If you have not already done so, you may wish to read the
Introduction to Gnomica.
Sunday 14 October 2012
Read gnomica 1-150 here!
What people say, what people do, and what they say they do
are entirely different things.
Margaret Mead (16 Dec 1901 – 15 Nov 1978)
There is a certain impregnable catholicity about the sentiment’s relevance.
Thus, to take an example probably familiar to most of us – male or female – a girlfriend of mine in my callow youth had promised me the moon and the stars [‘What people say’], then denied that she ever had [‘What people do’], and, finally, told her friends that she had done with me what she had promised me she would but didn’t do [‘What people say they do’].
The laughing stock I became aside, this to be sure trivial example is nonetheless a valid illustration of this idea in action.
What about a not-so-trivial case?
Like promising to help a friend, not coming through, and then making yourself look good by telling others that you did what you had promised to do but didn’t do. Not entirely trivial, but not momentous, either.
A momentous case?
I suppose at bottom here is something about contract law …
What might have led Margaret Mead to come up with her observation? Well, she was of course a field-anthropologist and probably talked to a lot of people about their customs and what they claimed to do but on closer inspection sometimes proved not to have done. I’d guess she got pretty good at recognizing the self-aggrandizing tale, noticing the ‘tells’ signaling a tall tale, heard the gossip, and so forth. It’s the kind of thing that most parents come to be aware of when adjudicating sibling disputes; that most spouses come to recognize in the wobbly accounts about this and that by one’s better half; that most close friends come to see through in the course of an unburdening confessional session. We’ve all been there, done that – right?
When dealing with strangers, or people we don’t know all that well, we do well to keep this dictum in mind – especially when a protagonist depicts self or events in glowing terms of self-approval … like politicians regaling us with what is more often than not severely edited versions of given events, or like tendentious journalists spinning news articles, or like press secretaries of one sort or another. Nor, I believe, should we omit to censor and, where necessary, emend our own biased adaptations of happenings in which we have starred as either sinner or saint.
For the long haul, a reputation – especially with oneself! — for reliable evaluations of what actually happens out there as opposed to face-saving distortions of same makes for a less complicated life … and it’s the right thing to do to avoid the toxic entanglements in those self-delusions and the briefly ameliorating revisionisms that dangerously skew our perceptions of both reality and ourselves.