Wednesday, November 25, 2009
I've logged many an hour in the dental chair lately, but the time that stood out the most to me -- thanks to some pretty good drugs -- was a mostly pleasant conversation I was having recently with a hygienist who was cleaning my teeth.
Young and married, and with a couple of young kids, she was around the same stage in life as my wife and I. The conversation was very natural and enjoyable, moving smoothly from my account of the accident that screwed up my otherwise excellent teeth to other things, like what our spouses did for a living. I was impressed by how knowledgeable and enthusiastic about her work she was: She was obviously intelligent and seemed focused on filling her life with rational values. In short, she struck me as someone I could probably be friends with if I knew her better.
And then she started talking about the war. While I was in her chair, getting my recently-traumatized, but healing mouth cleaned. While I couldn't really speak my mind at any length. At a time that I would not rationally want to do so if it turned out that I disagreed with her on the subject and she was heavily invested in it. I've seen otherwise reasonable-seeming people turn into banshees about this topic before, and I didn't want to take any chances. I was mildly alarmed for a second or two.
Fortunately, since my political views look liberal to conservatives and conservative to liberals, I found myself on pretty familiar ground with this issue: I am neither a pacifist nor a fan of the extension of our welfare state into the Middle East that Bush passed off as a "war" in his term. The usual opportunity at intellectual activism this topic represented was instead, under the circumstances, an opportunity to stall and survive with an intact mouth, if I had to.
As it turned out, neither of us pushed too far, and it was to the extent that I am not terribly sure what her views on the war actually are, beyond, "We ought to be done by now." The conversation did not, as I thought it could at first, turn into a monologue on her part about how war is always evil no matter what. I was lucky to be dealing with a fundamentally decent person. I suspect that, probably, she was leftish, saw her opinion as what any decent person would think, and, as such, a fine topic for pleasant, casual conversation.
But the situation I was in was interesting in another respect, and it ties in to a story I remember hearing about some time ago. A guy was meeting a potential employer. He was unctuous with the possible new boss and friendly with his other potential new colleagues -- but rude to the waiter at lunch. He did not get the job because the boss saw how he treated the waiter, a person in a position of relative weakness, as opposed to how he treated everyone else, people in a position of strength who could do something for him. The boss rightly concluded, basically, that this potential employee was not a trader, and that he saw everything in terms of a zero-sum power struggle, and that he might not be someone he could count on when the chips were down.
What does that have to do with my situation and what did I learn here? I was puzzled by the hygienist bringing up the war until I recalled the above story and remembered that she did not take advantage of my situation to "enlighten" me or to extract a professed agreement with her views. I thus saw more evidence that she is probably a good person. I also saw evidence that my expectations about dealing with more leftish people may be skewed by my not having lived in a "Blue State" (and interacted with the natives very much) until now.
Context is everything in evaluating new knowledge. Twenty years ago, my reaction to the hygienist might have been far different, and much more unpleasant for both of us because I probably would have not fully considered the circumstances we were in and how each of us acted. (And I would have learned less from the encounter.) Specifically, at the time, I held in check my initial, "How rude of her to bring up the war out of the blue with a total stranger!" (And later, I remembered other facts about the conversation that were more relevant than they seemed at the time.) I think it's a fair guess on my part that to her mind, she was hardly being rude at all.
But what if I'd had the Anti-War Harpy from Hell instead? I might have had to go along with whatever she said just to protect my own health, but what would such "agreement" have told her? Nothing. But her lecture would have told me to find another dentist post haste. In that situation, I was the "waiter" and she was the job candidate.
Judging people is a very, very difficult and subtle art. To think you've got it down cold is only to fool yourself.