Monday, August 30, 2010

Suffering fools? Gladly!

There's a family story among the Hathaways about my Dad's grandfather, a physician who also owned and ran a pharmacy in Grantsville, West Virginia.  As a kid, my dad used to hang out there after school sometimes, and one day some old timer came into the store and started yammering on about psoriasis.  "It comes from the bones, y'know!" he insisted, suggesting that the disease somehow leaked out of the bones and rose up through the skin, where it manifested itself.

"Dr. Dye" (as my great-grandfather is invariably called) just nodded and grunted in a neutral way, neither agreeing or disagreeing, but allowing the guy to have his say.  Eventually, the old-timer exhausted his theory and left.

My dad immediately said, "Grandpa, you know that's not what causes psoriasis!  Why'd you let that guy go on and on like that when you knew he was wrong?'

Dr. Dye replied, "The man's an idiot."

Now, that phrase gets bantered around with some frequency in my family--it is, in fact, one of several examples I'll often use to explain the concept of the kernel story to my folklore students:  the "punch line" of a story that's so well known in a small group that they almost never retell the whole story--they just use the phrase.

"The man's an idiot" functions in more or less the same way as the proverbial saying "Never argue with a pig. It just frustrates you and annoys the pig."  Only, I guess, it's a little more harsh.  But that, apparently, was Dr. Dye.

I've always found the story, and the phrase, both funny and perplexing.  It reflects my family's tendency to avoid conflict whenever possible, though it contradicts another less-than-charming drive that most of us share:  the need to be right.

The phrase came to mind last week when I had an advising appointment with an incoming transfer student...and her helicopter parents.  Her father, in particular, was in a complete dither, going on and on about which of her credits counted in which ways, and badgering me about getting her two English courses to count so that she could have more elective hours available, because he wanted her to take education classes on the side.

Meanwhile, it was the end of the first day of classes and this young woman hadn't yet registered for a single class, or paid her tuition.  It seemed to me there were other, more urgent things to deal with--the transfer credit issue could wait, and certainly the question of taking education classes could, especially since every time he brought it up, the student rolled her eyes and yelled, "But Dad, I don't want to be a teacher!"

Long story short:  what was scheduled to be a fifteen-minute appointment took over an hour.  And I let it happen.  Why?

Well, my therapist would (and did) say that I needed to recognize how their emotions overwhelmed me sooner, so I could step into my authority and exercise "empathic assertiveness," acknowledging everyone's stress and then getting down to brass tacks.  And of course, she's right.

She was also right, though, when she suggested that part of what happened was that the situation engaged my curiosity:  What's up with these people?  Just how freaked out are they?  Is this guy as much of a psycho helicopter parent as he seems to be?

I suspect that's what was going on with Dr. Dye, too:  Just how nutty is this idiot's theory?  How long will he go on spouting it before he runs out of steam?

And sure, it can be perversely entertaining to let people spin themselves out.  But it's a real problem when they actually need your help, and you've lost complete control of the situation.  And then there's always the nagging worry about not wanting to be a doormat, or to have people think that you suffer fools gladly.

 But you have to pick your battles, too. 

For me, the family story is a better clue to the real problem, and the possible solution.  Yeah, thinking guys like the psoriasis expert or the helicopter dad are idiots makes it easy to dismiss them, but it doesn't get anyone anywhere.  I need an addendum to the phrase--something like, "The man's an idiot, and I need to figure out whether he's the kind of idiot I need to A) Humor;  B) Confront; or C) Get the hell away from as quickly as possible."

In the meantime, there's always Dr. Dye's other famous saying to fall back on:  "Grandson, if you don't amount to a hill of beans in your life, have a kind word for every man and always tip your hat to the ladies."

Photo of Dr. Dye on the front porch of his home in Grantsville, taken by my Dad circa 1941.


Pam said...

Maybe you should have told the guy,"You couldn't be more wrong!" My personal favorite Tomism.

Jane said...

Rosemary, I love your therapist. I need her.

I don't know if I suffer fools gladly (and you didn't seem glad, either) or just too patiently. In part, I'm willing to go down the road a bit with them and see where it takes us. In part, if I fail to become angry, I don't have any sort of emotional signal that tells me it's my turn to take direction of the conversation.

I had lunch with a friend of mine, another female educator, who is similarly challenged. However, she has made some progress: at the 15 min mark, she has started to use body language to change the dynamic of a conversation. So, if a student's parent has been yammering at her for 15 min, she simply half turns, perhaps to the computer, and allows herself to appear distracted or divided. It shifts the dynamic enough that it seems she can get some of her authority back.

One basis for my problem with this is an old Kokernak family belief in silence as a kind of signal to another person that, "I won't dignify that with a remark." Sadly, it took me a wicked long time to realize that silence speaks nothing. Except in novels.

Oh, could I go on and on about this? Yes. You gave me lots to chew on. Good timing. My meetings start tomorrow.