction, and keep you down. However, before you abandon all hope, Coleman Cox’s vision of a meritocracy is built in to this model: the harder you work, the more luck you will have. Make sure that you work diligently enough to move yourself past that centre point. Once you can accomplish this, then people everywhere (without even realizing why) will go out of their way to make your life a little more pleasant.

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The Porch

One of the longstanding criticisms of social media is that there seems to be a dearth of critical thinking, both in the posts and and in the comments. I agree, and after wasting many hours browsing my Facebook news feed, I now understand why.

At the risk of sounding polarizing, I’ve noticed that most posts fall into one of two categories: they either appeal to our intellect, or to our emotions. Unfortunately, it’s not a 50/50 split – the vast majority of what I see is designed to elicit an emotional response, rather than convey information. Whether it’s tugging at our heartstrings, appealing to our nurturing instincts, or evoking a sense of nostalgia, when we are emotionally engaged, our critical thinking skills seem to fade away.

Here is a recent post from my Facebook news feed:

Front Porch

This is a lovely photo, with a heartfelt sentiment. For those of us of a certain age, it’s obvious that this photo takes a direct aim at our collective sense of nostalgia. In a society where everyone is staring incessantly at their phone, and few of us even know the names of our neighbours, who wouldn’t long for a return to a simpler time, free of these modern, inward-looking distractions? Neighbours walking down the street would see you sitting on your porch, and then stop by to chat, while you offer them a glass of lemonade. This is also a magnificent porch, large enough for a family and a few neighbours, in a serene, pastoral setting. This photo, to me, symbolizes Norman Rockwell’s America – a happier, stress-free time, when people understood the importance of forging relationships. However, before you are tempted to like or share this photo, let’s examine it with a critical eye.

First, let’s look at the obvious errors in the description. This isn’t a front porch, it’s a backyard porch. A front porch would have a walkway adjacent to it. In order to see your neighbours, it should be also visible from the road. This porch looks like it’s in someone’s backyard. Personally, I wouldn’t recommend walking onto someone’s property and suddenly appearing unannounced at their back porch… in fact, in some states, this might even get you shot!

Next, let’s examine the statement itself, which employs a Field Of Dreams sentiment “If you build it, they will come“. It’s a lovely intention, but building more porches will not change society. In fact, a little research will uncover the events that led to changes in residential architecture and the disappearance of porches.

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The Gradual Disappearance of the Front Porch

Cars: According to Renee Kahn, author of the book Preserving Porches, cars are to blame for the demise of front porches “The front porch was no longer an idyllic setting where one could relax and commune with nature” for the “exhaust fumes and the noise of a steady stream of cars and trucks had rendered it inhospitable and unhealthy.

Air Conditioning: Danielle Keperling, in an article entitled Historic Porches: Their Evolution, History and Significance, suggests that the air conditioner was a catalyst of their decline, especially in the southern states, since one no longer needed to go outdoors in order to stay cool on a sweltering day.

Vintage Radio

Radio: The front porch used to be the focal point of the evening’s entertainment for many families. After the radio became commonplace, family members could entertain themselves indoors, listening to a wide variety of radio programmes.

Vintage Television-720

Television: The increasing popularity of television sealed the demise of the front porch, by shifting the entertainment indoors. According to the book Swinging in Place: Porch Life in Southern Culture, Americans watch about 1,000 hours of television each year, and combined with air conditioning, the family’s evening entertainment is now firmly entrenched in the living room.

These technologies eventually influenced the architecture. After the entertainment moved indoors, people no longer needed a a house with a front porch, and fewer home builders were including them. Technology not only moved the family indoors, but also changed the way we interact from person-person to person-machine. House designs were merely a response to this technological and social change.

Home Theatre-720

Even if we could resurrect the front porch, it won’t change anything. In addition to television and radio, we now have DVDs, home theatres, video games and computers to keep us indoors and interacting with machines instead of people. During the past two generations, our neighbourhood networking has also deteriorated to the point where many of us aren’t well-acquainted (or in some cases, don’t even know) the people on our street, or even our our next-door neighbours. This makes serendipitous foot traffic highly unlikely.

The porch photo is still a lovely sentiment, but it’s just not going to happen. Technology has changed moved our entertainment indoors, changed the way we interact with our neighbours and ultimately, influenced house design. Unless we can rid ourselves of these distractions and spend more time interacting with people face-to-face, then the front porch will remain a wistful memory.

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The Coward of Broward? I’m Not Convinced.

As we are all acutely and painfully aware, on February 14, 2018, Nikolas Cruz walked into Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School school in Parkland, Florida, carrying an AR-15 assault rifle, and began a shooting rampage that ended with 17 people dead and 14 injured. This particular school shooting would be one of the worst in recent memory in the United States.

MSD High School

A few days later, news outlets reported that Scot Peterson, an armed school resource deputy assigned to the school, was outside the building when the shooting began, but didn’t go inside.

Like everyone else, I reacted initially with shock and disappointment when I heard this. I repeatedly wondered how many people might have been spared a horrific death, if he had simply done his job and ran into the building. I didn’t expect him to single-handedly take down the assailant and save the day (like a police drama protagonist on television) but I did expect him to do something. Law enforcement officers are supposed to protect us, and even put their lives on the line in the performance of their duty. It didn’t take long before he was labelled (at least on social media) “The Coward of Broward”.

Then I read an opposing point of view, from someone who is vastly more qualified than I to speak on such matters. Jim Diamond (a retired police officer, SWAT team member and demolitions expert, with 34 years of experience) argued that Peterson did the right thing, because it would have been unwise to run into that situation without backup. He added that it is unfair to blame the deaths of the 17 students on this one individual. Then he said something very interesting: “And one incident where he was possibly untrained or emotionally ill-equipped to deal with it, is going to mark him for life.

This is the avenue I’d like to explore: he may have been emotionally ill-equipped to handle this situation.

What does it take to engage yourself in an active shooting situation? I have no idea. I’ve never been a law enforcement officer or in the military, and I’ve never owned a gun, which relegates me to a mere armchair quarterback, judging silently from the sidelines.

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The Military Historian’s View

Gwynne Dyer is a military historian who joined the Royal Canadian Naval Reserve when he was 16. After receiving his Ph.D in military history, he became a journalist, and during the 1980s he was the host of the television documentary series War. In one episode of this series, Dyer proposes that humans are not wired to kill other people, and that being able to kill on command goes against our very nature.

Gwynne Dyer, Marching Soldiers

In the episode entitled Anybody’s Son Will Do, he explains: “All soldiers belong to the same profession, and it makes them different from everybody else. They have to be different, for their job is ultimately about killing and dying, and that doesn’t come naturally to any human being… The method for turning young men into soldiers – people who kill other people – is basic training… The secret of basic training is that it’s not really about teaching people about things at all. It’s about changing people, so that they can do things they wouldn’t have dreamt of otherwise. If you want to change people quickly and radically, what you do is put them in a place where the only right way to think and to behave is the way you want them to. You isolate them; and then you apply enormous physical and mental pressure… [These recruits are] entering a machine which turns out a very special and artificial product: soldiers.

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Dehumanizing the Enemy

Killing another human being goes against everything that’s hard-wired into us, and it takes years of specialized training and extreme physical and psychological conditioning to act against it. That’s why, in addition to basic training, soldiers are repeatedly exposed to material that dehumanizes the enemy.

In a 2007 report by Lt. Col. David Grossman entitled Hope On The Battlefield, he writes “There have been active efforts by the American military apparatus, since World War II, to overcome the basic resistance that human beings have towards killing other members of their own species. One of the most fundamental of these efforts has been to dehumanise the enemy.

Brian K. Price wrote the following in Quora “I would highly recommend the book “On Killing” by LTC Dave Grossman (USA-ret). He does a great job of explaining how hard it is for one person to kill another person (outside of a direct interest such as wrath, greed, jealousy, etc.) and how this has impacted the US military throughout our earlier wars. He then… discusses how training has been modified to overcome these inherent stoppages in killing others and what the implications may be for society as a whole.

In wartime, the enemy is often portrayed as a group of savages, living in a primitive, backwards land, who don’t share the same values as everyone else. Propaganda videos malign their culture and portray them as inferior.

There is, however, a price to pay. Success in getting a soldier to view the enemy as an object, an animal, or anything less than human, carries its own collateral damage. Medical Daily argues that this psychological conditioning affects soldiers long after they return from the battlefield, often manifesting itself as mental illness, depression and schizophrenia.

The television series The Outer Limits dealt with this subject, in the episode Hearts and Minds. [Spoiler alert] Soldiers fighting a battle on another planet, in order to protect a mineral claim there, are given regular injections of a hallucinatory drug. This drug makes the enemy appear to them as grotesque insect-like creatures, so that they will be easier to kill. The commanding officers, however, tell the soldiers that the drug is a vaccine that will inoculate them against alien parasites, and must be re-administered regularly. When one soldier misses his dose, the drug starts to wear off, and the enemies slowly transform back into humans, resulting in a moral quandary among the soldiers.

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Arming Teachers

You may have to make the decision to give up and die, or to make somebody else give up and die… and what, in your comfortable urban life, has ever prepared you for that decision?” – James Burke

Donald Trump’s response to the Parkland shooting is a plan to arm 20% of schoolteachers. He is also offering them a monetary bonus if they agree to carry a gun in their classroom. As you can imagine, this idea is not being well received.

Arming Teachers Headline

I also think this is an exceedingly poor idea, and one that is not particularly well-thought-out.

As armchair quarterbacks, I think most of us, to varying degrees, subscribe to the following idealized version of events, gleaned from watching hundreds of hours of television: our hero runs boldly and conspicuously into a school, assesses the situation instantly, and then proceeds to take out the shooter with a single bullet, with 100% accuracy and no collateral damage. Our hero also survives unharmed, physically and psychologically.

The reality, of course, is vastly different. Let’s examine what’s at stake when a teacher is expected to use a firearm.

  • First, there is a question of accuracy. In this British television program called The Last Leg, the host (at 3:03 in the video) says “A study by the New York Police Department found that, in gun fights, their highly-trained officers had an 18% hit rate.
  • Teachers aren’t military soldiers or veterans. They haven’t endured basic training, or the intense physical and mental conditioning that trains soldiers to kill.
  • The person they must shoot isn’t someone whose humanity has been diminished through dehumanizing exercises, or distorted by propaganda videos.
  • This won’t be someone from a far-off land on the other side of the world, who looks different. The person they are expected to kill will likely be an American; someone who looks just like us.
  • On the battlefield, soldiers are shooting strangers. A school shooting is likely to be carried out by a student or a former student. There is a good chance that the teacher will know this person.
  • Not only will the teacher likely know the shooter, it is also likely that at least one of the teachers will have taught this person – the student whom they spent countless hours instructing and nurturing, and during that time, forging an emotional bond.
  • Finally, in war, soldiers are killing adults. In a school shooting, you will have to kill a child. Think about this for a moment…

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Jim Wright posted an insightful analysis on Quora, detailing the emotional reality of being asked to kill a child. Here is an edited version of that post (the full version is in the link, above):

‘Specially-trained.’ Who designs the training. On what criteria? To what standards?

This training would have to specially designed because you’re talking about non-professionals with guns in a building full of panicked children AND those “specially trained people” will be very likely facing a CHILD with a gun who is killing other children.

We don’t train soldiers for that. We don’t train cops for that. So we’re going to need special training, including not just the mechanics and theory of combat arms, but the psychology of killing a CHILD in an active shooter situation.

If you don’t understand why this is a problem, then you’re very likely unqualified to be in this conversation in the first place. It takes years of training to condition a soldier to kill another human being on command, let alone a child.

And when that killing occurs, it’s usually in a warzone, alongside your squadmates, and while that engagement is very, very often chaotic, it can’t be compared to the confusion and chaos of a building packed with screaming running children that you are supposed to be protecting. In a warzone, if your bullets hit a civilian, even a child, well, that’s collateral damage. It happens. It can’t NOT happen. That’s war. But a school? Full of American kids? You are essentially talking about turning teachers into soldiers and schools into war zones.

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A Failure To Engage

In December 2014, Scot Peterson was a recipient of the School Resource Officer of the Year Award by the Broward County Crime Commission (pages 10 and 20). Peterson has been the resource officer at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School since 2009 and during the past four years, I’m sure that he got to know many, if not most, of the current students in the school.

Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel said in an interview that in the Deputy Peterson incident, there was a “failure to engage”. Some news reports also used that same phrase. I think this is a reasoned and non-judgmental way of expressing the situation. Despite all of his years on the force and all of his firearm training, Scot Peterson – for reasons known only to him – couldn’t bring himself to enter the school, and now I’m beginning to understand why this is possible.

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I must admit that I still lament Peterson’s decision not to enter the school that day, and I often think about what might have been if he had engaged the shooter, but now I’m trying my best to view him with some compassion. Because what prevented Scot Peterson from running into Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on February 14, 2018 is, ultimately, what makes us all human.

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A Single, Detached Home in Manhattan?

A couple of years ago, I visited my brother and his family at their condo in midtown Manhattan. If you haven’t been to Manhattan, the density – while predictable – is nevertheless something to behold. Naturally, when you run out of land, you then start building up, and since Manhattan is an island, that land boundary was reached a long time ago. Look down any major street in downtown or midtown, and you’ll see one 50-storey building after another, both residential and commercial, almost as far as you can see. Cars and taxis fill the streets, the subways are crowded, even the sidewalks (which are extraordinarily wide) are crowded with people. As a child, I heard many television references to the dark alleys of New York City. When I was there, I didn’t notice any – the buildings were pressed right up against each other. Any alleyway would now be seen as prime real estate.

Manhattan Slyline

One evening, I asked my brother and his wife “Are there any single, detached homes in Manhattan? I’m sure there must have been a few just after WWII, but what about now? Could I find – somewhere in Manhattan – a typical suburban home – a detached, single-family house with a driveway, a garage, a front yard and a back yard? Of course, a white picket fence would be icing on the cake…

Manhattan Map v2

They didn’t think that there were any, given that the typical suburban home is one of the less efficient ways to house people on a given plot of land. In a city where a parking spot costs more than many people make per hour, a single family house with a front and back yard seemed unlikely.

Manhattan Parking Rates

Once I returned home, I decided to do a little online searching.

I started with Google Maps, switched to the satellite view, and started scanning Manhattan Island. This building, located in Inwood Hill Park near the north-west end of the island, seemed promising, although based in its shape, it looked more like a church than a private residence. As it turns out, this is the Payson Building, named after George Shipman Payson (1845-1923). It’s now a research centre with a small museum that’s open to the public.

Payson Building

Then I found the Dyckman Farmhouse, billed as the city’s only remaining Dutch colonial farmhouse. It was built around 1764, and is now a museum.

Dyckman Farmhouse

Next, there was the Morris-Jumel Mansion, a stately home on a sprawling piece of land. Built in 1765, it has the distinction of being the oldest house in Manhattan. It, too, is a museum.

Morris-Jumel Mansion

After searching the web, I found an article that mentioned the Schinasi Mansion, located in the Upper West Side. It is described as Manhattan’s last freestanding mansion. However, after getting a close look at it from Google’s Street View, it’s not exactly the suburban home I had envisioned. For one thing, it has 18 rooms and spans 12,000 square feet, and includes a library, pool room and several great rooms. It also lacks a yard.

351 Riverside Drive

Finally, I found it. Nestled at the northern tip of the island was not just one, but a cluster of houses that, from the street, resemble a typical middle-class neighbourhood in any medium-size town. Here is the Google Street View, so you can see for yourself.

Single Detached Houses in Manhattan 1-1000

Single Detached Houses in Manhattan 2-1000

There is it, a driveway, a garage, a front yard, and (from what I could gather from the satellite view), a modest back yard. Considering that many people living a few kilometres south are paying over $20/hr for a parking spot, having one’s own garage seems like a luxury!

While Manhattan real estate agents are promoting multi-million dollar condos in midtown, no one can offer what these houses have. Just imagine that listing “Single, detached, single family Manhattan home, with your own driveway and private garage, on a quiet, tree-lined street. Escape the hustle and bustle of the city in your very own backyard.

Personally, I think this discovery is immensely satisfying – it’s the last little bit of suburbia on Manhattan Island. I wonder how long this quaint little neighbourhood will last?

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The Most Hurtful Interpretation

Human interactions can be challenging. Even though I don’t know you, I’ll bet that you often feel misunderstood, especially by people who know you very well.

You’re not imagining things. You were born with a social disability, and I’m going to explain exactly what it is, and how you can adapt to it. Once you succeed in doing this, it will feel like someone has bestowed upon you, a remarkable sixth sense. You will be able to detect what others around you cannot, and in time, all of your relationships will become more harmonious.

If it’s any consolation, you are not alone. If you’re a fan of the television series The Big Bang Theory, you probably know that Sheldon is not the most socially-adept creature, in part because of his difficulty in interpreting facial expressions, and therefore, the emotions of others. We were all saddled with a similar interpretive disability – one that makes it challenging for us to accurately interpret the true feelings and intentions of other people.

A few years ago, I was perusing a book co-authored by Jack Canfield, one of the authors of the Chicken Soup For The Soul series of books. Unfortunately, the title of this book escapes me right now, but it contained one of the most useful pieces of advice I have ever read. Canfield wrote – merely as an aside – something that I thought was absolutely profound. He said “If people hear something that has multiple interpretations, then they will assume that the most hurtful interpretation is the correct one“.

Teary Eye

At first I thought this was just silly. Perhaps young children (who are continually seeking parental approval) may assume this, but we’re all educated and mature adults with superior reasoning abilities. In any conversation, all interpretations will be considered, and then evaluated properly and sensibly.

Then something unexpected happened. As the weeks and months went by, I realized that Canfield’s pronouncement was true. I heard example after example, with stunning (and frankly, troubling) regularity – more instances than I could count. My otherwise wise and educated family, relatives, friends and colleagues were all affected equally by Canfield’s unsettling statement. My surprise morphed slowly into intrigue. I thought to myself “The divorce rate in this country is about 45%. How could the percentage be this high when there is presumably a year or more of character vetting and compatibility analysis during the courtship and engagement periods? Could this behavioural quirk be a contributor? If we were all keenly aware of The Most Hurtful Interpretation, would our marriages and relationships last longer?“. I realize that this is merely speculation, but like Carrie Bradshaw hunched over her MacBook “I couldn’t help but wonder…“.

Here are just a few examples I encountered:

  • One of my relatives told me that it had been several days since she had read any Facebook posts from a particular member her extended family, and wondered why she had been de-friended. I explained that Facebook doesn’t display every post from each of your friends – otherwise we’d never get through our news feeds. Only selected posts are displayed, and I had no idea what Facebook’s selection algorithm was.
  • A friend and I were e-mailing each other semi-regularly a few years ago. In one message, she asked me something, and I intended to reply the next day, but then forgot all about it. Two weeks later, she e-mailed me again and wanted to apologize if she had said anything to offend me, since I hadn’t contacted her in a while.
  • I was worried sick about you!“. How many times have you, as a teenager, heard these words from your parents after staying out later than you had intended? Statistically, there is a very small chance that anything serious would have happened to you, but that’s not how parents think. They are going to assume the worst.

WebMD Everything Causes Cancer

  • A generation ago, if you weren’t feeling well, you went to see your doctor. Today, the Internet gives us the ability to self-diagnose our symptoms by visiting a number of medical web sites. One of the most popular is WebMD. Just type in your symptoms, and WebMD will display a plethora of diseases and conditions that are associated with them. While poring over this list of possible afflictions, which ones are we drawn to? Which do we think we might have? I think you already know the answer…
  • A few weeks ago, I was watching the Steve Jobs DVD. If you’ve seen this movie, then you’ll remember that Jobs initially denied the paternity of his daughter Lisa. Back in the late 1970s, DNA testing wasn’t nearly as accurate as it is now, and while Jobs did take a paternity test, he said to a TIME magazine reporter that his DNA test results could apply to 28% of the men in the United States. Therefore, he felt no need to admit anything. Lisa’s mother, Chrisann, read the article and thought that Jobs had accused her of sleeping with 28% of the men in the United States. To be fair, this movie is a partially fictionalized account of Jobs’ life, so I have no idea how accurate the recounting of this event is. However, it is a perfect example of The Most Hurtful Interpretation.

Lorne Grabher

  • Finally, there’s Lorne Grabher’s license plate. Mr. Grabher was proud of his fine German surname, and decided to place it on a vanity license plate. For a while, everything was uneventful, but then one person noticed his license plate, and read it as “Grab Her”. This unnamed person felt that Lorne was “misogynistic and promoting violence against women“. So s/he filed a complaint with the Ministry of Transportation and they revoked his vanity plate.

I’m Also Not Immune

After perusing Canfield’s book, I naturally assumed that I would be granted an instant and lifelong immunity to this phenomenon. How could I possibly be affected, since I was now in possession of this incredible insight? Since I was familiar with the underlying behavioural machinations, I could note this behaviour in others from a distance, as a detached observer. Obviously, I was wrong. I was affected as much as everyone else, and this example illustrates that The Most Hurtful Interpretation is not limited to human interaction.

Door Access Card v1a

Last year, as I was returning to the office from my lunch break, I held my access card against the card reader beside the reception area door. The card reader always beeps, and then its light changes from red to green, followed by the audible click of the door unlocking. This time, nothing happened. I tried again – still nothing. It took about 4-5 attempts before the reader recognized my card. I found out later from someone in the IT department that the door reader was a little quirky and had been giving everyone trouble. That should have been my first assumption, since it was not only logical but was also the most likely scenario. However, after a couple of unsuccessful attempts at opening the door, my actual thoughts were “Oh no – I’ve been fired! They always deactivate your security cards and computer accounts first. How could this happen? I’m a good worker. What have I done (or not done)?“. Yes, in hindsight this sounds silly, but at the time it was a genuine concern for me.

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Now That You Know…

The first thing you’ll want to do is look for evidence. Keep your ears open and listen carefully to the conversations you have with your family, friends and co-workers. Then listen to the conversations around you. Within a few days, you will probably start hearing numerous examples of The Most Hurtful Interpretation. I was astonished by how many examples I heard.

Fast forward several weeks… since you’ve heard a variety of examples, and are adept at identifying this behavioural quirk, you now possess your special sixth sense! As you listen to the interactions around you, you now have the ability to predict how a statement will be interpreted by the recipient, even when the speaker does not.

At this point, you may want to take steps to ensure that your sentiments are not misinterpreted in a hurtful way. Unfortunately, this is not going to be easy. In Toastmasters, I learned that communication consists of two components: the message we deliver, and the message that the audience actually hears (and interprets). Unfortunately, we can control only the first component. Since the listener is always free to interpret your words in any way, what can you do? Before speaking, think about all of the different ways that your message can be misinterpreted (in a hurtful way) and then consider how to modify your message to reduce the chances of this happening. Here are a few ways to limit the breadth of the interpretations.

  • Speak clearly
  • Choose your words carefully
  • Avoid ambiguity
  • Provide plenty of details
  • Surround your message with as much context as possible

Finally, build up a mental case file (or write down the examples you hear). Analyze each conversation, and consider the following:

  • What was the original intent of the speaker’s message?
  • What was the listener’s interpretation of that message?
  • How did the listener arrive at their conclusion?
  • If I were the speaker, how could I rephrase my message to prevent this particular interpretation?

In the arena of human interaction, if it seems that the odds are stacked against you, they’re not – they are stacked against all of us, which levels the playing field. However, you now stand head and shoulders above everyone else. Now that you know about The Most Hurtful Interpretation, you possess a special sixth sense – an acute social awareness that almost no one else on the planet shares with you. It will take a bit of time to develop and hone this ability to predict the reactions of others, but once you do, I predict that you will be heralded by those around you as a talented and empathetic communicator.

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