Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Epidemiology of Attitude

A while back, a woman stomped up to the reference desk at the library where I work and confronted me. It was the first time I had ever laid eyes on her, but she was mad at me because she was trying to do something on one of our public computers, and it wasn't working. Which meant, as it usually does, that she didn't know what she was doing.

I helped her out, and I was civil, but I can't say I was radiating friendliness. But I had been with the previous patron. She came to the desk with an almost identical problem, but she was smiling and pleasant instead of rude and accusing. Noticing how differently I responded to each patron got me thinking. If each of them were showing me their typical way of dealing with others, then the rude one must experience a totally different world than the friendly one does; a world she creates herself.

Her sour way of dealing with people surely creates a bubble of sourness that surrounds her everywhere she goes. People see the look on her face, and give her the same look back. She goes around creating a world that's less friendly to her than it would otherwise be, and she probably never realizes she's the one doing it. I imagine she figures most people are basically nasty, so she may as well be nasty back. So they're nasty back, and so it goes, back and forth, in a self-perpetuating cycle.

And it doesn't just affect her. Obviously, it makes things unpleasant for those she meets, but it goes beyond that. The people who meet her are likely to catch her ill temper for a while and pass it on. That's what I did after meeting her--I snapped at a co-worker for something I would have normally let go. Not only does nastiness reflect back it at people who exude it, but it also spreads outward, jumping from person to person like a disease. Nastiness is contagious.

Luckily, so is niceness. The nice woman I dealt with probably goes around seeing smiles reflected back at her, and sees the world as a friendlier place. That's likely true on a purely psychological level, but it's also true in the real, physical world--she doesn't just see people as friendlier; she actually makes them friendlier. She could meet the same sequence of people in the course of her day as the rude woman, but they would treat her far better, because she treated them better first. Being likable pays huge dividends. It's strange that more people don't realize this. I forget it myself sometimes.

The people the friendly woman meets will likely turn around and treat other people a little better. Friendly people go around spreading friendliness, and rude people go around spreading rudeness. I suspect each attitude can behave like an epidemic--infecting whole towns or workplaces with either self-perpetuating friendliness or self-perpetuating rudeness. I think superstition and reason might also be contagious in similar ways (guess which one is more virulent), but that's a topic for another day.

Just a couple days after I met the nice woman and the rude woman, my friend Chastity shared a Japanese folktale that captured my thoughts about them. In the story, a man sees a dog walk into a large room, and then walk back out wagging his tail happily. But then another dog walks in and comes out growling and bristling. Curious, the man goes to look in the room, and finds that it's full of mirrors. Each dog had gone in, seen his reflection all around the room, and responded in kind.

I like little fables like this one, which is called The House of 1,000 Mirrors. Two of my other favorites are The Blind Men and the Elephant, and The Emperor's New Clothes. These simple little tales reveal deep truths, and that's why they're so powerful.

Unfortunately, I suspect some people will see The House of 1,000 Mirrors--and perhaps this whole blog post--as too cutesy and trite. That might even be my reaction if you caught me in the right kind of mood. The story doesn't have enough bite and irony, or it sounds too moralistic, for today's zeitgeist. But the thing is, while it may be a little cutesy, it's actually not trite at all. It contains real wisdom about the real world. If you want people to be nice to you (and nice in general) you have to be nice yourself. If you're rude, the world will be that much ruder, particularly to you. You'll create a rude reality for yourself that follows you everywhere you go. The world you see is to a great extent a reflection of your own attitude.

Maybe the reason earnest little stories like this are unpopular today is that people have learned the lesson about the Emperor's New Clothes a little too well. There's so much insincerity, pretense, vapid commercial optimism, and true triteness in this world--so many naked emperors--that people have started acting like there are nothing but naked emperors out there. In a world so full of people trying to get you to take silly things seriously, it's no wonder people have such a cynical, ironic stance toward everything. It's a defense mechanism. But it can and has been taken too far. The lesson of the Emperor's New Clothes is an essential one, but so is the lesson of the House of 1,000 Mirrors. Maybe the trick is remembering them both at the same time?

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