Talking to strangers

Really enjoyed this report on some new research from Shankar Vedantam:

An experiment in Chicago randomly assigned train and bus riders to either talk to the stranger next to them or commute quietly. The result? Even for introverts, silence leaves you sadder…

VEDANTAM: Well, the answer is not what I would have expected because when I ride the train to work every day, I ride in silence. And I catch up on the news and check my email. I spoke with psychologist Nick Epley who tells me I’m doing it all wrong because if I want to be happy, what I really should be doing is talking to my fellow commuters. Epley works at the University of Chicago business school, and along with Juliana Schroeder, he randomly assigned train and bus commuters in the Chicago area to either talk to the stranger sitting next to them or to commute in silence. Here’s Epley.

NICK EPLEY: What we found was that people were significantly happier when they talked to the person sitting next to them than when they sat there in solitude. So it doesn’t seem to be that talking to a stranger is unpleasant. In fact, in this situation, precisely the opposite on average is what happened…

VEDANTAM: Well, I have to say in defense of Epley, that there’s a lot of research suggesting that social connections are important to our well-being and mental health. So men, for example, who lose their partners are more likely to die sooner than men who are in relationships, or patients suffering from serious mental disorders seem to fare better when they have rich social lives. And therapists and political scientists have been warning us for many years about the risk of bowling alone. So many of us think that strangers will bore us or bother us when in fact we are deeply social animals. And these social connections seem to press buttons inside our heads that make us happier.

INSKEEP: Maybe the key issue here is starting the conversation. Maybe that’s the thing that makes us tense and not want to talk to the person next to us.

VEDANTAM: I think that’s right, Steve. And in fact, Epley found that this was a big fear. Commuters told him that they in general were willing to talk, but they thought the person sitting next to them would not be willing to talk. Now, if most people are willing to talk, but everyone believes others are not willing to talk, no one will start a conversation. And this is what Epley thinks is happening. The challenge, in other words, is simply to get the conversation going because once the ice is broken, the rest turns out to be easy. Here’s Epley again.

EPLEY: One way to think about it is it’s like having a speed bump at the top of a hill. Engaging with somebody is a little like that. You’ve got to (grunts) get over that initial speed bump at the top, and then after that it seems to go pretty smoothly. But if you don’t get over that first initial bump, you’ll never get started.

Okay, I commute alone in my car, but I have had a number of really good conversations with strangers on air flights.  That said, a 10-15 minute (and sometimes even longer) conversation with a stranger can be really pleasant.  The problem is when you are seated together for a 2 hour flight and you are worried about how you will politely disengage so as to read your book, watch a movie, or whatever, of just the fact that most people are interesting for 15 minutes but many are not for too much longer.  I already actually strike up more conversations with strangers than most people (it usually makes me happy!) and honestly, I think I will be even more inclined to do so now.

Stoking fear

Great Jon Stewart on Fox coverage of Ferguson.  It’s truly a wonder to behold.

And, damn!, the Hulu embed is not working for some reason.  Here it is.

Photo of the day

Hard to go wrong with a Scenes from Nepal gallery (In Focus):

Everest Base Camp, seen from Crampon Point, the entrance into the Khumbu icefall below Mount Everest, following an avalanche that killed sixteen Nepalese sherpas in the Khumbu icefall, on April 18, 2014. (Robert Kay/AFP/Getty Images)

Racial progress= nicer white people

Loved this New York magazine interview with Chris Rock.  Well worth reading the whole thing.  That said, I found this quote on racial progress irresistible:

Well, that would be much more revealing.

Yes, that would be an event. Here’s the thing. When we talk about race relations in America or racial progress, it’s all nonsense. There are no race relations. White people were crazy. Now they’re not as crazy. To say that black people have made progress would be to say they deserve what happened to them before.

Right. It’s ridiculous.

So, to say Obama is progress is saying that he’s the first black person that is qualified to be president. That’s not black progress. That’s white progress. There’s been black people qualified to be president for hundreds of years. If you saw Tina Turner and Ike having a lovely breakfast over there, would you say their relationship’s improved? Some people would. But a smart person would go, “Oh, he stopped punching her in the face.” It’s not up to her. Ike and Tina Turner’s relationship has nothing to do with Tina Turner. Nothing. It just doesn’t. The question is, you know, my kids are smart, educated, beautiful, polite children. There have been smart, educated, beautiful, polite black children for hundreds of years. The advantage that my children have is that my children are encountering the nicest white people that America has ever produced. Let’s hope America keeps producing nicer white people.

Well, then, Chris Rock would be proud of me– I’ve produced four of them.

“American Exceptionalism” in AP US History

So, you probably recall the bit of Tea Party ridiculousness in Colorado where a local school board was upset that the history curriculum failed to teach that America is a perfect nation that never does anything wrong (the slaves loved it!  So did the Native Americans!).  Anyway, now this silliness has come to NC (not surprising, given our legislature).  From WRAL:

North Carolina’s state school board on Monday began picking through a controversy over whether new Advanced Placement U.S. history guidelines give adequate time to the nation’s founding documents and characters, although board members took no immediate action.

State lawmakers will use an oversight committee to tackle the same subject Tuesday, as a movement fueled by conservative writers suspicious of the motives behind the new history course pushes the issue onto the state’s policy-making agenda. Critics say the framework put forward by the College Board, which creates AP tests, does not adequately address ideas such as American Exceptionalism or introduce students to important documents such as the Mayflower Compact…

“These professors had an agenda. We’ve already alluded to it. Basically, they saw America not as an exceptional nation but one nation among many in a global society,” said Larry Krieger, a former high school history teacher and opponent of the standards…

North Carolina State University, for example, gives students different amounts of credit based on how well they do on the history exam, said David Zonderman, a professor and assistant chair of the history department.

“When the goal is to get students to dive deeper, to develop more understanding and critical thinking … I think I speak for most of my colleagues who would say, ‘Great, bring it on.’ We would reward this kind of stuff,” said Zonderman, who spoke by phone after Monday’s meeting.

But Krieger made the case to the State Board of Education that, in its focus on analysis and understanding, the College Board abandoned important concepts. In particular, he pointed to American Exceptionalism, the idea that the United States plays a uniquely positive role in human history, as an idea left behind due to the liberal bent of the College Board’s test designers.

James Ford, a history teacher who serves as an adviser to the state board by virtue of being teacher of the year, pointed out that U.S. history is replete with both major successes as well as failures.

“Isn’t a more balanced approach appropriate when trying to disseminate curriculum, rather than focus on the conclusion of something being exceptional … Is the term ‘exceptional’ required for a framework to be successful and rigorous in its analysis of U.S. history?” he asked.

Good Lord!  How about listening to, you know, the actual historians who developed the AP curriculum that some Tea Party activist former history teacher (I love history teachers, but that doesn’t make you a scholar of history) obsesses with American Exceptionalism !

Of course America is unique in ways that have had a profound impact on our history and an outsized role in influencing the world.  That’s history.  And I’m sure it’s taught in the AP curriculum.  But this obsession with “America is just not like other countries– we’re better!” is frankly juvenile.  Alas, with a little googling, it was not hard to learn that this is basically just a silly Tea Party obsession that has worked its way into the Republican platform.

Let’s leave the school curriculum to people who actually know what they’re talking about the the Republican party platform to those who don’t.

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