In an episode of the Simpsons, Lisa is trying to figure out why the bully, Francine, attacks some victims and ignores others. Through a series of experiments she finds that Francine does, in fact, smell fear, and then attacks her nerdy prey as a hawk would.
As a middle school teacher, I can attest to the truth of this. Bullies can smell fear like sharks smell blood in the water. Bullies are needy humans; what they need, first and foremost, a sense of self-worth, so they don’t have to suck the blood of others to get it.
I can sniff that we are a bit.. off….when myself or my husband or son are coming down with something, as I am sure many moms regularly do.
Humans, like all other complex creatures, are equipped with pheromones that signal to others our basic emotions. Fear, anger, sadness…we rub off on each other.
Trained animals can sniff out people in the early stages of cancer.
Babies separated from their mothers can easily choose their mom’s scent from an array of t-shirts worn by different (unperfumed) women.
Like other creatures, we are meant to fully experience the emotion, act on it, share it with others, try to resolve the situation, then once it is resolved, or deemed unresolvable, move on to business as usual. I saw a dog get hit by a car. Not seriously injured, he run off to the side of the road, shook and ran around in crazy circles for a while (shake it off, shake it off) and then trotted off at a normal gait. If we don’t practice our ability to de-escalate our feelings like this, we store up the emotions and they get all swirled and confused inside us, sometimes making situations seem worse than they are.
Our bodies and emotions are designed for us to live in small, non-anonymous groups. It is really hard to cheat or rip someone off if you live in the same community with them, and have to look them in the face. It’s hard to lie or bully someone when you have to face them, and face the consequences of your actions. Our legalistic, anonymous, not-my-problem system makes it a whole lot easier because if the evidence comes down to the words that “he said, she said”, then it is often impossible to make a fair judgment. If compassionate others are there, watching, present, it is much harder for the truth to be obscured.
The trouble is that in our culture,we don’t get very close to each other, and we and are inordinately grossed out by body odors, so we don’t make it our business to sniff people. We don’t want to be involved in other people’s sh*t.
One result of this lack of sniffing is that people have a lot harder time understanding each other. As I have noted before, words often fail to communicate. English especially is imprecise; it is very hard to say exactly what you mean, and even harder to get someone to understand it exactly how you meant it. Especially if one or more parties are angry, which causes words to become bombs, whether bombs of truth or bombs of lies with the intent to harm. It is much easier to misunderstand someone if you cannot sniff out their motivation.
And that in turn makes it a whole lot easier to lie to cover your own butt,and to get people to believe your lies. If you have enough money and social capital to spray rosy perfume all over your actions, people just walk on by like your sh*t doesn’t stink.
The writing prompt in my middle school class one day was ;”Write about a time when lying might be the right thing to do. ” I was thinking I would get stuff like “when my mom asks if the dress makes her look fat, I say no”
The truth was that nearly every single kid reported about lying to get out of trouble. Some of them wrote about “my friend…” when I could tell it was a thinly veiled confessional. Even the kids you’d never think. If the school or the home is set up to where the kid is afraid to tell the truth, because he knows he will be punished for it, then a double standard is prevailing. The kid knows how to pretend to be, in order to not get punished. I see this over and over with seasoned bullies, who quietly needle the nerdy,weird, or minority kid while teacher isn’t looking. In the hall, at lunch, while teacher’s hawklike attention is elsewhere. Then, in the middle of class, the nerdy kid breaks, yelling at his sneaky attacker, and gets in trouble, because he is the one making noise when the teacher turns around, and the bully by then is angelically staring at the board. Over and over we reward lying. We reward keeping the peace. We reward not speaking out. We reward sneakiness, because we can’t prove anything.
This happens with policemen too. Cops get played by rich folk pinning crimes on lower-class people who make scenes instead of keeping the peace. Cops stuck between rocks and hard places, needing the conviction to keep their job and their reputation. Like in True Detective episode 3, where the crime is pinned variously on lower-class folk; is it the native-american guy? the black-guy with the weird eye? The drunk guy who might be gay? The long-haired teen with the death metal shirt on? Takes a long time to get to the guy who has money to pay these people off, or have them offed.
If you assume the worst from children, or if you assume perfect abstract blanket adherence, rather than a series of mistakes that need forgiveness in order to progress, kids will comply in the only ways they can. Instead of learning how to be an honest, trusting, and trustworthy person, they will learn how to look for loopholes to get ahead and not get caught.
What can we do to help kids not practice being loophole seekers? To seek truth and to be truthful, rather than “play the system?”
Love them how they are. Encourage the truth, even when it hurts. Help them dispel the idea that anyone can be totally good or totally bad, and help them to see themselves and everyone else as works in progress.
Get close to people. Look them in the face. Smell them. Of all our fallible senses, smelling lies the least.
Smell you later.
4 thoughts on ““I smell you.” Meditations on the Simpsons and True Detective.”
i read a book not too long ago but cannot remember the title for the life of me. it talked about our beliefs about children & research on the topic. it talked about why kids lie and how they learn to lie from the adults in their lives. apparently, before observing adults not telling the truth, kids are pretty honest.
i enjoyed this post. i love the science of pheromones.
I should read that. Yes, in my experience with kids, it’s so true. I see the patterns as they are forming. They want to tell the truth, but they are repeatedly (though often inadvertently) discouraged from doing so. Same thing with ” us v/s them” tribalism. Kids don’t automatically distrust people who look different from them; that is learned behavior.
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they do, however, notice differences & comment on them–loudly & in public. i think a lot of people assume that that is influenced by a racist household when all it is is natural curiosity. i was mortified when my first child started pointing out differences in skin color–i thought i had done something wrong.
i learned to say, “people come in all different shapes, sizes, & colors.”
if i remember the title of the book, i will let you know. it was very interesting.
yes! they do definitely comment, and the way people respond to their comments shapes how they act later. They are just noticing, and sometimes surprised comments can cause others pain whether they meant it that way or not. It’s sticky.
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