Are You Superior?


Center Stage 

[Welcome to Center Stage. We created this feature to highlight our favorite article of the week. This Center Stage feature gives readers a taste of our show-don’t-tell method. The great philosophers were great philosophers, but how many of us read the great philosophers? How many of us have tried and found their theories too elliptical, vague, or indecipherable.  We want to apply their reason to our dilemmas, but we’re not educated enough to understand what they’re writing. We still need our dilemmas resolved, and we still want to understand our neighbors better. We, here at Rilaly.com, are show-don’t-tell storytellers. We love the story. Is there a better story out there than the one that educates while entertaining? We’re not going to say that we accomplish that lofty goal, that’s up to the reader, but Rilaly.com is chock full of many attempts. We analyze the stories and characters from our life in an attempt to understand them better, and in doing so, we unavoidably learn more about ourselves. If we were to overanalyze our stories, we would probably not say that they are funny in the truest sense of the word, but that they might be so unfunny that the reader is left with the impression that we are, at the very least, clever.                                                     

Are You Superior? Takes Center Stage to ask questions about the various stages of the impressions we make in casual conversations. “You only get one chance to make a first impression. Make sure it’s a great one,” they say. Everyone should follow that advice, and Are You Superior? admits that this is a fact of life. The article asks two questions: why are first impressions so vital, and how often are we wrong about our first impressions. Is securing a quality first impression about proving oneself superior, or is it more important to guard against anyone considering us inferior?  

When we meet coworkers at the water cooler, it’s important to our well-being and livelihood that we, at least, leave lasting impressions, but what if we learned how to leave a façade that we were superior? What if someone told us a super-secret way of dominating our peers in the most casual conversations? Would we use it, or is a heightened sense of superiority unimportant to us? Are You Superior? is not about what to do when they know us, but what we do before they know us.    

Are You Superior? Is about first impressions, follow up impressions, and all of the impressions we make, leave, and seek.] 

I met a guy who didn’t mind dressing me down psychologically. Yet, he probably wouldn’t admit it, even if I called him out on it. Dressing people down in such an obvious manner is uncouth, and it suggests that the purveyor is superior while doing it. I could feel him doing it as walking down the aisle toward him. I was smiling, and I felt him analyze that smile. I could tell that he perceived smiling as a weakness. When he looked at the shirt I wore, the manner in which I walked toward him, and the way I greeted him in a nice manner, I could tell he was scoring me on an analytical chart, and I could tell I wasn’t do well. As much as I hate to admit it, his superficial analysis of me affected our initial interaction. My natural insecurities took over, and I felt inferior to him in a way that I spent weeks trying to redefine. 

This loathsome character is anecdotal evidence of a strange psychological phenomenon in our every day conversations. He’s anecdotal, because most of us don’t examine others in such an obvious manner, but do they psychologically dress us down in a more subtle, less obtuse manner? Do they score us on their personal analytical charts without intending to do so during our casual conversations? They probably don’t know why they do it. If they did, they likely wouldn’t attribute it to a search for superiority, but they do know that they’re searching for something that will give them some intangible, hard to describe feelings of superiority.

If an individual is muscular in a noteworthy manner, or gifted in the athletic arena, they already know the feeling of superiority, as most of us grant physical traits superiority. For the rest of us, this search is not as simple. How do we compare to others? How do we stack up? It’s often difficult, and fruitless, to stare into a mirror and gain true, objective definition, so we do it on the backs of others through our day-to-day interactions to try to gain some information about our identity.

The searches may occur in the first few moments we begin speaking to them, and it often involves scrutiny of our physical appearance. Are we well groomed? Do we brush our teeth? Are all of our nose and ear hairs trimmed? Do we have a socially acceptable hairdo? How much did we pay for that hairdo? How much did we pay for the clothes we wear? Do we wear fashionable clothes? If clothes make the man, what kind of men are we? Some say it’s all about the shoes. Others say that by creating a pleasing dimple in our tie, by denting that tie with the thumb in the tying process, we can create quite a first impression. Most people don’t speak in terms of superiority or inferiority in polite company. Yet, those same people worry about the first impressions they make. What are impressions, but an attempt to define ourselves among our peers?

Is it all about the clothes, or do we make a better first impression through a confident posture, the way we sit, the manner in which we hold our head when we talk, or whether or not we look our counterpart in the eye? Do we have a tongue stud? Are we tattooed or non-tattooed, and who is superior in that dynamic? It’s all relative.

First impressions can be difficult to overcome, but some suggest that what we say after the first impression has greater import. If we have a noticeable flaw we can garner sympathy or empathy, through an underdog status, with what we say in the follow up impression we provide.

To further this theory, some believe that if we notify our counterpart of our weakness –say in the form of a self-deprecating joke– it will redound to the benefit of a strong follow up impression. The subtext involves the idea that doing so will end their search for our weakness, and the feeling of superiority they gain will allow them to feel more comfortable with us. This, we hope, might result in them enjoying our company more. 

Comedian Louie Anderson turned this into an art form. Moments after taking the stage, Louie Anderson informs his audience that he’s overweight in the form of a well-rehearsed joke. The first impression we have of Louie is that he is overweight. When he addresses that first impression up with a quality, self-deprecating joke it disarms us. We thought we were superior to him, based on his physical flaw. By acknowledging that flaw, Louie takes that feeling of superiority away from us, and he gives it back to us with his definition of it. That re-definition of our superiority allows him to go ahead and manipulate us in all the ways a comedian needs to manipulate a crowd. The distraction of our physical superiority is gone, and we’re now free to enjoy the comedic stylings of Louie Anderson.

The problem with a successful follow up rears its ugly head when we begin to overdo it. When our self-deprecating humor works in the second stage of impression, we attempt to move into the more personal third and fourth stages of getting to know our counterpart better. In these stages, we begin to feel more comfortable with the person on the receiving end, and we let our guard down. The problem we encounter, partially due to our insecurity, is that these people might not be as entertained by us as they were in the second, more self-deprecating stage of impression. As a result, we might begin to fall back on the more successful, second impression to lessen the impact of our attempts to be more personal with them. “Of course I’m nothing but a fat body, so what do I know,” is a qualifier that we insecure types add to an insightful comment we make that they don’t find as entertaining. When that proves successful, and our counterpart begins laughing again, we begin committing to this qualifier so often that we become it in their eyes. They can’t help thinking this is who we are, because it’s the impression we’ve given them so often that it becomes part of what they think of us. One way to test if we’ve fallen prey to this progression is to remove that successful, qualifier that we have been adding to the tail end of our jokes and stories to gain favor with them. If we have been adding it too often, the recipient of the qualifier might add, “That’s true, but aren’t you fat?” to the tail end of our story for us.

Some of the times, we commit to these additions to complete the rhythm of a joke or story, but most of the times we do it to insert some element of superiority or inferiority. Thanks to certain situation comedies, and the effect they’ve had on the zeitgeist, some jokes, stories, and thoughts feel incomplete without some element of superiority or inferiority attached to it. I used to be a qualifier, until I realized that too many people were exploiting my qualifiers for their own sense of superiority. It was so bad, at one point, that I couldn’t say anything halfway intelligent without someone adding, “That’s true, but aren’t you fat?” at the tail end of it.

***

It’s my contention that most of us are in a constant search of indicators of superiority or inferiority. If our counterpart is religious, we may feel superior to them because we’re not. If we are religious, we may want to know what religion they are, and we may base our feelings of superiority on that.

“They’re all going to hell,” a friend of mine whispered when we passed a group of Muslims. When I asked why she thought this, she said, “They don’t accept the Lord, Jesus Christ as their personal savior.” 

I’ve heard Christians use that condemnation many times, but I rarely heard someone use it as a weapon of superiority. I realized some time later that this was all this woman had. She hated her job, her kids hated her, and she was far from attractive, or in good shape. She needed that nugget of superiority to help her get through the day, and to assist her in believing that she was, at least, superior to someone in some manner.

On the flip side of the coin, a Muslim friend of mine seemed forever curious about the American way of life. She would constantly ask me questions about the motivations I had for doing what I did. I didn’t mind it at the time, for I didn’t mind jokes about how Americans seem to be driven by sex, violence, and other “unclean” motivations. I also didn’t mind that some of her questions involved me, as I didn’t mind being self-deprecating. It didn’t dawn on me until later that she was searching for points of superiority. She saw the Muslim religion as a clean religion from which she gained a feeling of purity. There is nothing wrong with that, of course, until she used that as a weapon of superiority against me.

The search for where we stand in this chasm of superiority and inferiority can be a difficult one to traverse, so we often attempt to answer our questions on the backs of others. It’s a shortcut around introspective examination and self-reflection. Some feel superior to another, based on another’s religion, their politics, their race, or their education level. Some even gain feelings of superiority based on the manner they use to brush their teeth. Those who brush their teeth top to bottom are not doing it in the manner advised by the American Dental Association, but do those of us who brush our teeth in circles find vindication and validation from our dentist? Others base their comparative analyses on the manner in which they shave their pubic hair. If one person leaves a strip and another shaves Brazilian who is superior, and who is inferior, and where does the person that lets it all grow wild stand in that dynamic? We all have some positions of superiority and inferiority, and most of them are relative.

This modern battle for psychological definition often calls for the subtleties and nuance of guerrilla style warfare. The age of standing toe to toe occurred in the days of duels, and The Civil War, are over because most modern field generals would never risk their troops in toe-to-toe battles that former battalion leaders considered the gentleman’s way to fight. On that note, no one of the modern age would ever ask their counterpart if they think they’re superior for that might involve some sort of equivocation that details the strengths and weaknesses of both parties in which no one is a winner and no one a loser. No, the battle between two modern day, psychological combatants, more often than not, involves a never-ending battle of guerrilla warfare-style pot shots.

***

Long before my mind’s eye was opened to the comprehensive nature of this conversation, I met a kid named Walter in high school. A decent description of Walter is that he was at the bottom of the teenage boys’s totem pole. He was the rabbit and the ground squirrel at the bottom of the food chain. An indecent way of describing Walter is that he was a target for every other boy who feared being in the crosshairs of every other boy. In this indecent description, I was superior to Walter. If I was above him, I was clinging to the divider by my fingernails.

Walter did all the things boys like. He never let a slight go by without reply, and his replies were feckless screams of indignation. Teenage boys love nothing more than knowing they can get under another boy’s skin, and there’s nothing the subject can do about it. It makes them feel superior to drive another boy crazy, and it gives them a greater sense of superiority when that kid acts as if he’s being attacked by a hive of hornets. 

It would’ve been so easy to join the pack of jackals, as I saw an overwhelming number of my peers (those of us clinging to the border that divided us from Walter) join in on the barrage against Walter. The fact that I did not was based on sympathy and empathy. I knew what it felt like to be on the other end of a barrage. If Walter dominated the bully charts, I was in the top five. I thought we rabbits and ground squirrels should stick together and advise one another on how to deal with these awful moments in our lives. Not only did Walter fail to heed my advice, because why would he, I suffered from almost as much abuse as he did, but he joined the barrages against me to take a step up on me in this superior vs. inferior world.

‘Et tu, Walter?’ I wanted to yell, ‘but I refrained.’ You gave me ample opportunity to ride you, like a horse, to the promised land, but I refrained. Did I expect gratitude, respect, or appreciation from Walter ? Did I expect him to recognize me as one of the goodfellas who chose to refrain? If you knew Walter as well as we did, you knew he had a no-one-gets-out-of-here-alive mentality. I knew that, but I thought he might consider the numerous times I refrained. Not only did he fail to value, or even recognize my efforts for what they were, he apparently thought less of me for doing it. 

I don’t remember if I wanted Walter to recognize my previous efforts of refraining, or if Walter joining a barrage against me fueled some competitive animosity I gained for him, but I joined in on the next barrage against Walter. The funny thing was Walter didn’t react any different. 

For those, like me, who might feel guilty about cashing in on those opportunities to nuke another person for the purpose of gaining superiority, there is no reward for refraining. Even the most inferior will take any opportunity they can find to make another look bad. They enjoy it without reflection or feelings of empathy or solidarity, especially when they consider the new target to be superior in some way. Others don’t enjoy this, as we have intimate knowledge of the embarrassment that can accompany looking bad in front of others. We also feel some empathy for those who expose flaws that can be easily corrected. We hold our fire. In a perfect world, others would value such judiciousness, and they would return it. For various reasons, including the idea that most people do not know when we’re refraining, it is not valued. Some may even consider any refraining a display of inferiority on our part.

In a perfect world, our interactions would involve others recognizing inferiority and superiority in a gentlemanly manner. We would wait for enemy fire before firing, to win the battle off the field as well as the one on it. The problem with refraining too often, or only firing in self-defense, with those we battle in psychological warfare, is that most enemy combatants do not view refraining as an order to hold your fire. One would think that in the absence of pot shots, the other party would recognize any cease and desist order. In my experience, they don’t. They sense weakness, and they open fire. Something about the human condition suggests that even the most empathetic and sympathetic souls stay vigilant. Every once in a while, we need to fire off a few rounds just to keep our enemy combatants hunkered down behind shields. Are we superior, are they inferior? We don’t care. We just want to keep them level with us, as we learn that the individual with their mind’s eye open to the psychological games we all play must keep firing, if for no other reason than to remind all of our opponents of the arsenal we have at our disposal. 

If you enjoyed this article, you might enjoy the personal experience that drove it: Are You Superior? II

Enjoying Other People’s Pain


Tedious. The guy is tedious. He doesn’t even know it. He thinks he’s hilarious. He thinks this is his big moment. He probably thinks this moment on stage is the big break he’s been working toward for years. He probably thinks this moment is nothing more than a stepping stone to bigger and brighter things in life. Someone probably told him he was funny. Was it his Aunt Clara, or his dad? Who told this guy he was so funny that he should try to make a career out of it? I’m not funny, so I’m probably not the best critic, but I know what I think is funny and this ain’t it. I know the plight of the unfunny, but this guy? The idea that this guy has a bright, gleaming smile on his face makes it obvious that he thinks this is his moment in the Sun. He thinks he’s doing it. He thinks this might be the best day of his life. “Except for the birth of my children,” he might add, “and the day I bought Herschel the Turtle at a pet store, and the day I met my wife.” He’d probably qualify that best-day-of-my-life assessment, so no one calls him out on it, but he’d probably say this was top-5 day … if someone stopped him right there in the first quarter of his standup routine.   

How many people can do this? I wonder, trying to drum up some respect for this guy. What percentage of the population can stand up on a stage and try to make complete strangers laugh? I respect anyone who can do what I never could. He told us he traveled twelve hours to be here tonight. He traveled half-a-day to try to make a roomful of strangers laugh. That’s a level of commitment to a dream that most people don’t have. It’s one thing to try to make a table of four laugh, but a comedy club requires that its patrons pay a two-drink minimum to enter. How many people could stand up to try to make a roomful of demanding, paying customers laugh? I have a lot of respect for what this guy’s doing, and I mentally applaud him for it, but I can’t get past the fact that he’s just not funny.  

The audience is receptive. They’re laughing at everything he says. Why are they laughing? Are they so aching for a laugh that they’ll laugh at anything? What if he did something edgy? What if all he did was sit down and eat a bowl of Count Chokula? What if he performed a dramatic reading of Dr. Seuss’ ABC book or The Great Gatsby? Would they still be laughing? He has a certain position of authority on humor, because he’s up there, and we’re not. We assume he’s played a number of cities before ours. We assume that he’s up there, because he’s been vetted. He’s doing something none of us could do sober, so we defer to his experience. Is that why they’re laughing, because I find this guy typical and tedious. 

I was so immersed in these thoughts that I missed the audience turn. The laughter went from a throng to sparse laughter to silence. What are you laughing at? I thought to those few still laughing, this guy’s not funny. I failed to notice that they were some of the few still laughing, until they stopped too.  

The standup comedian is now baking under an uncomfortably bright spotlight. The silence is deafening. Prior to the turn, he informed us that he traveled half a day for the chance to make us laugh, and he added some typical, tedious notes to that note, and everyone laughed. In the now deafening silence, I think about that twelve-hour drive, and it must’ve been filled with excitement. He was probably barely able to contain his excitement. His appearance in our small city would kickstart his dream of becoming a standup comedian. I wonder if that trip involved any concerns about about how quickly the best day in your life can turn into your worst. Twelve hours is a long time to spend in a car, all alone, with nothing but your thoughts, your debates, and to grapple with best case and worst case scenarios.

He resembles Weird Al without the looks. I see myself in this man. I see his observations. I know where they’re headed, but they don’t quite get there. There’s something wrong with his delivery, and his material. Members of the audience are now cringing at one another. I laugh. For the first time since about his third joke, I laugh, but his act hasn’t changed. The reaction to his material has. His material is not offensive or risqué. He’s just not funny. So, why am I laughing?  

I return to the question of whether he had the audience in the beginning. Were they just dying to be entertained? He had a few self-deprecating jokes that hit home. He opened with a few jokes about being unattractive and overweight. He joked about how grateful he was that a woman decided to become the wife of an overweight, unattractive man. They laughed. Little by little, joke by joke, silence began to rear its ugly head, until it became obvious the poor man was baking under the spotlight. I was one of the few not laughing in the beginning. Now I’m the only one who is. Various members of the audience began twisting around in their seats to see the person who was laughing.  

I laugh because he’s sweating. I laugh because he’s trying so hard that he’s now trying too hard. I laugh because he’s drowning, and he’s not bombing on purpose. I laugh, because I realize we’re watching a man’s dreams come crashing down around him. I laugh because one of his best days ever is turning into his worst. It’s fascinating to watch, It’s captivating.

“What’s the opposite of empathy and sympathy?” I asked a friend, in a discussion involving this peculiar morbid curiosity we have for enjoying other people’s pain. When he didn’t answer straight away, I added, “Sociopathic, psychopathic? Is it narcissism? Whatever it is, I have it.”    

“It’s evil!” he said. “We’re not evil people, but we have a little spot of evil in our hearts. You know how people say they have a soft spot in their hearts for something particular about a person, place, or thing? We have a hard spot in our hearts.”

It was a funny condemnation, but was it true? Kind-hearted, sympathetic and empathetic men do not enjoy watching another man squirm in pain. I don’t rubberneck on the interstate, hoping to see a severed leg laying out on the interstate, and I don’t enjoy seeing other people cry, but I love witnessing the worst part of someone else’s day. What’s wrong with me? Have I been conditioned by the comedians who almost appear to enjoy bombing? Andy Kaufman, David Letterman, and Norm MacDonald turned bombing into an art form. They almost appeared to get off on it. MacDonald said he didn’t care if an audience laughed at a joke or not. That was his charm. Chris Elliott personalized the Kaufman/Letterman element and created one of the more unusual careers in entertainment. Did they plant seeds in my brain that anything embarrassing, uncomfortable, or cringeworthy is some form of lowbrow entertainment that is so low that it’s considered high art? I didn’t get lowbrow entertainment, until I did. It clicked. It’s schtick. Once I got it, I couldn’t wait to proclaim to the world that I got it. I understood it to the point that I considered it hilarious to watch another man squirm under the bright spotlight of a small city’s comedy club. 

It’s not schtick for this man however. He worked hard on this material. We can feel it in his transitions. We can hear him either nix some material, lose his place, or worry that he frontloaded all of his best material. We can hear him worry about his performance while he’s talking. He’s lost faith in his material, in himself, and his ability to turn this around. I laugh harder. I have the giggles. I can’t stop. People are staring. The group I came to the comedy club with are giving me looks. I compose myself, until I see pain on the comedian’s face. His pain is so obvious that I imagine this is what it might look like if I could see the expression of someone who just jumped off a building. I have the giggles again, but I’m controlling it better this time. 

Mercifully, the comedian’s act ends. The crowd applauds politely, and the comedian surprises me by mouthing, “Thank you!” to me. I didn’t know it at the time, but my friends later tell me that he began directing his jokes at me toward the tail end of his act. He, presumably, thought I was the only audience member who got it. I felt bad, because I wasn’t laughing with him. I was laughing at him.  

One excuse I could use to explain my behavior is that I find the unfunny hilarious. Perhaps I relate to this comedian, because I’ve been told that I have a decent pitch, and I know my beats, but my punchlines are so confusing that they’re not funny. Perhaps my laughter had something to do with the idea that I don’t enjoy traditional humor. I’ve watched too many comedies, sitcoms, and radio shows to appreciate what we call a traditional humor.   

I call it accidental humor. It’s not an accident, but I lead the reader to think it is. They might not think I’m in on the joke. “I don’t know if you intended for this line, right here, to be funny, but it is.” I’m not arguing that these jokes are funny and other people simply don’t get it. I’m saying I write what I write to entertain me, and I intend it to be funny for me. Nothing entertains me more than a contextual joke that could be misinterpreted as a misunderstanding between the author and the reader. This contextual humor could be misinterpreted as to make the “I” character look bad. That’s Letterman. That’s Chris Elliott. I know every line leading up to it was intended to give that character a level of omniscience and expertise, until that line. I intended for it to appear to be an apparent slip up. I call it accidental humor.   

It’s all Letterman’s fault. He started it all for me. I love feeling uncomfortable, because I don’t know what to do when I witness other people’s pain (OPP), and it’s David Letterman’s fault. I’d love to say all that and believe it. I’d love to say that watching him on NBC for all those years had such a profound effect on me that I now find OPP hilarious. How many years did he cringe with us in uncomfortable pain? I’d love to say it’s all his fault, but my enjoyment of OPP predates him. When I saw some kid fall on the playground, some deep and dark part of me wanted to see the cavalcade of their expressions. I wanted to watch how their expressions change when they went from scrambling to avoid a fall to knowing there was nothing they could do about it. I wanted a snapshot of their face when they began to fear how much this was probably going to hurt. I wanted to see that progression, and I did a number of times. I also found their final expression of pain so delicious that I would quickly exit to the other side of the playground so they wouldn’t see me laughing, and I got caught more than once. 

“How come when we get hurt, it’s so funny to you,” Mike Amick said, calling me out, “but when you get hurt, we’re supposed to take it serious?” 

Is it evil to enjoy watching other people get hurt? Is there something wrong with us if we enjoy it when another person cries during an argument? Is there a hard spot on the heart of someone who enjoys watching another’s dreams come crashing down around them? The fact that a grade school child’s correct assessment of me stays with me to this day should suggest that I’m still struggling with it. When we discuss such things, some of us exaggerate the levels of pain involved. The incidents we’re talking about here are skinned knees, the guy who walked into a pole and broke his glasses in half, and other unserious injuries. Most of us never saw anyone get truly hurt as a result of a playground incident. It’s still a little morbid to say that we enjoy watching another get hurt regardless if the person walks away laughing with us or not. 

I’m a grown man now who manages to display kindness in the face of tragedy, compassion, and sympathy when other people get hurt. I obviously know all kinds of physical and emotional pain intimately now, and I empathize when people endure hardships and physical pain, but after I tend to their wounds and make sure their okay, I rush to that dark corner of the room to laugh my tail off. I know that conducting corporate meetings is not in the same league with standing before paying customers, but I got enough of a taste for what this comedian must’ve gone through on that stage that night to feel some empathy for what it must feel like to know that we don’t have what it takes to entertain people. 

No matter how many excuses and qualifiers I present, I know I’ll pay a price for these unusual and morbid reactions I have to other people’s pain. I’ve already had some experience with it, but I know all about karma, and I know I’ll get mine. I know there will come a day when I struggle to breathe one more breath and someone sees the effort I’m making to live one more minute of one more day, and they find that struggle hilarious. I know I’m not the only one with this strange, morbid curiosity, and I know I’ll probably yell something like, “What are you laughing at? I’m dying here!” in the heat of the moment. After my emotional hysteria subsides, and I don’t have the strength to fight death anymore, I’ll either acknowledge that I deserve it after laughing at so many others during their worst days in life, or I’ll find the humor in it too.