Mathematics, psychology and sociology, philosophy.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Food Zealotry

2010 February 15th

My conversations with friends often end in a bizarre sequence of increasingly resolute claims followed by a sudden change of subject or silence. A typical example was today's exchange on the topic of oatmeal. It went roughly like this (I for me, F for my friend):

I: For many years I avoided oatmeal because it reminded me of my chemotherapy. I had been eating oatmeal in the mornings before the chemo and I learned to associate the subsequent nausea with the oatmeal. Oatmeal became permanently unappealing. Every 5 or 10 years I have tried it again. This last time, I found that I can eat oatmeal again!

F: That's great — oatmeal is pretty healthy. It helps you control your cholesterol levels.

I: Yeah, I heard that. And it's pretty easy to make, I use the instant oatmeal that comes in small packets.

F: Oh, no you shouldn't eat instant oatmeal.

I: What? -- Instant oatmeal is the same as non-instant oatmeal, it's just been boiled and then dried out.

(sudden silence -- a pregnant pause -- and a change in topic)

My friend couldn't go on, because he had just discovered that in fact he didn't know what he was talking about. There is one good reason to question instant oatmeal: the processing method might remove fiber content. My friend could have said that -- it's a pretty simple thing to learn and to remember. And if that were the problem, it's easy to address too -- just read the package (a commonly-cited goal is 3 or more grams of nutritional fiber per serving).

I now suspect he doesn't even know the difference between "oats" and "oatmeal" (I'll save you the embarrassment, and the trouble of looking this up: they're the same, except that oat "meal" has been crushed, cut and/or ground into smaller pieces, so you don't have to boil it as long. It is a completely mechanical process.)

In this case, the only practical upshot of our discussion was to confirm my characterization of him as a food zealot. I know lots of food zealots. Most of them are dead set on trying to get other people to do what they say: they're politicians, self-appointed leaders attempting to wield power one person at a time. The zealotry is usually driven by a sincere desire to do good and address some cultural evil; in this particular case, the cultural evil (as perceived by my friend) is a common American delusion: a simplistic belief that any food which is fast and/or easy must be unhealthy and should be avoided. (A similar delusion targets all tasty foods. The anti-tasty zealots and the anti-fast zealots must be eating a lot of grapefruit and pomegranates -- they occupy the difficult-untasty quadrant of the fruit universe).

This type of "zealotry" is part of a much larger phenomenon of political behaviour seen in inter-personal relationships. There is an abundance of negative-judgmental labels: self-made victim, drama queen, bully, manipulative, vindictive, and so on. I know a few of each.

Fortunately, one can address all of this pretty easily with a simple technique. Let's call it "The Three P's of Speech Attitude":

Personal : Speaking "personally" can be done by beginning everything you say with "I" or "my". For example, I prefer not to eat instant oatmeal. Personal statements carry one really big advantage: they are much easier for people to accept on their own merits.

Positive : This simply means replacing any negative attitudes and terminology with positives, and rephrasing questions such that the desired answer is yes. For example, I prefer to eat regular oatmeal (notice no more use of "not", and replacing the demonized "instant oatmeal" with something you actually feel good about). If I can't find a positive way to say it, I also consider saying nothing at all.

Proof : When I insist on a statement that doesn't adhere to the first two P's, then I try darn hard to be ready to prove it. Proof is in the domain of persuasive speech writing -- another P that is well beyond the scope of this little article. I read a couple articles on that topic and concluded that it would be far easier just to add the words I believe that ... to whatever I was going to say!