Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Mitigating the munchies

Several years back, I had out-of-town guests stay with us for about a week.  One of them periodically asked to use our computer to communicate with friends and family back home.  At one point, a hung app prevented one of their emails from being sent.  When later I went to use the computer myself, this is the un-sent text that I saw frozen on the screen (paraphrased):

"Our hosts are wonderful and we are having lots of fun here, but what I wouldn't give [for some of my usual unhealthy food]."

Some people find it very challenging to live without this kind of junk for even one week of travel.  For them, checking into a friend's house where this stuff is not served is literally like checking into rehab

Microsoft clip art. 
The guest's observation was made because anyone who stays at our house gets served the same meals that we eat, which is generally healthy stuff.  I didn't take offense to the comment that I wasn't supposed to see, but here's what proved to be very telling about it: just a few years later, that very same guest began treatment for intestinal cancer. 

Talk about food for thought.  It raises the question which is obvious but which at the same time is almost never asked: how far should we go in opposing another person's self-destructive behavior? 

I believe that we don't do a very good job of managing this kind of thing here in these United States, the most individualistic culture on earth.  If we see someone destroying themselves, not only are we not supposed to oppose it, we're supposed to clap and cheer their all-American God-given freedom of choice.  And after we get done clapping and cheering, we're expected to actually enable their further decline, such as by serving them the type of food that we know is literally killing them.

This is how we're supposed to treat people about whom we care?!  I'm not a fan.  I'm not even willing to be a participant in this madness.  Especially under my own roof. 

All of this comes to mind here during my morning tea because yesterday I began explaining the concept of mitigated speech to my daughter.  She was opposing something I had stated bluntly, and I countered by framing it in its derivative cultural context.  And then as corroboration, I fetched Malcolm Gladwell's essay titled "The ethnic theory of plane crashes" (summary here; commentary here, full text here (with possible copyright issues), and book site here). 

Airplane health or personal health, one of the central lessons is the same: mitigated speech can have devastating consequences.  Mitigated speech occurs any time someone stops short of telling the objective truth about what's going on, stops short in the name of etiquette and table manners or a well-meaning but distorted sense of respect for individualism, or whatever other reason is proffered as justification.  Mitigated speech results in lives being lost very quickly in air travel, and more slowly but just as surely at dinner tables. 

Gladwell references the six levels of speech mitigation, from unmitigated to most mitigated, as they relate to airline tragedies.  I thought I'd reframe the same list in terms of healthy eating.
  1. Command"You will eat a healthy diet."
  2. Obligation statement: "I think we need to eat a healthy diet."
  3. Suggestion: "Let's eat a healthy diet." 
  4. Query"Should we eat a healthy diet?"
  5. Preference"It would be smart to eat a healthy diet."
  6. Hint"There might be something about our diets that we should keep in mind."
Because of our current overriding cultural obsession with American individualism, where food is concerned, most people don't even make it onto the bottom rung of that six-level ladder.  They don't even feel it's their place to hint to someone that they might want to reflect on their own eating behavior. 

Airplanes stopped dropping from the sky in large part because the industry put its foot down and refused to accept the existing deleterious cultural status quo any longer.  Gladwell notes, "Aviation experts will tell you that it is the success of this war on mitigation as much as anything else that accounts for the extraordinary decline in airline accidents in recent years."  (p. 197 in the 2008 paperback edition). 

Maybe someday we'll see a similar anti-mitigation trend begin to flourish in interpersonal relationships, such that it becomes acceptable to discourage loved ones from dropping to the ground by their own short-sighted accords.  Until such time, pariahs like me will continue to serve healthy food to unsuspecting at-risk guests, at least while they're still alive enough to reluctantly eat it.  

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