Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Confusing Primates

A strange thing happened yesterday as I was walking to my car.  I know that I am not able to describe it properly, because it happened so quickly and I don't really know how to interpret it, but I will try:

I was walking down the hill that leads to the parking lot.  As far as I know, I was the only one walking in that area at that time.  A large four-door pickup truck was being driven up the hill.  The driver honked the horn.  My first assumption was that it was someone from Tiger Dojo.  The more gregarious members have a habit of honking at their fellow martial artists whenever they see them.

I looked at the truck, but did not recognize anybody in it.  My blurred impression was of several college-age females* in the truck: the driver, passenger, and at least one in the back seat.  The passenger reached her hand out the window and made the 'victory' sign as she yelled 'woo-hoo'.

This event may have had nothing to do with me.  They could have been reacting to someone or something else that I did not see, or they may have chosen that time at random to celebrate something.  But I had the impression at the time that they were looking at me and that these actions were directed toward me.

Based on my childhood, I generally assume that any strange attention directed at me is motivated by mockery or teasing.  This almost never happens to me now, but old associations take a long time to fade away slowly.  I generally feel that people who draw attention to me are hostile, even though I know intellectually that they are probably not.  So my 'gut feeling' is that these people were making fun of me.

It is also theoretically possible that this was the equivalent of a truckload full of guys honking and yelling at a girl walking by.  It could have been an expression of appreciation or flirting, possibly combined with a need to express a feeling of power.

I will never know which of these possibilities is the truth.  Because there is no information that can be gained from the event, my brain filed it under 'random chaos' and did not attempt to analyze it further.

But I know that I would be able to learn something from this if I had a better understanding of human behavior.  I would have been able to pick up on some subtle cue that would give me a hint about me what they were thinking, and why they were doing what they did.  I know that there are probably dozens of incidents every day that could teach me something about human behavior, if I knew what to look for.  But I don't have the background understanding required to interpret or even notice such events, and so I learn nothing.

Learning requires feedback.  You have to make a guess, and then find out if your guess is right or wrong.  But when you see people doing things, it is almost impossible to get the truth about what motivates their behavior.  You can't ask them.  People habitually lie about their thoughts and actions.  Often they don't even know why they are acting a certain way.  Without a really good frame of reference, it is almost impossible to gain knowledge by observing the behavior of someone that I have never seen before and will never see again.

The only way to really learn about human behavior is to be enmeshed in a close-knit group of people, where you can observe behavior and its consequences over a long period of time.  You also have to hear most of the gossip about their behavior, to tell you about events that you cannot see.  After a few years of that, you would be able to reliably identify behaviors and their motivations.

But I never had that experience.  And since that basic knowledge is required to gain more knowledge, it will be very hard for me to catch up and develop enough knowledge to figure out what people are doing and why they are doing it.

* I never know to describe undergraduate females.  Neither 'girls', 'ladies', nor 'women' seems appropriate, and 'coed' is such an archaic term.


Anonymous said...

...maybe they were just drunk.

Richard Bruns said...

The possibility of inebriation does not change the question: Why did they do what they did? Being drunk does not really alter your core personality; it just removes inhibitions so you feel free to do what you really want to do.

Even if they were drunk, I would have liked to have some hint of the motivation.

Anonymous said...

True; the physical state of drunkenness wouldn't change personality as a driver of actions. However, I'm not convinced that a better knowledge of human behavior would have enlightened you as to her motive.

There are simply too many variables that could influence a person's personality, and, ultimately, decisions.

You too color the behavior with your perception of the individual, and of the event, which may or may not be what the instigator perceived or intended.

Richard Bruns said...

You're probably right. But I still have the suspicion that someone who can read people better could tell the difference between flirtation and mockery.

Anonymous said...

I think you're being too hard on yourself. Flirtation and mockery are often one in the same, depending on the maturity level of the individual doing the flirting.

Richard Bruns said...

Flirtation equals mockery? That's mind-bendingly bizarre. I simply cannot conceive of a mental state where the two could coexist. As I understand the terms, mockery is a sign that you want to exclude someone, while flirtation is a type of invitation.

Hmm, maybe they could coexist if you were ashamed of your own desires. Someone makes you feel a certain way, and you don't like that, so you blame them and try to get rid of them. Maybe you try to exclude them as a person, while still trying to use them as an object. I've read about some types of cultures treating women that way. But it still seems really bizarre.

Anonymous said...

The two aren't equal, but flirtation can be the motive behind mockery.

Yes, I agree that it seems crazy, and even completely counter-intuitive. Flirting at the beginning stages is more of a way of drawing attention to yourself. You're right that it might progress to a type of invitation. But what are little boys doing when they tease and pull pigtails on the playground?

Richard Bruns said...

I had always assumed that such teasing behavior was an expression of power and dominance: improving one's status (among the boys) by demonstrating the ability to crush outsiders.

Anonymous said...

Interesting. As a little girl, my mother and my teachers, and likewise all of my female role models, told me that behavior like teasing was a cry for attention. That is, the perpetrator having the mindset that any attention - even negative attention - is better than none at all.

Maybe the difference between your assumption and mine comes is a difference in the perceptions imprinted on us with our respective social gender roles.

Richard Bruns said...

I'm sure there is some truth in both views. That kind of behavior, if successfully executed, will both improve one's status among other boys and attract potentially positive attention from girls.

Our social instincts and habits have an annoying tendency to reward male boldness and aggression, in almost any form that it takes.

Anonymous said...

I certainly agree. But, making the (somewhat dangerous) assumption that girls relate teasing to flirting, if from nothing other than grade school experiences, does that give you any insight on your original questions?

Richard Bruns said...

Yes, it helps explain things. Assuming that the behavior was directed at me, and that it was not completely random, and that I am correctly reporting the relevant facts, I can tentatively conclude that it was some kind of irrational flirtation.

I am still somewhat surprised by the speed and coordination of the decision-making process, if you can call it that. In only a couple of seconds, at least two different people cooperated to identify me as a target, make the decision to attract my attention, and then carry out actions to effect that goal. That's an impressive group dynamic; there must have been some kind of mob mentality at work, quite possibly assisted by some chemical means of reducing inhibitions.

Anonymous said...

Well, mob mentality isn't exactly required. With any group (and especially a group of girls) someone emerges as the leader out of necessity. The rest follow like lemmings. Just my personal opinion of course, but having experienced that dynamic I think this is very often the case.

Just as an aside, if this incident inspired this much introspection and discussion on your part, wouldn't you say the flirtation-slash-teasing had the intended effect of peaking your interest?

Richard Bruns said...

Interest? Hardly. I just wanted to understand the world around me. I was thinking of the behavior, and humanity in general. I don't care about the individuals who acted this way, and I certainly wouldn't want anything to do with them.

Anonymous said...

Interest is a poor choice of words. Attention perhaps? If nothing else, inspiration for an interesting discussion.

Anonymous said...

"undergraduate females"

A bit lengthy, but preferable to people that call students at women's colleges 'girls'.

And I have no solid explanation for you on these particular confusing female primates, despite 4 years among an abundance of such creatures. Could have been anything, really. Sorry.