The Chariness of Our Honesty

The person-situation debate –I knew there’d be an argument about that sooner or later. It’s the concern that maybe we aren’t the same person we thought we were –that we might change with circumstances… Perhaps there is no eternal me that rides the waves; maybe I’m not so predictable after all.

So why are they still squabbling about it? Nobody I know has even heard of it, let alone argued about it at dinner.

The issue seems to be whether it is personal traits or the situation that decides behavior. Are honest people always honest -even in the face of temptation? Even when all around are corrupt? And are traits themselves corruptible, or do we hold with Hamlet that ‘there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so’?

And what about the intuitively compelling idea of a thin-edge-of-a-wedge starting it all off –the so-called slippery slope? Is it really the case that we are more able to justify small deviations –little discrepancies, or small lies- which inure us to the incremental changes that might lead to something unanticipated? Unintended? I would have thought so, at any rate. But, of course, intuition is grist for the academic mill, and just when you think you have a finger on the pulse of malfeasance, along comes a Dutch study that puts paid to your naïveté:

The study, mentioned in the Association for Psychological Science, seems to indicate that: ‘[…] severe unethical behavior doesn’t necessarily emerge through a gradual process but can result from a sudden “golden opportunity”.’ Coals to Newcastle, perhaps, but it does question something that has always seemed obvious to me: ‘The popular idea that unethical behavior tends to start small and build up over time falls in line with established psychological processes like moral disengagement and shifting social norms — the gradual progression from small, ambiguous acts to progressively larger transgressions may enable those involved to maintain the belief that they are moral, upstanding people.’ I really don’t know what to believe any more.

And what about the people on an average city bus? Do they realize the perils of temptation? I mean, do they read the Science Daily releases, or go directly to the Association for Psychological Science?  Are they corruptible –and would they begin small or just go for it? I didn’t start out trying to solve this age-old enigma –I was just trying to get downtown on a Saturday morning to shop, but I did keep my ears open. Why waste a trip?

I found myself sitting beside a  large and fittingly be-perfumed older woman who was trying to figure out a rather dated looking cell phone –trying to turn it on, actually. We both found ourselves sandwiched between a row young teenagers –very young, I think- sitting behind and in front of us. They were well enough behaved, but nonetheless talkative. And curious.

One of them behind us, happening to glance up from his own cell phone I imagine, noticed my seat mate’s dilemma and stuck his head over the back of our seat. “Is that a new model, ma’am?” he asked politely.

I think she thought it was me who asked the question and she turned her head and looked down the bridge of her nose starting with my hair and then sliding downward. It was not a pleasant set of eyes that encountered mine and they made a brief, but hostile foray onto my face before being repelled by an innocent blink. They flew off and attacked the young man whose head had interposed itself as a more assailable target. “Pardon me?” she said to it, now more surprised than angry, but with a voice that raised hackles on the two girls sitting ahead of us. So they, curious, turned and stared at us as well.

The two boys behind us were delighted they now had an audience of like-aged females. “I was just wondering about your phone,” the head explained.

“It’s my sister’s… What about it?” she replied, throwing the words at him like gauntlets.

He smiled innocently, although I could see his eyes twinkling. “I’ve just not seen another one like that.”

One of the girls, a red head with wild, uncombed hair and freckles giggled. “My mom has one of those in her drawer, Eddy,” she said, proud to be in the conversation now, but smiling at the lady beside me.

“Is that so?” the woman said, but not returning the smile. “Why is it in her drawer?”

The girl shrugged innocently. “Not sure… It used to be her favorite phone, she told me. It probably doesn’t work, or something.”

The boy’s eyes turned from twinkle to sparkle. “I’ll fix it for her…”

“Yeah?” the girl ahead was not uninterested in the idea. “What’s the catch, Eddy?” She glanced at her girlfriend. “You know she doesn’t like you.”

“Date,” he said. “I fix it, and she agrees to let me go out with you again.”

I could almost smell the proto-testosterone dripping from his smile.

The red head rolled her eyes comically and snorted. “What makes you think you could even fix it? It’s pretty old…”

He managed to shrug with his head –well, that’s the only part I could see anyway- and then sighed loudly enough to be heard over the noise of the bus. “Look, I see it as a win-win-win, eh? She gets her favourite phone back, and you and I get each other.”

The girl glanced at her friend again, obviously tempted. “I dunno Eddy. Maybe you should start with offering to fix her old phone, first. She’d probably like that…”

The woman beside me was snapping her eyes back and forth, open-mouthed- to catch the conversation. And she was not happy about the position of Eddy’s head. Suddenly she turned nose-to nose with him, and slapped him with a malevolent glare. “Prove you can do it, kid. Fix mine and then work on her mother…”

She handed Eddy the phone and he smirked, touched a button on the side of the screen and it lit up. Then, before she could even thank him, he handed the phone back to her, pulled the signal cord, and the four teens got off the bus together.

“That was nice of him,” I said to the woman, trying to be friendly after our shared encounter. “Do you think her mother will fall for it?” I added, remembering the conclusion of the Dutch study.

But she was already too engrossed in her phone to bother with me. I managed a quiet sigh and stared at my lap, disappointed at being left completely out of the loop. I suspect I still don’t really understand corruption. There are just too many layers…









More Things in Heaven and Earth

Do you ever feel like a charlatan? A fake? I still struggle with the issue as I creep warily into the terra incognita of Retirement. I wonder what to call myself now that I’ve climbed over the fence. Is it still me who speaks? Was it ever? I find myself consumed by memories of who I thought I was and the nagging suspicion that I may have massaged them into their current shape. I want to believe them. They have become my myth –not in the pejorative sense of deception, but rather in the more sacred tradition of Metaphor: we are all metaphors in our own stories. We are all poems.

And yet one can get used to wearing camouflage. My worry is that I had begun to believe my clothes. Retirement is a test –or at least a mirror of what others may have seen all along. There are no titles in an image; no power in a reflection. It is, in effect, a tabula rasa –or, as a former obstetrician would see it, an accouchement.

But I digress. I had come to regard my pilgrim’s progress in the new life as measurable in cups of coffee for some reason. I suppose we all need une idée fixe and mine was recreational coffee.  Communal coffee. I had to get the locals used to seeing me at that restaurant in the Cove by the ferry lineup. I didn’t want them to stop talking whenever I walked in, or anything, and I certainly didn’t want them to stare at me to see if I was going to make some egregious social gaffe either. No, acceptance was what I craved, not analysis.

But I realized it was going to be tricky; I am not by nature a joiner. I don’t mingle well and I have always migrated to the corners of rooms. Statistically discoverable to be sure but socially invisible. Anthropologically mute.

And today is the day; I can feel it. Rain drums on the roof as I walk towards the shower and I smile in anticipation. Last night, I made a list of all of the things I needed to remember in the restaurant. Nothing special, I guess, but I wanted to be sure I didn’t gaffe out or anything. Words tend to collect in my mouth when I’m embarrassed, and somehow climb through closed lips when I’m not watching.

After the shower, I review the list one last time and then put it in my pocket -just in case. But by the time I arrive in the cove, steal a parking spot and run, sodden, through the rain, I’ve forgotten everything. It doesn’t matter, though –I’m here. Squashed and elbowed in the crowd, I try to smile as if I’m enjoying myself. I try a little eye-contact… well, lip contact anyway –apparently the contacted can’t tell and it still seems friendly. The head nods, but I can’t tell if it’s in response to me or the one it’s are talking to. I’m not discouraged, though; I see it as a start. And anyway, he walks away. Maybe he’s just gone to refill his coffee, I think, but there’s still steam coming from his cup, so I reconsider my hypothesis.

I try saying hello to a man standing by himself near the far wall of the room, but just as he seems about to say something, a door opens right beside him and he excuses himself and hurries through it to the washroom. I try not to get discouraged and regard it as a learning experience: don’t expect a meaningful conversation at the waiting-wall.

Suddenly, as if on some invisible cue, a drain opens, and the room empties like a sink. I see the table I covet by the window and sit down at it, still coffeeless. Still conversationless. I find myself staring at the rivulets of water running down the other side of the glass and wondering if I forgot something on my list. A chair scrapes on the floor nearby and I see the owner sitting at my table with a mug of coffee for me. There is a smile on his face, but he looks exasperated. Worried.

“I noticed you trying to navigate the room, Gary…” –(another person who knows my name?)- “and I’m sorry you couldn’t make it to the counter.”

I smile in return. “I just got here, so I thought I’d mingle with the crowd until it thinned out,” I lie.

His face acknowledges the lie and he shrugs. “Well, as you can see, it’s bedlam in here until the ferry leaves, and then it starts all over again before the next one comes.”

I nod sympathetically. “You need more staff to handle the crowd, maybe.” I don’t know how I come up with these platitudes but I can’t think of anything else to say.

Another shrug. “I do have more staff, but this is an island, eh?”

I tilt my head to one side to indicate that I don’t follow his argument. “What do you mean?” Now I feel stupid for not understanding. He’s obviously talking Island; it’s a local dialect, I think.

“Island time,” he explains. “You show up at whatever time –or don’t. It’s almost like throwing dice in the morning.” He scowls, and then to show he has no hard feelings, sighs. “The staff are all great people, but things sometimes change for them unexpectedly and they have to quit, or take a leave for a while. I understand, but sometimes it’s hard…” A group of men in business suits come through the door laughing and talking loudly so he gets up to serve them. “What I need is somebody I could call in a pinch to fill in for a server who’s sick or away… Just for the morning rush, anyway…”

The men head for the coffee urn and crowd around it still laughing at something. The owner makes it half way across the room towards the counter, stops, and then turns slowly towards me with a wicked smile on his face. “You’re retired now, aren’t you Gary…?”

How do people know this? Do I look retired? I nod politely as he turns, walks to the counter and jokes with the men. I take a sip of the coffee and smile to myself as something Hamlet said suddenly comes to mind: ‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy’. My philosophy, I correct myself, and chuckle at the thought.