Category Archives: reference group

Hide or Seek?


When you find yourself in times of trouble (you know, terrorist attacks, earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, extended power outages), do you want to hide under the covers until it’s over, or seek out the company of others? One day in 1975, while sitting in the back row of an American Airlines jet out of LaGuardia, I had a great view of the port-side engine exploding on take-off. The laid-back voice of the pilot came on, drawling, “Now, folks, those of you on the lefthand side of the aircraft might have noticed a loud bang and some sparks coming out of the engine just now. We’ve shut it down, and we’ll be circling Long Island Sound for a little while, before returning to LaGuardia Airport. We regret any inconvenience this might cause y’all.”

Naturally, I took this as my cue to begin cracking wise to my fellow back row passengers, in an effort to provide a little comic relief and team-building. Trust me, I was hilarious; but did any one of them make eye contact, smile, or even lift their shoulders in the Phatic, “I know, right?” gesture signifying “I heard you, but I don’t want to get into it right now”? Nary a one. The young man next to me was underlining his textbook so intensely, that his pen tore the page. Others literally pulled their blankets (remember airline blankets?) over their heads for the duration of our half hour flight, back to a foamed runway flanked with a contingent of firetrucks. You know when a stand-up comic is losing the crowd and asks, “Anyone here from out-of-town?” I figured these stiffs were all just visiting from Cincinnati (the flight’s putative destination), since no self-respecting group of New Yorkers could have resisted my schtick. They would have joined my improv and tried to top my gallows humor with their own zingers, ya know?

It’s easy to guess what was up their noses, though, right? Fear of crashing; and, who’d a thunk it, the intrusion of my banter into their silent recitation of the Act of Contrition (or whatever).
I, on the other hand was feeling humiliation, that my attempts to Find the Funny in the situation were Not Well Received; and the pain & suffering of feeling All Alone.

That’s what’s so sad about last week’s contretemps with Billie Joe Armstrong on Southwest. The airline whose best feature had been its cabin crews’ ability to Find the Funny in every situation, and transform nervous strangers into a jolly group of Fellow Travelers, became known as the Uptight Enforcers of a Strict Dress Code (No Saggy Pants Allowed). What a somber little half hour flight from Oakland to Burbank that must have been, after the obstreperous Greenday frontman was frog-marched off the plane. Did any remaining passenger have the moxie to crack wise to his fellow row-mates, I wonder, or did they all just hide themselves away in their paperbacks and iPods?

Good thing the fuselage of that plane didn’t deconstruct like a sardine can, right? (Or a wild goose wasn’t sucked into the left engine, as happened to us, back in 1975.) It would have been every man for himself.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under comic relief, gets right up my nose, reference group

Who’s Got Your Back?


While watching Wimbledon tennis on telly with the sound muted, I’m listening to Radio Wimbledon, which provides commentary on all the matches [from Center Court to Court 14], as well as traffic, transport & weather advisories for those in the stands. If you’re in SW19, Radio Wimbledon’s got your back. As young girls in the 60s, clutching General Admissions tickets to the grounds and CheapDayReturn train tickets back to our town, my sister & I had each other’s backs, too, minding the time to make sure we had enough of it to hoof it back to Wimbledon Station and get our tickets punched by the Station Master before rush hour [when our CheapDayReturns expired]. All this, without the aid of Radio Wimbledon, cellphones, debit cards, or even wristwatches! What a team we made.

We still do. The British relationship therapist, Dr. Sue Johnson, quotes “a traditional Irish saying” [although I can’t find it in any of my aphorism reference sources] thus: “We stand in the shelter of one another.” Or, if we are gazelles @ the LA zoo, we lie down in the shelter of one another. If Chris had used a wider-angle lens, you could have seen a spindly-legged baby gazelle, toddling around under the vigilant gaze of these 3 “lifeguards,” all of whom had its back.

Ah! It’s soothing, just to see them. No, really. Watching a cohort of furry creatures tend & defend their vulnerable members has been shown [in those studies I’m not wild about, for ethical reasons] to lower cortisol, not just in the creatures themselves, but in the observer. [Except maybe not in would-be predators, like those leopards from the previous post, who chunter to themselves, “Curses! Foiled again!”]

The Radio Wimbledon commentators make frequent reference to each contestant’s looking up to the Player’s Box where their entourage of “lifeguards” [coaches, family, friends] are sitting, “seeking their sympathy, or approval, or their righteous indignation at a bad line call.” The exchanges are all done non-verbally, but sometimes with operatic intensity. Unfortunately, when members of a player’s cohort see themselves on a telly camera [via the Jumbotron], they tend to stiffen up, cast their eyes down, and leave their vulnerable Young One momentarily undefended. That’s why it’s heartening to hear the radio accounts [or to be there in person, to see the authentic exchange of give-a-damn looks]. As my favorite Radio 1 Scottish DJ, Edith Bowman, says, wherever in the world Andy Murray is playing, she is listening, “Willin’ him on, just willin’ him on!”

Such fan support helps the player [if he or she is aware of it, and our Andy is a keen Twitterer]; but it also helps the sports fan. Remember the truth about oxytocin? It makes you want to tend & defend those in your reference group, but not the opponent. Nar’mean?

Leave a comment

Filed under reference group, stress and cortisol, zero-sum-gaming

"Just looking for some touch."


That’s a canny wee lad, yon man fro’ Nazareth. Meaning, of course, Dan McCafferty, the legendary frontman of that Scottish rock band which took its name from the first line of the song “The Weight” by that Canadian rock band, The Band: “Pulled into Nazareth, was feelin’ ’bout halfpast dead.” D’ye ken? [By which they (The Band) meant, of course, the little town in the LeHigh Valley of Pennsylvania, not far from the towns of Emmaus and Bethlehem.] Dearie me! How Metalingual this post is turning out to be!

What the brilliant Mr. McCafferty did, while singing his live cover of the ZZ Top song, “Tush,” was to replace that arcane and confusing word [Dusty Hill pronounces it to rhyme with “hush”; yet he seems to be “looking for” the shortened form of the Yiddish word “tochus,” which rhymes with “push.”] with the universally understood and desired, by man, woman, and beast, “touch.” Download the lyrics from Hair of the Dog, Live to see what I mean.

Now, let us segue back to 14th Century France and the [slyly political] poem by Gervais du Bus, Roman de Fauvel, in which all the rich but not-so-powerful people seek to ingratiate themselves with a self-important brown horse [in some translations, a donkey] named “Fauvel,” by stroking [currying] his coat. Thus, in France, a “curryfavel” came to mean a flatterer. By 1530, the idiom had crossed the Channel, cut loose the brown horse part of the metaphor, and become the compound verb, “to curry favour.” They have disagreed about much, but both the French and English have long known that the way to gain favour with a horse is to stroke its fur in the direction in which it lies flat [from the Old French correire, “to put in order”].

Conversely, the idiom, “to rub (a person or animal) up the wrong way” means “to be annoying.”

Still, why all the idiomatic hostility towards currying? Why is it considered a duplicitous thing to do? Perhaps because [look it up, skeptics] stroking a mammal’s fur (hair) produces oxytocin [Get this!] in both parties: the groomed and the groomer. This, theoretically, fosters trust, which [if the “groomer” is a sexual predator and the “groomed” is a vulnerable individual] is not only manipulative, it’s against the law [in many places].

With that caveat, now you know how to get “that warm, fuzzy feeling,” without ordering dodgy nasal sprays claiming to contain oxytocin [“the love hormone”] online. Pet your pet. Brush the hair of the dog. Curry a brown horse. [Here are Dusk the mare & our younger daughter, when she was just a canny wee lass.] Or [with their permission] stroke or brush the hair of someone who is already in your circle of trust. Pace the Broadway musical Hair, this is unlikely to bring about World Peace; but it may strengthen the impulse to “tend and defend” those within your own reference group.

Remember, “we’re all looking for some touch,” but not from a stranger on the subway.

Leave a comment

Filed under ethology, power subtext, reference group

Buffalo Springfield Redux


Stick around 3 score years or so, and you’re likely to have a certain number of deja vu moments. Cue Stephen Stills’ 1967 hit, For What It’s Worth. [“There’s battle lines being drawn. Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong.”] It became the anthem of the anti-Vietnam War movement, although he wrote it in response to a scuffle between rowdy clubbers and policemen in NYC [4 years before the student deaths @ Kent State, mind you, as mourned in his former bandmate Neil Young’s song, Tin Soldiers.]

[Music trivia note: The band’s name, Buffalo Springfield, has nothing to do with the Wild West, where endangered species roam, play, etc. It was inspired by a steamroller parked in the street outside their LA house, manufactured by the Buffalo-Springfield Roller Company.]

For me [who took to playing it on “infinite repeat” during those anarchic, all-bets-are-off days of the late 60s], the song had the power to transform my overwhelming fear (for myself, for my classmates who were facing the nightmarish fight [in Nam] or flight [to Canada] dilemma, and for my going-to-the-dogs country) into something less primal. Like all works of art (and this one earned the band induction into the Roll & Roll Hall of Fame, ya know), it imposed some order on the chaos, partly by making the general particular: “There’s a man with a gun over there.” As the song implies, it doesn’t much matter if he’s a public servant or a vigilante. Either way, it lights up our limbic system.

Good ol’ Stephen Stills channels his pre-frontal cortex, and advises, “I think it’s time we stop, children, what’s that sound? Everybody look what’s going down.”

There you have it. That’s the whole, sane, soothing message of his song. Not an empty promise of “Everything is going to be all right.” Not the braggadocio of “We will rock you.” Just, “Stop. Everybody look what’s going down.”

Cuz, as he said in another song, with another band, “We have all been here before…”

Leave a comment

Filed under aggression happens, limbic system, reference group

"Dig it"


“…like the FBI, and the CIA, and the BBC.” So goes the Beatles’ shortest song, from the 1970 Let It Be album (now available for legal download on iTunes). Beat musicians had been saying “Can you dig it?” or “Ya dig?” for decades [the American version of “nar’mean?”], to ask “Do you understand what I just said?” but by the time the Beatles used it, the phrase had morphed from the Metalingual [message clarification] speech function to the Phatic. It had come to mean “Listen” [as in “do you want to know a secret?”]

Well, do ya? [Want to know a secret, that is.] In the 60s, Daniel Ellsberg was convinced that we all wanted to know the contents of secret briefing papers on strategies for vanquishing North Vietnam [thereafter known as The Pentagon Papers]. So he dug up some classified information and gave it to the press, for all us quidnuncs to read.

La plus ca change, la plus ca meme chose. Nar’mean? Julian Assange? WikiLeaks? Ya dig?

Guess who thinks Mr. Assange is a swell guy for sharing with the whole [cyber-linked] world the classified information he was able to dig up? Why, Mr. Ellsberg, of course.

Whether you do, too, depends on your reference group. Are you more “The truth will set you free”; or more “Loose lips sink ships”? Far be it from me, to try to get you to switch groups. None of us can predict the effect of the WikiLeaks disclosures on global security. I’m more curious about the precursors. [As in, what got up Assange’s nose, that he decided to crack the code of encrypted websites and report his findings?] Mind you, that’s the basic mission statement of those who work for the FBI, and the CIA, and the BBC.

Our [often fear-based] Need to Know What’s Happening is the key to our individual and collective survival. Curiosity saved the cat, the dog, and us. We all “want to know a secret,” but we don’t all “promise not to tell.”

Leave a comment

Filed under phatic communication, pro bono publico, reference group

"Dai-jo-bu!" ["Everbody cut footloose"]


Where would the business based rom-com [from The Pajama Game to MadMen, which, don’t kid yourself, is a comedy, whatever its Emmy category] be, without the office party, or better yet, the off-site office picnic? Nowheresville, that’s where! (Hold that thought.)

How do drug/bomb/corpse-sniffing dogs learn their trade? Through rewards for accurate scent detection, sure; but what’s the most commonly used reward? Why, play time with the “Boss.”

In the Navy, we mice learned at “salute school,” there are 3 basic postures, in the presence of the Boss Cats: “Attention on deck” [stand up straight, “eyes in the boat,” and don’t move]; “At ease” or “Fall out” [you are free to mill about smartly]; and (for me) a useless middle-ground position, because it was less comfortable than standing to attention [hands folded at the small of one’s back, as if handcuffed] “Parade rest.”

Lili’s trainer [a former Marine] taught us to tell her “Zen-zen” [literal translation, “Never”] for the “Don’t move” command, which we were encouraged to extend, for distance and duration, as we left her in the “Down/stay” position in an open space. The release command, “Dai-jo-bu!” [literally, “All right!”] is more festive than merely “At ease,” or “Fall out.” It means “Party time!” It’s an exhortation to “cut footloose,” to do a little dance of joy, to “play with the Boss Cat,” not just to follow orders.

And therein lies the conundrum. In the Navy, a junior officer used to parse a “command performance” [an “invitation” to a social event that one could not refuse, without negative consequences], using a Germanic funny voice, “You will come! You will enjoy it!” So, too, do some reluctant attendees to the company party/picnic mutter to themselves, “Aye, aye, sir. Three bags full, sir. It’s not ‘play’ if it’s required, no matter how much booze is on offer.” The well-meant but ham-fisted proclamation of the Boss Cat(s), “Let the revelries begin!” is experienced as an intrusion into one’s private time off. Worse, if one “befriends Ethyl” [gets drunk] to get through the event, one risks humiliation or even the fear of the Boss Cats’ displeasure.

So, what’s the upside of such jollifications? Well, believe it or not, they work best if the captive merry-makers are divided [randomly] into teams, to compete in a bit of low-stakes zero-sum-gaming [ranging from silly, pseudo-athletic events to charades and Trivial Pursuit]. To promote the “We’re all in this together” spirit, the Boss Cats have to muck in with the mice [at least one per team], thereby showing what Jolly Good Eggs they are, really. To encourage reference group cohesion, each team should devise a clever name for itself [not necessarily by democratic means]. If all goes well, the use of the Poetic Speech function [jokes, plays on words, mimicry, and general Mick-taking] will increase, and laughter will follow. Stress will decrease. Cortisol production will be slowed.

The “play drive” in dogs has long been recognized and used strategically by their Boss Cats, to increase on-duty “productivity.” [“All work and no play makes Jack a burnt-out, distracted dog.”] It is also a powerful motivator in humans, as taught in Management Courses for Boss Cats. No matter how deadly serious the mission we’re on, inside of each of us there is a Party Animal, waiting for a moment of comic relief. Waiting for the release command, “Dai-jo-bu!”

Leave a comment

Filed under comic relief, reference group, stress and cortisol

Risky Menschlichkeit


Sounds like the wheelman for Meyer Lansky, no? Mensch is a Metalingual minefield, having come full circle, to mean its exact opposite, even after you tiptoe through the “Man/Mankind” lunar dust. In German, it originally meant “a man,” whereas in Yiddish it means “a standup guy” [a unisex term]. Nowadays, Menschlich has come to mean either “humane” or “all-too-human, warts and all.” A vignette from my 1988 visit to Vienna: I was walking through a U-Bahn station when I saw a young woman with a baby buggy, poised at the top of a flight of stairs, like the opening scene from Battleship Potemkin. I rushed up to help her carry the buggy down the stairs, when an old woman began shrieking, “Schade! Schade!” [“Shame! Shame!”] Who the hell was she angry at? Did she think I was trying to kidnap the baby? “Wo sind die Menschen?” she asked, rhetorically. [“Where are the men?” or possibly, “Where are the standup guys?”] “Wir sind die Menschen!” I quipped [“We are the standup ‘guys.'”]; and the young woman shook my hand, in the formal manner of pre-millienal Viennese young people, before high-fiving went global.

Although it all ended with smiles, it could have been just another instance of “No good deed goes unpunished.” As a Social Science major in the 1960s, I was familiar with the admonitory tale [perhaps urban legend, if you read modern critiques] of Kitty Genovese, who was mortally attacked over a 3-hour period outside her apartment complex in Queens, NY, while 38 of her neighbors [allegedly] “did nothing.” Even if the real story is less black & white, it became the anecdotal evidence for the theory of Diffusion of Responsibility: the more onlookers to a calamity, the less likely any one of them is, to do the standup thing and try to help. Phil Ochs even wrote a song about it, Outside of a Small Circle of Friends, with the tag line, “Maybe we should call the cops and try to stop the pain; but Monopoly is so much fun, I’d hate to blow the game.”

So, what prompts anyone to perform an act of Menschlichkeit, like Wesley Autrey, the subway hero, who jumped to the aid of a stranger who had fallen onto the tracks as a train approached, and covered the stranger’s body with his own, as the train passed over them both? Did Wesley just have a broader definition of who was in his “Small Circle of Friends,” than the other folks on the platform? Some put it down to his Naval service, that he had been trained to [override his amygdalar freeze mode, let his hippocampus problem-solve, and so…] “act bravely and quickly.” I’ll go for that; but I know lots of fellow Naval veterans who would have averted their gaze and stayed on the platform [the other definition of Menschlichkeit]. If it hadn’t worked out so well for Wesley and the stranger, I bet it would have been reported as a double suicide.

One of my favorite aphorisms is “It’s not ‘brave,’ unless you’re scared.” [It’s just bad judgment.] There was a time 1970s Manhattan when there had been so many murders of taxi drivers [who knows why], that a cabbie put a now-famous sign on the passenger side of his plexiglass barrier saying “Though thou shalt kill me…” It made New Yorkers–even those of us who rarely had the price of cabfare–realize what Menschen [the unisex, heroic term] cab drivers were, years before the hit TV series.

So, how Menschlich are you? Would you be willing, like Zanzibar the cat, to take a good, close look at “the wolf”? It might not be the “comforting presence” it seems to be for Zanzibar; but it’s still worth getting to know.

Leave a comment

Filed under pro bono publico, reference group, sharks and jets