Herd Noises

Updated: Mar 15, 2020

By: Brian Williams, Mountaineer News Contributor Posted: March 01, 2020 | 02:40PM EST


Dear Reader: This concept is not new, and I don’t claim to own the core idea of it. In a way, it’s an old parable and I am only re-telling it. I just hope that you will read and accept the challenges I offer, especially as they relate to America today….


Do you ever think about the way two strangers behave when they pass each other on the street, or in a hallway, or when they get on an elevator together? We usually exhibit very predictable behaviors, don’t we? We nod, we smile, we sometimes say, “Hi,” but in general we acknowledge each other in non-threatening ways, and then we go on about our day. No one gave us a script for this; we just do it – almost instinctively – but the “script” is clear, and we know what to say and do.


What happens when one of those strangers goes “off script?”


Imagine being the only person on an elevator. You have boarded on the 1st floor, heading for the 30th floor in a fairly tall office building. You’ve done this before and you’re not afraid of elevators. So when the elevator stops on the 3rd floor, and a stranger steps on, you nonchalantly step to the side, and you follow the script by making brief eye contact and saying, “Hello.”


But the stranger does not respond.


In fact, the stranger only looks back at you and remains completely silent when the elevator doors close. He has gone off script, and you realize it immediately. You feel uncomfortable.


You avoid looking at the stranger, and instead focus on the sounds of machinery as the elevator climbs past the 4th and 5th floors. Then the elevator stops on the 6thfloor, and another stranger steps on board. This stranger follows the script: he smiles at you, glances at the other passenger, and hits a button for his destination. Immediately, you relax. You’re no longer alone with someone who’s gone off script, and because the second passenger is behaving as expected, you feel a sense of safety. One of these guys is obviously different, but the other is like you.


Then you reach the 15th floor, and the second stranger – the one who followed the script – steps off and briefly says, “Have a nice day.” You like that. After all, that’s in the script, too. Then the doors close…


…and you’re alone again with the first stranger. The stranger who refused to follow the script.


You risk a glance at him, and again he merely looks at you. His look isn’t threatening, it’s just – not in the script. You smile, but his expression does not change. You’re alone with someone who refuses to behave as you do, and now you’re scared.


You wait nervously as the elevator climbs toward the 30thfloor, hoping – practically praying – that someone else will get on the elevator with you and this creepy, possibly dangerous stranger. But you are alone, and he is only standing there, silently. You feel your pulse race; you begin to perspire. The elevator feels too small.


And finally – thank God – the elevator reaches the 30thfloor and you step off into safety. The stranger remains behind as the elevator doors close, and you breathe a giant sigh of relief. “What a jerk,” you think. “He was absolutely terrifying!”


But – why? Why did he terrify you? He did not threaten you, because he did not even speak to you. He didn’t touch you; he didn’t pull out a knife or a gun; he didn’t even acknowledge your existence except to look at you without saying anything. Yet you found him terrifying. For all you know, he’s actually a security officer and you were safer with him than you were with the other stranger who smiled and said, “Have a nice day.” So why did he scare you?


The reason is that we live in world of social norms, and in this world we pretend that we all know the “script” that is dictated by those norms. We think we know it as well as an actor on the stage knows his script – how to enter the scene, what lines to speak and when, and how to exit the scene. It’s very comfortable, as long as we all follow the script, but if someone diverges from the script, even a little bit, it scares the heck out of us.


But – why?


I call the script, “herd noises.” I compare them to the noises that cows make in a herd at night. One cow moos, occasionally, and another cow moos back. The moos don’t seem to mean anything, but the cows keep mooing at each other every now and then, throughout the night.


Imagine if a cow moos, but instead of a moo, the response is a growl or a bark. “Holy crap, Lulabelle!! That’s not another cow; it’s something else! It could be a coyote! RUN, Lulabelle! RUN!!”


If we look at it this way, the cows’ moos really DO have meaning, don’t they? The moos say, “I’m a cow; are you a cow, too?” And the expected response is, “Yes. I, too, am a cow. There’s no need to be afraid of me.” If the response is anything else, the cows might panic. They might even stampede. Their script is written in moos, and anything that responds off script might be very dangerous, indeed.


But we are not cows. Can you learn to live without fear in a world in which people are not on the same script as you? Or are you destined to behave like a cow – mooing plaintively into the night, afraid of any response that is different from the one you want and expect to hear?


Here’s my challenge to you: If you are faced with ideas that are not in your script, are you going to run with the herd? Will you fight back just because the herd fights back? Or will you stand on your own and think for yourself?


Perhaps you will find that another script is not “dangerous” just because it is different.

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