Our society emphasizes intelligence to such an extent that almost everyone has been afraid that other people might think they’re stupid. This fear is one of the main reasons that we often don’t ask questions, even when we don’t understand things. Ironically some of the most foolish things we do, are specifically intended to try to keep other people from thinking we are stupid.
Nothing feels worse than having someone think that you’re incompetent, when there is nothing you can do about it. There are times when people will judge you unfairly, based on appearance or some random behavior. The accompanying feelings of frustration and hopelessness may give us all some small inkling of what discrimination really feels like.
Back when our youngest son was playing little league baseball, we received a notice that parents were expected to volunteer at the baseball park. The next Saturday my wife Diane signed up to work the refreshment stand and I volunteered to do the scoreboard. In high school I ran the basketball scoreboard, so I thought I could figure out how to do it. Since I expected to do this all alone, I was looking especially shabby and unkempt that day, despite Diane’s warning. I climbed up to the room where the scoreboard console was located to practice before the game started. After a few minutes an immaculately dressed woman, looking quite severe, came marching into the room. She gave me an expression of disgust, usually reserved for hobos, and hesitatingly introduced herself as “Clark’s mom”. She said that she too had been assigned to the scoreboard. She eyed me suspiciously at the console and asked me if I knew what I was doing. I told her that I was sure I could figure it out. Scrutinizing my uncombed hair, raggedy jeans, dirty tennis shoes and day old stubble, she looked even more doubtful. I started randomly punching buttons on the control box, to see what they did and this seemed to upset her even more. She announced decisively that she was going for help. But she spoke in that exaggerated calm manner, used when telling a small child, or perhaps a maniac, exactly what you intend to do, so as not to startle them. It was then that it dawned on me that she had concluded that I was too stupid to operate the scoreboard, and quite possibly dangerous. I leaned forward to reassure her that I could handle it, but she jumped back and insisted that we needed help. As she left I felt a mixture of anger and despair, realizing that I was never going to convince this woman that I was competent. I was thinking of ways that I could bring up the fact that I had graduated from college, but she wouldn’t believe me. Maybe I could run home, shave and bring back my diploma. I considered asking Diane to vouch for me, but I was afraid she might see it as a teasing opportunity and whip upClark’s mom even more.
By the time Clark’s mom returned with one of the coaches, I had already discovered the rudiments of operating the scoreboard, but she wasn’t impressed and insisted on running the scoreboard herself. To this day, the phrase ”Clark’s mom” is Stawar family code for someone who treats you like an idiot for no apparent reason.
Since we are all fallible, there are obviously times, when our judgment is inadequate. Usually we hope we can slide our missteps by others without notice. This, of course, is easier if you are not closely supervised or married. But if you happened to pull one of these boners, just when someone is evaluating you, the “Clark’s mom” phenomena is always a possibility.
There are some people who are so arrogant that they automatically think that everyone else is stupid, so there is no escaping their judgment. Humorist P.J. O’Rourke is a case in point. Psychologists are always trying to fit people into categories, like thinkers or feelers, introverts or extroverts, or Type A or Type B. O’Rourke bases his classification system on the Three Stooges. He claims that you can sort everyone you meet into one of three categories: 1. Stupid (like Larry) 2. Stupid and Mean (like Moe) or 3. Really Stupid (Like Curly). ToClark’s mom, I was undoubtedly a level three Curly.
There may occasionally be some advantages in being “misunderestmated” as former president George W. Bush once said. I had an acquaintance named Bob, who, when we would play poker, would ask a lot of questions. “Does a straight beat a flush?”, he would innocently ask. I was usually hooked and would go out of my way explaining poker hands to him. It was a gratifying way to show off my expertise. But then I notice that Bob kept asking these same questions. It was an old hustler’s trick– a devious and subtle way to get others to underestimate his playing ability. He must have been greatly amused hearing me explain poker to him.
There is occasionally that rare instance when there is an inverse of the Clark’s mom experience and someone attributes greater wisdom to you, than you deserve. Jean Shepard’s short story Lost at C, describes such a situation. Jean was taking high school algebra and as he famously said, “The class wasn’t 30 seconds old and I was already six weeks behind.”
Algebra refused to yield to his bluff-your-way-through approach to school and he was about to be exposed as phony. His teacher wrote a complicated equation on the blackboard and called on Jean to solve it. Totally baffled, he looked around the classroom and saw the number 3 on some kid’s football jersey and lamely gave that as his answer. Of course, that turned out to be the correct response and the teacher concluded that he was a math prodigy.
I have known many people who simply by luck or some irrelevant aspect of their status, are always given the benefit of the doubt. Even when they do something completely inane, others still believe it is unfathomable genius at work. This is neatly portrayed in Peter Seller’s film, Being There, in which he plays a simple-minded gardener, whose solemn pronouncements about gardening are metaphorically interpreted by others as an indication of his brilliance.
I suppose we have all taken advantage of “dumb luck” to booster our own credibility, when the opportunity presents itself. Years ago, for example, I was using hypnosis with a client and I gave a standard suggestion that the client might feel a slight sensation in one of their shoulders. Just as soon as I spoke, from nowhere, a tiny spider fell from the ceiling onto the client’s bare shoulder. I knew exactly how Jean Shepard felt.
You have to use every advantage you can, since you never know when a “Clark’s mom” might be lurking nearby.