You’re having a conversation. Someone says something which you know is factually incorrect. What do you do?
Eastern Long-Necked Turtle. image taken from flickr.com
A couple of days ago, for instance, I was taking a walk with a few people, taking in the health benefits of fresh air and whatever associated nonsense (I was forced to go). We chanced upon some long-necked turtles which were definitely having a better time than me and, naturally, started discussing them. One of our group identified them as terrapins. For those who didn’t know, I live in Australia, which would make this quite an extraordinary find. Doing my duty as a Biology graduate, I pointed out their long necks, the fact that they were larger, the fact that they were swimming more slowly, and, of course, the fact that we were a little far away from their home by mere tens of thousands of kilometres.
Terrapin. image taken from ct.gov
“No, I’m pretty sure they’re terrapins.”
What does one do at this point? I’ll tell you what I did. As a trained non-jerk, I sat there silently, as I had taught myself to do many years before, listening to him talk knowledgeably about terrapins, how they sat at the bottom of the lake with their mouths open waiting for fish. Through this, my social training made me smilingly nod, inwardly wondering how someone can manage to incorporate three different species of turtle into one painfully stupid explanation. My dad’s explanation later that this guy had most likely never seen turtles outside the dinner table and probably thought they were all the same did not help.
Alligator Snapping Turtle. image taken from wikipedia.org
Non-biology-inclined readers will probably be wondering at this point why I care so much. I will admit, perhaps this time I was a little biased; that same person had, only hours before, said my dad’s house reeked of cat piss, quite matter-of-factly, in those words. But there is a wider point to all of this. Everyone’s had that conversation where someone who clearly doesn’t know what they’re talking about, through dumb luck, obtained the mic. My dad, for instance, has many similar experiences in conversations about power tools. “Mate, you paid too much for that drill, I got mine for X, and all it cost me was that lithium battery…” happens quite often, to which he apparently walks off, laughs, and cries, all in one action. My mum (a Chinese historian), upon my question as to whether Chinese wives not taking their husbands’ surnames indicated less societal sexism, unleashed a tirade about my naivety so vehement I try not to ask her about Chinese history at all now.
This sort of thing is especially noticeable in a political conversation. For instance, I think that Reclaim Australia is factually a bunch of racists cunningly disguised as slightly less racist racists, so if someone talks about them with so much as a tone of sympathy, I treat them with the same derision as I did Mr Alligator-Snapping-Long-Necked Terrapin. For me, and I suspect far more others than the vocal few realise, these conversations end with my sitting there silently, pretending to be defeated so as to kill the conversation as quickly as possible. Mobile phone games are more useful than you might think.
What can you do but sit there and bear it? image taken from johnparkerlive.com
So, people say stupid things. What do we do about it? Well, most of you will probably tell me to suck it up, and who knows, you’re probably right. But it’s not being on the receiving end of mind-numbingly incorrect statements that worries me (well, I guess it worries me a little). What if I end up being the guy giving those statements? What if I thought I was discussing Neoliberalism when I was actually talking about bunny rabbits? Everyone would, like me, be too awkward to say anything, and I’d never know I’d made an ass of myself. Hell, I’ve probably already been Turtle Man without realising. Clearly, societal change is needed. I need people to start calling out my stupidity, and to do the same to others, or else Turtle Men will continue to plague conversation and, at a certain number of polite silences, I’ll start being tempted to spend real money on those mobile games. This is serious stuff, people!
But, you know, you do it, not me. I don’t want to be a jerk or anything.
Happy new year guys.