Bullitt's Bros

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Preferences: A Dadecdote

So, as I think I've mentioned somewhere before, Dad has this interesting quirk where he thinks his preferences are shared by everyone else.

For example, at a Christmas party last year, a group of us were holding different conversations in the living room. Dad leaves the room, goes upstairs, and returns with a CD. I don't remember what was on the CD--most likely something from Caesaria Evora--but he walked over to the computer (where I was sitting), handed me the CD, and told me to play it. Now, keep in mind that delightful Christmas music was already playing (at a low level), but because I was under orders, and because I know resistance to Dad's orders is futile, I replaced it with his CD. However, I played it at the same low level I had played the Christmas music.

Unfortunately, this was not good enough for Dad. After all, he could still hear the conversations over the music. Naturally enough, he told me to turn the volume up on the CD, so that everyone could enjoy the music. He didn't ask anyone whether this was OK; that didn't occur to him. He wanted to hear the music so he assumed everyone else did too.

This lack of empathy can sometimes be annoying, especially when combined with other of Dad's goals. For example, if he wants Chinese food (as he always does), he'll ask, "would you like Chinese food?" If you say yes, he'll say, "Okay, let's go", and then we'll go to the Chinese restaurant (there's only one we ever go to).

If you say, "no, I'm not in the mood", he'll ask, "are you sure?" If you say you are, he'll ask you, "how can you be so sure?" If you're honest with yourself, you will admit that it's possible that Chinese food would hit the spot after all; so you're not certain that you don't want Chinese food. And Dad then seems to hold the premise, "if something is possible, then we should treat it as if it's real." That is, he invokes radical Cartesian skepticism, as long as doing so results in your admitting that it's possible that you actually do want Chinese food. After all, if you don't know, as Descartes did not, whether the external world exists, then it's time to get Chinese food: "I think, therefore I will be hungry again in three hours."

A similar incident happened during this latest trip of mine to visit my parents. I was in the car and Dad asked me whether I wanted to listen to patriotic American music. I said, "sure, that's fine". He then tried to put the CD in the player but had a little trouble, so I took it from him and put it in myself. Since I was the one who put it in the player he said, "you really want to listen to this music!"

[You might be wondering: how does his assumption that all people have his preferences result in his regular corralling of you into admitting that you, after all, want Chinese food? Simple: he assumes that if he wants it, you want it too; so if you say you don't want it, you're either lying or self-deceived. He's just trying to get you to admit your preference, in the interest of full disclosure. In this sense, Dad is a dogged truth-seeker.]

Anyway, like I was saying, this lack of empathy can sometimes be annoying, but it can also be useful. A few days ago our insane Romanian cleaning lady was whining, all day, about how her car was damaged, and she needed $300 to fix it. She complained about this from 3 pm to 8:30 pm. For some reason, from 8 to 8:30 she started demeaning herself, saying how stupid she was (I assume she was doing this in order to garner pity, pity that could then be directed to fixing her car). Dad asked her why she thought this. She said she didn't know. Then, in the hopes of cheering her up, dad said she did a good job cleaning today. She countered that he must have thought all her other cleanings were sub-par. He said, "oh, then I mean today that you are extra-good." That confused her, and that confusion angered her, so she decided to leave. Later on, I talked with Dad about her, and he said he had no idea why she started belittling herself. I theorized that she was trying to make him feel sorry for her, so he would give her $300. "But why should I do that?", Dad correctly wondered. I said, well, it's far from clear that you should, and she knows that, which is why she didn't ask for the money directly; instead, she tried to get you to give it to her through sheer rhetoric. "Oh", dad said. "I didn't notice."

Why, after all, would he notice? He didn't want to give her any money! And if he didn't want to give her any, she must not have wanted any!



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