Imposing Our Preferences on Others

As a young engineer I had a boss who often chose to berate me for the fact that my desk was rather disorderly. “A cluttered desk is the sign of a cluttered mind,” he would say. Some of my peers, who were more concerned about winning his approval than I was, would spend a half hour at the end of the working day putting things away in drawers, making neat little piles of essential papers on their desks and taking steps to more or less hide the clutter from his critical eye. This merely seemed to me to be a waste of time which might be put to more productive use. Sure, occasionally I would misplace something in the creative chaos that spread across my work area. But I comforted myself that the effort I spent locating something that was occasionally misplaced was far less than their ongoing efforts to portray a semblance of order.

Dr Laurence J Peter, the author of the famous “Peter Principle” tellingly asked, “If a cluttered desk is the sign of a cluttered mind, what is the significance of a clean desk?”

We messy people might be tempted to say as a corollary, that “Empty desks are a sign of an empty mind.” But of course this would be incorrect and only add to the unnecessary intolerance between people of quite different behavioural preferences.

There is even some evidence to suggest that senior executives with messy desks outperform those with neat desks. The good Dr Phil once passed onto me an article from the Harvard Business Review (circa 1997) on the subject. The article described how a certain Mr Eric Yaverbaum, the President of a New York Company and a fervent supporter of the neat desk paradigm surveyed senior executives in Fortune 1000 Companies to gain evidence in support of his thesis that executives with neat desks were more effective. To his dismay he found that those with messy desks ran more successful organisations based on the performance of their organisation’s share prices.

I guess we all have a tendency to want to arrange other people’s lives to accord with our own personal preferences. Heaven knows how hard some of us try to do this to our children! Through our intolerance they come to know that the behaviours we demand are “good” and where they fail to fill the bill then they must be inherently “bad”.

But this fails to recognise the wide natural diversity in human temperament. Some of us are absolutely meticulous. A lovely lady that used to work with me used to berate me when I tidied my desk if the papers were not perfectly aligned with the edge of the desk. When she went shopping at the supermarket, not only did she have a shopping list but the list was ordered to correspond with how the articles appeared in the supermarket aisles. Others I have worked with had papers not only strewn across their desks put arranged in piles on the floor around their workspace.

As I have often said we are unlikely to expect the artist’s studio to be particularly tidy and we would be concerned if our accountant’s office wasn’t.

Probably one of the (now largely discontinued) more injust attempts to unfairly mould behaviour was the insistence that children use their right hands to write with. (Perhaps we should just have called the hand we grasped the pen in, the “write” hand instead. That would have confused the pedants.)

This, as a left-hander is something I can talk about through bitter experience. No amount of cajoling, threats or even physical punishment from my primary school teachers could convince me that writing with my right hand was a natural thing to do. Fortunately at the age of about eight the teachers gave up. I can tell you I may not be too smart but I can be tenacious! And then would you believe, in a schoolyard accident I broke my left arm. I am pleased to say my parents had no thought of suing the school or my teachers (as many would seem to do today) but suggested that perhaps I should be a little more careful and that such things could be occasionally be expected to happen to a normally active, rather exuberant child.

But the wonder of it all was manifested when I realised that when deprived of the use of my left hand I was pretty adept at writing with my right! And for a time I was reasonably ambidextrous.

I was even at that age and later a keen cricketer. For whatever reason, I had developed as a left arm bowler but persisted in batting right-handed. (I have a theory about this but won’t bore you with the details in a short blog essay.) I was rather amused last Christmas sharing a couple of magnificent scotch whiskeys (that probably accounts for it) with my youngest brother when he recounted a story of an interschool cricket match when I had gone out to bat and had taken my stance as a right-handed batsman but before the ball was delivered changed to a left handed stance and managed to hit the ball through a gap not readily available to a right-handed batsman.

But in my usual self-indulgence, I digress.

So my thesis, if to be summarised, suggests that our understanding of other human beings is undermined by the fact that we believe that they must see the world as we do and as a result they must appreciate the things we appreciate and that they should believe that the things we believe are good for us should also be good for them.

I am reasonably introverted and don’t socialise a good deal. When I was younger because of different circumstances my wife and I would often go to dinner parties. Many of you have been there as well, I assume. Oftimes we would arrive and there would be three or four other couples. The host would serve a few drinks and then quite often would say, “Let me share with you the new album I have just bought.”

I will probably need to do some interpretation for the younger of my readers. (I am sorry this does not include you, Father Robin. Just go off and have a little nap.) Before the days of CD’s, I-Pods and such marvellous technology, we relied on shellac and after that plastic discs which we placed upon our turntables that rotated at thirty three revolutions per minute and depended on a sapphire (or if you could afford it a diamond) stylus to extricate music from the undulations laid out on the grooves of the synthetic disk. Such disks were called “LP’s” and often “albums”.

And of course, as now you are anticipating, the “album” my gracious host was about to share with us was perhaps a record of the Luton Girl’s Choir performing Gregorian chant, with harmonium and sackbut accompaniment. For the aficionado this was probably bliss but for the rest of us it was torture. Probably even more often the “album” was something reflecting popular tastes and the owner just wanted to show us how “with it” he/she was. For troglodytes like me with little interest in popular music this was also a trial.

I have often thought that popular music presents another instance of conspicuous consumption. Young people cruise down the streets in their cars with their head-banging music being propagated at six hundred decibels or at least at a volume that causes pain to old reactionaries like me rather than pleasure. It has always occurred to me that they do this not so that they can enjoy the music (which seems impossible to me at that volume) but so they can demonstrate to the rest of the world how “with it” they are having acquired the latest top seller. Their motivation, seems to me, not so much to enjoy listening to the awful cacophony, but to assert their knowledge of and embracement of popular culture by demonstrating to the all-suffering and generally unwilling audience their mastery of this fickle genre!

There is evidence to suggest that some music has proven to be beneficial to health. (See for example “Bach’s Music”: Le Roux et al 2007).There was also some interesting work done a decade or more ago which suggested listening to Mozart improved the results of students sitting for mathematical examinations. This is just an observation and should not be construed as an inducement to give up your head banging stuff for something more civilized. Heaven forbid that I should impose on you my personal preferences!

But now here is an unproven thesis that I believe should be tested and it is that those who listen to Mozart whilst driving are unlikely to succumb to road rage!

Another invidious source of difference which discomforts some, is choice of TV viewing. It seems some people can’t wait to get to work and a begin a discussion with workmates on last night’s episode of the reality TV program on workplace productivity called “Australians Idle” or some such nonsense. Those workmates who only watch sensible documentaries on “Discovery Channel” are virtually ostracized. And similar routines are played out around the world of sport. It can be a big disadvantage in some workplaces to show no interest, in the football cricket or what sport is in season. In my management team I once had two such members. Whilst the others were reliving last night’s football, these two would have very pointed discussions on the merits of such esoteric sports as sheep dog trials for Chihuahuas or the world championships in curling for left-handed dwarfs or whatever to the chagrin of their colleagues.

The human race is characterised by its exceeding diversity. Indeed evolutionary biologists argue that the advent of sexual reproduction as distinct from reproduction by cell division enabled such diversity and accelerated the evolutionary process. We should rejoice in our diversity. However our egos find it hard to accept that others might see things differently and as a result have tastes and preferences that are dissimilar to ours.

The American journalist and author, Sydney J Harris, wrote “Intolerance is the most socially acceptable form of egotism, for it permits us to assume superiority without personal boasting.”

I might paraphrase the dilemma in this way – human beings are tolerant of the differences of others provided they are similar to their own!

And I can’t finish this week without commenting on an earth-shattering piece of physics – the discovery of concrete evidence of the existence of the Higgs boson. It is mind-boggling to contemplate that Peter Higgs with just a pencil and paper (his words) over fifty years ago (in 1964 in fact) was able to produce a hypothesis which the standard model of particle physics seemed to require for its completeness. And now (albeit after the expenditure of huge amounts of money) it seems as though he is proved right. I don’t pretend to be knowledgeable in particle physics but what I do know suggests this is a major discovery with huge implications regarding our understanding of the physical universe. It is postulated that this particle creates the Higgs field which creates the mass in other particles. Although I must confess I don’t know why we had to build the Large Hadron Collider to make this discovery. A discerning scientist might have come to the same conclusion examining my bathroom scales which seem to be giving additional mass to the composite particles of my body rather alarmingly lately!

11 Replies to “Imposing Our Preferences on Others”

  1. Just returned from my nap.

    Nothing seems to have changed.

    Home is where you hang your hat.

  2. My desk is sporadically messy, and then I clean it up when I feel I have reached some sort of junction in, or completion of a project. A half day cleaning up is a nice little reward for a job well done (the measure of which, of course, I am the judge!). But I have seen great people with clean desks, and terrible performers with messy desks, so utilitarian as it might be, its the output I look for.

    The music thing is a terrible wind-up Ted! Don’t you know popular music is “the soundtrack to our lives” (ref.2MMM), and as for Le Roux, I suggest you try La Roux (and in particular “In for the kill”). I don’t know why people like to play popular music loud – sometimes it suits, and sometimes its much better quiet – really depends on the band. What I can say is this – it’s a vehicle that allows thoughts to be expressed in a way that is unacceptable to many in our over-structured neo-liberal society. There are some very interesting lyrics out there – completely subversive to left-wing politically correct ideology (we are in an age where left is the old right), or just perhaps highlighting angst of youth, and in fact, in their own way, many of the aspects of the human condition that you comment on. Here’s a few to try – Brous (“Brother” is my favourite, but her whole EP is great – and “Little Ticket” is on youtube), Ian Dury (“spasticus autisticus” – you would like him – needed to be said), just for fun “Dancefloor Questionnaire ” by Galapogos who you should get out and see in Brisbane! There is a new thing happeneing in popular music – its independent of the big labels, and its a really exciting outlet for all types of talent.

  3. and then there’s the rather extreme imposing of preferences via the bombs that the ubiquitous Muslim terrorists inflict on unbelievering foreigners…..and we see in the news every day the lemming-like streams of refugees fleeing such “imposing of preferences” in their own country…

  4. At the sub atomic particle level we theorise about the existence of something and then create experiments to allow us to observe it. The observer though is not independent of the observed.

    So my question is, the higgs bosun particle… did science discover it, or create it through the process of looking? Would a different theory pursued in a different way have revealed a different reality?

  5. Happy birthday old mate! MIght I say how much I have enjoyed jousting with you over the years. It is wonderful that we shared a lot together in our professional careers and that we still have an ongoing connection. I really appreciate your comments to my blog essays.

    I didn’t understand that you shared a birthday with Bastille Day. I would find it much more entertaining to sing La Marseiillies with you than “Happy Birthday”.

    Tell me, whatever happened to “Rough Red”? Do you still own such a veicle?

    Venerable Father Robin, more power to you! I trust that you imbue your disciples with the philosophy of love and that you are not as hard on them as you are on me. (No complaints there is nothing that you could say that would offend me!)

    Best wishes you old reprobate – you stir something deep in my soul!

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