Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Why Do You Do That?

I’ve decided to launch a new blog called Why Do You Do That? an online forum where people can discuss social transgressions without fear of embarrassment.

Think about it: How frequently do you encounter a person who does something so troubling that you vent to your friends for days afterward? Maybe it’s a stranger who speaks too loudly while using a mobile phone. Perhaps it’s a restaurant patron who refuses to tip properly (or at all). You imagine that this person doesn’t know the implications of her or his action. Maybe this person just doesn't care. Wouldn’t it be cool to ask Why Do You Do That? Or consider a counter-example: Wouldn’t it be cool if you could explain and even celebrate your occasional lapses in social courtesy in a safe and anonymous environment? If only a forum existed for these sorts of interactions.

The problem is that these conversations can be downright scary. Today’s public sphere, that theoretical “place” where people interact beyond their relationships with families and close friends, is a thin and narrow domain with little room for strangers to confront and discuss each other’s transgressions. Our web of shared history, geography, and consequences has unraveled in recent decades, or at least it has changed so substantially that many of us feel adrift among strangers. As a result, many of us feel awkward and fearful at the prospect of telling a stranger when her or his behavior bothers us. It’s just too daunting to ask Why Do You Do That?. To illustrate, let me tell you a story:

I finished my undergraduate degree at Berry College, a small southern liberal arts college in northwest Georgia. At the time, all Berry students were required to work on campus ten hours a week, ensuring that everyone participated in the daily functioning and maintenance of our academic home. One day, my co-workers asked me to drive into town and buy some Mrs. Winners’ biscuits and sweet tea (a Deep South delicacy, I assure you). Returning from my trip I found myself trailing a slow-moving car. The biscuits were getting cold and I grew impatient, so I wheeled around the slowpoke and rendered a “one fingered salute.” I felt some petulant satisfaction and continued down the road.

After a few moments, though, I noticed that the car I had just passed followed me turn for turn. I turned onto campus, and the car followed. I turned onto my building’s parking lot, and the car did too. Now I was nervous. Was it my boss? A professor? A friend? I exited my car, kept my head down, and raced into the building. I was mortified. Working and living in such a small community I’d forgotten about the tight-knit nature of our social fabric; I forgot that small communities mean that our actions almost always have social and public consequences. And I swore to myself that I would never again be so rude. Stories like this help explain “southern manners.”

Today I work in San Jose, California. For a big city, it’s a pretty nice place to live. But one rarely finds that southern small town courtesy in such a place. Aside from a few ritualized interactions with coworkers (and maybe a few folks I’ve gotten to know during my daily amblings), the vast majority of folks encountered on an average day are strangers with whom I may only interact one time. We may pass on the sidewalk or perhaps share a bus seat. And yet we know that we will likely never share this place again. In this environment one may easily forget the simple courtesies and gentle kindnesses that bind people to that ephemeral thing called community.

I therefore admit with some guilt that I commit an occasional social transgression. And I see plenty of similar transgressions committed by others. Sitting on the bus I want to ask the girl munching on microwave popcorn, “Why do you fill an enclosed space with that awful smell?” Standing at a busy intersection I want to ask the guy blasting his car stereo, “Why do you set your subwoofers loud enough to liquefy concrete?” Reading a book at the local coffee shop I want to ask the high school student, “Why do you use the word like every three words?” I want to ask these questions, but I can’t.

Asking these sorts of questions, after all, signifies intolerance. And given a general decline in the notion that we should feel “guilty” for pretty much anything these days, intolerance has become an all-purpose pejorative for rule-bound social organization. Surely it’s better to practice patience with the things that strangers do, to relax our standards a bit and concentrate on our mutual rights more than our mutual responsibilities. I understand that sentiment, and sometimes I even agree. But sometimes I just have to know why people do what they do, even if asking risks the implication of judgment. Some things are so bothersome that only some form of explanation can help me tolerate them.

And yet the choice to ask such questions risks public rebuke, maybe even physical violence. Today, the question Why Do You Do That? generally merits a rejoinder to “Mind your own business,” or some equivalent instruction involving the F-word. The tension of the moment, fleeting and filled with danger, allows for no reflection, no empathy, no possibility for mutual edification through shared understanding. There’s just too much risk in asking strangers to justify their transgressions, particularly when they feel no guilt about their actions.

A blog called Why Do You Do That? might provide a safe environment to engage in these sorts of “difficult dialogues.” Visiting the blog and answering a question could allow people who knowingly practice social transgression to explain their positions without fear of personal embarrassment. Posting could also allow folks whose actions have been labeled “transgressions” to reject those rules and explain why their actions should not be judged harshly. Finally, feedback sections could allow readers to share their opinions in a low-stress environment that inspires thoughtful conversation rather than bumper sticker epithets. Who knows? Maybe the world could become a bit more conducive to courtesy if people chose to visit Why Do You Do That?.

The first step to launching this blog is to invite participation, and that’s hard to do. I imagine a number of venues though which this experiment can be announced: posting to online interest groups, sending pitches to newspaper commentators, even putting up fliers in public places. But the most intriguing way to get these conversations started might be through viral marketing, when folks tell each other about the site. Here’s how it might work.

Different sections of the blog will focus on specific questions. Each page will include a handout that can be downloaded and shared. Thus the very moment you want to initiate a potentially difficult dialogue, you can simply offer a piece of paper instead, particularly when you’re departing an enclosed space. Better yet, you can leave the note anonymously and with no fear of personal rebuke. Here’s a draft:
Why Do You Do That?

There's something I noticed that you do...

[Space to illustrate the behavior in question]

Would you explain why you do it?

I’d like you to visit a blog called Why Do You Do That?. Just point your browser to http://www.whydoyoudothat.com/ and check it out. You will not be asked to post any personal information; you can use a fake name or post anonymously. So you can write without fear of embarrassment or hassle.

While you’re there, you can also propose your own Why Do You Do That? topic for others to answer.

I hope you’ll consider this invitation, and I appreciate your time.

PS: You must read and accept several terms prior to participation on Why Do You Do That?. These terms are explained when you visit the blog.
The blog would then offer the following notice that must be read and approved prior to posting:
If you submit content to Why Do You Do That? you are certifying that you have read and accepted the following terms.

1. Comments submitted to Why Do You Do That? may be made anonymously.

2. Comments become the property of the blog owner and may be used in any medium, for any purpose, at any time.

3. Comments may be used, not used, or removed for any reason deemed appropriate by the blog owner.

4. Comments may be edited for spelling, length, and clarity.

5. You will receive no payment or other compensation for comments submitted to this blog.

6. You certify that you are participating in this blog freely, knowingly, and without coercion.

7. You certify that you are 18 or older.

8. You release the blog and its owner from any liability related to any harm you may experience from posting to Why Do You Do That?, including loss of job, reputation, or self esteem.

Remember, you may post comments to Why Do You Do That? only if you understand and accept these terms.
I’ve purchased the web domain and selected the blog space, and I’ve begun to develop a plan to launch the site over the next year. Tentative questions include:

Why do you litter?
Why do you gossip?
Why do you park so carelessly?
Why do you play your music so loudly?
Why do you speak so loudly on your mobile phone?
Why do you write a check in the line at the grocery store?
Why do you spit on the sidewalk?
Why do you procrastinate?
Why do you refuse to leave a decent tip?
Why do you yell at your kids like that?
Why do you stare at my boobs when we’re talking?

And perhaps the question that is most appropriate for this blog (and for me):

Why do you judge people so harshly?

So that’s the idea. I think part of the appeal for this blog is its convergence of voyeurism and exhibitionism. Many of us would love to peer into the psyches of folks who trouble us and understand their inner logic. Many of us would love to share our guilty pleasures, the things we do despite social niceties. We want to know, and we want others to know, why. Of course, the concept for this blog will evolve over the coming months. But the only way for Why Do You Do That? to succeed is to invite plenty of advice and feedback. And I need some initial postings. I hope you’ll let me know what you think about this idea, consider answering one of the initial prompts [to be posted in the next few days], and tell your friends!

7 comments:

Shawn Spano said...

Wonderful idea Andy! I especially like the idea of eliciting participation by handing out cards inviting people to post why they did what they did. The trick, it seems to me, is to inquire into the "why" of the behavior without putting folks on the defensive. Let me suggest one appreciative tool for doing this: Curiosity. As in,” I’m really curious to know why you did . . ." or some other variation: "I find it interesting that you did . . . Can you tell me why you did it?" Curiosity puts the questioner in a neutral position of someone who simply wants to know. Most people will respond positively to the request. However, most people will not respond kindly (if at all) if the question is asked with an evaluative and judgmental tone and attitude.

Andrew Wood said...

I agree entirely. I'll review the prospectus and make the appropriate edits.

Anonymous said...

This is a cool idea, "Why do you do that?" I love the direction of this blog in fostering a safe space for people to discuss their motives and intentions. It will be fun to poke at the porous line between "social transgression" and "taboo." Perhaps a space may be created to transform our society.

Anne Marie Todd said...

Great idea! I particularly like the notion that this could evolve into social practice of commenting on people's behavior. I've often wanted to ask a loud cell phone user to be quiet, but find myself resorting to hard stares or dirty looks. A little card I could hand the offending person would solve my problem of wishing to avoid conflict, while wanting them to be aware of the effects of their own behavior. I'm particularly interested in the social effects of this: what are people's reactions to being called out in this benign way? Will people change their behavior? Could be an interesting study....

Chip said...

Andy,

Really cool- I'd love to work your blog into an interpersonal communication class I'm teaching this summer. Don't get too excited, only 4 students are currently enrolled- but I think it would make for great discussion material- and would give you a few posters.

I'm intrigued- if you have any insight as to how to integrate what you're doing in an academic setting, please let me know.

Chip

Andrew Wood said...

Chip! Great to hear from you. Let me know if/when you want to talk about ways to integrate this into your class. I'm happy to help in any way possible.

As to how that integration process works, let's make that up as we go along :-)

Matthew J. Smith said...

Andy, I agree that this is a thought-provoking idea. Your comments remind me of how we as a society seem to react in passive-aggresive ways to many of these social affronts by legislating against them (e.g., smoking bans, cell phone usage restrictions). The irony is that while such prohibitions may be warranted, they are indicative of the problem we have in dealing with people interpersonally. If folks were just a little more sensitive to the others in their community, the world wouldn't suffer as severly from the disrepectful actions or the legislative responses in quite such a fashion--I would hope!