Kirby: Predictable behavior only widens rifts

By Robert Kirby

Tribune Columnist

Published: January 12, 2014 06:34PM
Updated: January 24, 2014 04:09PM
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Robert Kirby, Tribune columnist

In fourth grade, I liked a popular girl named Sandy. She didn’t like me. Big surprise, I know, but I hadn’t yet become the sophisticated bon vivant you read today.

Sandy hung out with the cool crowd during recess. Much as I tried to get her to notice me, she acted like I wasn’t even alive.

I couldn’t stand not being on her radar, so one day I hit her in the head with a horse-manure clod.

Not a big one. I wasn’t trying to kill her. I just wanted her to notice me. It worked. When she went crying to the teacher, Sandy’s girl posse chased me into a stairwell and noticed me senseless.

Mrs. Hall also noticed that I needed some recess detention. Finally, Sandy’s male admirers waited until after school to notice that I fit handily into a cafeteria garbage can.

Wandering home covered in scratches and spoiled milk, it occurred to me that I might need to change my approach. It’s one thing to be noticed and another to have a healthy interaction.

Sandy and I had a relationship after that. For the rest of the year, her name for me was “Yuck,” as in “Yuck, go away!” or “Yuck is looking at me again.”

It took years (I’m slow), but eventually I developed a theory that constructive human interaction can never be established in an offensive manner. People from whom you want understanding — or just a moment of time — don’t respond well to conversations opened with horse manure.

It wasn’t just hurting a person’s head that shut down any chance of dialogue, but also their feelings. Conversations begun with insult rarely go any further than that, and if they do it’s generally pointless.

For example, let someone know you think they’re fat and ugly and that’s all they’ll ever hear you say. Say it to their face and it could be the last coherent thing you say for the rest of the day. I learned that one in the fifth grade.

I’ve tried to think of a single time when my mind was changed through insult. I got nothing. Most of the time it had exactly the opposite effect on me. Hmm, maybe that’s how I ended up here.

Would it work on you? Anyone ever change your mind, faith, politics, favorite color, etc., by calling you names or belittling your intelligence?

A better question is, have you ever tried it on someone else? Didn’t work, did it? There’s nothing that makes the rift wider quite like you proving that you’re every bit as horrible as they suspected.

So why do people do it? If we know offensive behavior doesn’t work, why do we go there? It could be that insult is entirely the point. If you can’t change a person’s mind, why not insult them? That’ll get them thinking, right?

Maybe we do it because it fills some deep emotional need. It is possible to be highly educated, socially powerful, deeply religious and still only be 10 years old emotionally.

Lots of people never get past the fourth grade. You only need to take a stroll around the Internet to figure that out. It’s like recess out there, but with no playground monitors.

Robert Kirby can be reached at rkirby@sltrib.com or facebook.com/stillnotpatbagley.