Socially Stupid

As one of the nation’s foremost social psychologists, I would like to present a few of my major social theories. These theories were met with a great deal of enthusiasm when I presented them a few weeks ago at a conference held in the Smith Family Living Center, where I was in sociology class and leaned over and whispered them to my friend Rob.

My first theory (or, “Theory No. 1”) is as follows:

Most people are stupid.

By this I mean that a majority of people on the earth do a great many stupid things — enough stupid things to where you can no longer consider them “smart people who occasionally do stupid things,” but, rather, “stupid people.” I am referring to people who talk during movies, change lanes without signaling, and buy Spice Girls CDs. I am referring to people who write self-righteous letters to the editor decrying the self-righteousness of others. I am referring to people who automatically put an apostrophe in any word that ends with an “s.” (“Me and my friend’s took our car’s down to Las Vega’s.”) I am referring to people who stop in the middle of busy sidewalks and/or bookstores in order to have impromptu mission reunions. I am referring to people who insist on talking to strangers on airplanes and in doctors’ waiting rooms, even though the strangers obviously do not wish to talk to anyone. I am referring to people who have no problem taking up to 25 minutes of class time in order to discuss important issues such as Will there be extra credit available? and How many of the test questions will be multiple choice, and how many will be short-answer?

My second theory goes along with the first one. It states:

You can only be stupid for so long before everyone’s going to know about it.

The reason for this is stated in my Corollary to Theory No. 2:

Deep down inside, many stupid people have a secret, burning desire to let the whole world know that they are stupid

Case in point: a girl in my sociology class, who is the whole reason I presented these theories to my friend Rob in the first place. What this girl does is, she invades your personal space. The classroom is one of those theater-style rooms — no desks, just rows and rows of chairs attached to each other, so you’re pretty close to whoever’s next to you. This girl likes to sit with one leg crossed over the other, her foot dangling. This is fine, except that, as you know, you have to be careful in such settings, because you’re liable to accidentally kick the person next to you with your dangling foot. This girl, however, does not care about accidental kickage. I’ve sat next to her twice, and BOTH times, she has let her foot dangle there and kick me numerous times. My shin is developing a hard, reptilian shell in order to protect itself from the kicking of this girl. You would think that after kicking me once, she would notice that her foot is WELL into my territory, and move it back to her realm, maybe grunting a small apology. But no. Every time she kicks me, she looks down, sees that her foot is right in front of me, in MY space, and then she keeps it there.

OK, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “That sounds pretty annoying, but that doesn’t mean she’s stupid.” Well frankly, I don’t care much for your attitude, because here’s something else about this girl: She says random things out loud in a class full of strangers.

One on occasion, our classroom was quite cold. Actually, it’s been quite cold on many occasions, due to the apparent practice of only taking care of the new, expensive buildings and letting the old ones like the SFLC fall apart until they can come up with the money to tear them down and replace them with big holes. Anyway, it was really cold, and TWICE during our class, this girl said: “Brrr! It’s freezing!” She said this out loud to no one in particular, while the professor was lecturing. Who says “Brrr”? I mean, who actually says “Brrr,” besides comic strip characters? Also, I should mention that she pronounced “freezing” in three syllables — “fuh-ree-zing.”

I do not know this girl’s name; I suspect she may not have one. I have every reason to believe that she does not actually even exist, and is merely a figment of my imagination. And yet there she sits, day in and day out, kicking her foot obliviously and making random comments.

And yet, her random comments are not nearly as frequent or as random as those of a guy whom we have dubbed Loud Boy. Loud Boy usually sits a few rows behind me, and he always has a friend with him. And as is often the hobby of freshman guys, he likes to make sarcastic and “funny” (that is, “not funny”) comments about whatever the professor is teaching. But instead of whispering them to his friend, he says them in a relatively loud voice — loud enough for us to hear three rows in front of him, anyway.

Here’s an example. The other day the professor was talking about how the human body naturally needs a balanced diet, and how most of us would eat a balanced meal all the time if we could. Loud Boy said, “My brother wouldn’t!”

Many of his jokes are not even THAT funny.

Obviously, we wouldn’t mind Loud Boy if he would just whisper. Why doesn’t he whisper? Maybe he can’t whisper. Maybe he comes from a civilization where whispering has not yet been discovered, or where whispering is considered extremely rude, like in many foreign countries where they pick all these weird things to be offended by, like waving, or pointing, or squatting. Maybe he thinks he IS whispering. Whatever the case, it all brings me to Social Theory No. 3, which is:

I’ll usually just keep writing until they make me stop.

Two things were changed from my original submission. First, there was concern that Foot-Dangling Girl would recognize herself and be embarrassed and hurt by my characterization of her. To help prevent this, I told a lie in the column: I said it happened in a sociology class, when in real life, it was a psychology class. In theory, if the girl thought I was talking about her, she would say, "But wait. I don't have a sociology class with Eric D. Snider. He must be talking about some other annoying girl."

There was no such concern about Loud Boy. Why the difference? Because Loud Boy, in being loud and trying to be a class clown, had established himself as a public figure, and therefore open to criticism. Foot-Dangling Girl, on the other hand, was annoying only on a personal level, and therefore did not necessarily "deserve" public humiliation. As odd as this sounds, I completely agree with it.

(Lying about which class it was didn't help anyway. A different girl -- not the one I was writing about -- came up to me after class and said, "I don't know if your column was about me or not, but if it was, I'm sorry for kicking you." And a few days later, I overheard the Foot-Dangling Girl make a comment to her friend that indicated she knew I had written about her. So lying didn't help, but at least it assuaged the anxiety felt by certain ones in the review process.)

The other change was a bit sillier. In my discussion of the cold classrooms, I say that the SFLC is cold, "due to the apparent practice of only taking care...." What I originally wrote was, "due to BYU's policy of only taking care...." Why the change? Someone -- and everyone in the review process insists it was someone else in the review process who brought this up -- someone was concerned about me saying BYU had a policy of letting old buildings fall apart, when in reality they of course do not have such a policy.

My reaction to this objection was, "Yeah. So?" Every single week I exaggerate the truth in order to make a joke. In this very column, I claim to be one of the nation's foremost social psychologists. The reason it works is that it is OBVIOUS I am exaggerating the truth. People know what the truth is, and so it's funny to read instances of it being stretched. No one was actually going to think BYU had an official, written policy of letting buildings fall apart just because I said they did.

My protests did not appease those who felt I should change it. Somehow the words "BYU's policy" were very frightening and official-sounding. They didn't think I should trifle with such powerful words.

We discussed many possible alternatives. "BYU's practice," "the policy," "the practice" and "apparent habit" were all suggestions that were shot down. We even considered letting me keep "BYU's policy," and including a parenthetical note -- humorous, of course -- informing humor-impaired readers that there was no such policy. This idea was also nixed. We finally went with "apparent practice," with the understanding that I thought changing it at all was completely idiotic.

Then we come to the reaction to the column. I don't consider this to be one of my better columns, but I think it's pretty solid. It was noted by some that this column was a little more blunt and uncareful than I had generally been in the past. Some felt that, in making fun of specific non-celebrities, I was even being a bit mean.

I got as much positive e-mail as I usually got, but I also got a few negative reactions. I won't reprint them and mock them here, as I would normally do, because I think they actually have a point. The column WAS a bit mean, maybe. I certainly didn't intend to be mean, and I think people who know me well -- who know I'm not a mean person -- probably didn't think it was cruel. But others did.

One letter-writer pointed out the irony in my having just published a column about love right before publishing one in which I claim half the world is stupid. How do I actually feel? Is the love column representative of my true feelings, or is this column more accurate? That's what the letter-writer asked, and frankly, I don't have an answer.

This rarely happens, but I actually began to think about what my intentions with the column are. I think comedy needs to have some bite to it sometimes. People who are always just happy-go-lucky and fluffy, even if they're funny, tend to get boring after a while. Jay Leno would be a good example of this, whereas David Letterman is a good example of someone who is not biting or edgy ALL the time, but often enough to remind you he has a brain in his head and isn't just some mindless joke-teller.

At the other end of the extreme, Howard Stern is widely regarded as being very funny, but most people also hate him as a person. He's TOO edgy, and TOO biting, and while it makes you laugh, it also makes you think, "This guy's a jerk."

I remember my dad saying once that famed Chicago Tribune columnist Mike Royko "sure is funny -- but I wouldn't want to live next door to him."

I don't want that reputation. I don't think I earned it with this one column, but some of the reaction did remind me to be a bit more careful with just how much bitterness and satire I put in the column.

The girl who wrote the particularly thought-provoking letter delivered it to my apartment when I wasn't home. She signed her name, but she appears not to be a BYU student, and so I had no way of finding her so I could reply. If she happens to read this, I hope I've explained things a little better.