January 24, 2011

Author Guest Post: Graham Parke

The Dorkiness Equation.

Iíve finally figured out why we laugh at someone when they do something dorky. When they almost trip, when they stub their toe, when they stack a number of paper cups, only to find that the bottom cup wasnít quite empty.

For years I assumed it was some kind of mean streak we have tucked away deep inside our subconscious. We might think weíre nice people, ready to lend a helping hand, ready with words of kindness and encouragement, but, as soon as our neighbor puts that hammer down on his thumb, we canít help but snigger. Obviously thereís a real bastard inside us. Whatís the harm, he thinks. Thereís no way to help in time, so I might as well enjoy the pain of others.

But that would be the easy answer. And itís one that simply doesnít feel right. We snigger, yes, but do we actually feel happy? Do we actually think; thank goodness John finally stubbed his toe, that friendly, helpful bastard had it coming! Serves him right for all those times he helped me paint my garage! I donít think so. Barring a few errant cases where we actually do hate someone, Iíd say this isnít whatís happening.

So Iíve wondered about this for years (I have done other things in between, I assure you, but the thought kept coming back to me.)

One of my later theories was that itís a snigger of relief rather than joy. The idea being that a certain amount of dorkiness is inevitably going to be displayed on any given day. The best you can hope for is that your involvement will be minimal. Years of walking the tightrope of possible ridicule at high school has taught us how damaging the smallest slip-up can be to our social status. So, whenever we see someone do something dorky, we immediately let out a chuckle of relief; thank goodness that wasnít me! We might think something along the lines of: Iím not happy about what just happened to you, but, on the upside, consider this; at least I wasnít involved!

But thatís not it either. The real reason we canít help but snigger when someone does something stupid or painful, is that we actually want to make them feel better. We want to ease their pain, and we do this by paying them a compliment. That may sound strange, but itís true. By sniggering weíre sending a very clear signal:

ìI canít believe you just did something THAT stupid!î

And, when you think about it, thatís the kindest thing to do. Much kinder than the alternative signal. The signal weíd send if we did absolutely nothing. If we made no sound at all and pretended we didnít even see the dorkiness going down. Because the alternative signal is:

ìI fully expected you to do something THAT dorky, and Iím so embarrassed for you that Iím going to pretend I was looking the other way.î

When your friend slams the car door on his thumb and your initial reaction is one of pity, then you think he is a dork. When your initial reaction is to laugh at him, then you think heís basically a cool guy who just did something dorky.

See the difference?

Which signal would you rather get?

Donít get me wrong, itís fine to be concerned and helpful a mere microsecond later, but in that initial, no-thought-only-action moment, youíd better laugh your ass off. Youíd better snigger away or your relationship will be damaged forever! 

To be continued....

Graham Parke is responsible for a number of technical publications and has recently patented a self-folding map. He has been described as both a humanitarian and a pathological liar. Convincing evidence to support either allegation has yet to be produced.

No Hope for Gomez! is his fiction debut.

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