When someone calls you schtroumpf: Reflections on judgments, syllogisms, and responsibility

I have a judgmental mind[1]. As soon as something appears at the edges of its apprehension, it sets into motion its ceaseless mechanics of (re-) cognizing, classing, assessing, perceiving, exploring, absorbing, ruminating, embracing, consuming, (re-) forming, shaping, and spinning its tales of past, present, and future lives. And comes up with a firm understanding of the “something” that, just a moment ago, was nothing but a spark, a glitter, and a dewdrop. If the “something” happens to be another human being, more often than not, my mind hastens to sketch a lively, colourful, differentiated picture of who it is meeting – labelling them as friend or foe, man or woman, orange or blue, smart or stupid, beautiful or ugly, vegetarian or carnivore, bull or bear, hedgehog or fox, lark or nightingale, yin or yang, devil or deity, heaven or hell. Whatever it comes up with, one thing is for sure: Its convoluted elaborations have nothing to do with any reality whatsoever[2].

I’m not denying that there might be evolutionary advantages to this behaviour: Probably, once upon a time, likelihood of survival increased for those who quickly ran from orange striped carnivores[3], followed enthralling songs of heavenly birds[4], or rested in the beautiful bliss of an endless blue[5]. However, in this time and place, most orange striped carnivores are rugged bedside carpets, songs of heavenly birds are ill-adjusted mobile ring tones, and the endless blue is nothing but the screen of a computer that choked on a piece on unchewable code. And regardless of what the rewards might once have been, there are severe disadvantages to this very same behaviour, as it pulls me into snap stories about what is going on around me that are as hard to get rid of as chewing gum under the soles of my shoes, sand in the pocket linings of my summer dresses, and the earworms of nursery rhymes that I carry around from my son’s kindergarten song rehearsals[6]. My mind thinks that it knows, before it takes time to know what it thinks.

Of course, this is not a new observation – generations of thinkers from ancient to modern, from scientific to spiritual, and from popular wisdom to philosophical insight have come up with variations on the unreliability of our minds[7]. This is not what I want to talk about today. What I want to talk about is how our lack of attention to this proven unreliability of our minds intervenes in our explicit exchange with others and produces dysfunctional (if not outright violent) interactions. Or, in other words, how calling someone a schtroumpf all too often falls on the wrong side of the fine line between efficiency and laziness[8].

Imagine the following: Being “schtroumpf”, in your language and culture, is something generally seen as a desirable quality, such as – beware: examples! – “awesome”, “peerless”, “great”, “wise”, “beautiful”, “excellent”, “outstanding”. Now, you drink a glass of water and – for whatever reasons – feel compelled to report about this in public (e.g., by posting a photo, microblogging, or writing a long essay on your preferred social media platform). Nanoseconds after you press “send”, someone comments: “Oh, you’re so schtroumpf!”. How do you feel?

Or imagine the following: Being “schtroumpf”, in your language and culture, is something generally seen as highly despicable, the lowest of political, economic, ideological, ethnical, racial, religious, or otherwise pre-fabricated categories that you can think of. Now, you drink a glass of water and – for whatever reasons – feel compelled to report about this in public (e.g., by posting a photo, microblogging, or writing a long essay on your preferred social media platform). Nanoseconds after you press “send”, someone comments. “How can you be so schtroumpf?”. How do you feel?

If you’re anything like me, in both cases, something feels “off”, and not just because we’re not water-drinkers and “schtroumpf” actually means nothing to us. The off-ness, in both cases, has something to do with the nature of the conversation in which a specific action (or statement) is countered with a generalised labelling – a pattern of communication, unfortunately, way too common especially in and around social media. So what exactly is “off” about this? And how so?

Here’s my interpretation:

Firstly, something is off, because underneath this exchange, most of the time, lies a confusion between syllogism and association. “All humans are mortal, Socrates is human, therefore Socrates is mortal”, is a syllogism. “All water-drinkers are schtroumpf, you’re a water-drinker, therefore you’re schtroumpf” would be a syllogism, too[9].  On the contrary, behind what is happening here, is something like: “All/some/a few schtroumpfs sometimes drink water…” or, even worse: “Some random schtroumpf I once met drank something that looked like water…”, and: “… the fact that you drink water reminds me of this, therefore I take a risk and call you schtroumpf!”.  This is a (subjective) association – one of the snap judgments of our minds described above with no (or very little) claim to reliability, reality, truth or any other common reference point between human beings. However, unless we explicitly talk about it like this, it comes across as an evaluation that elicits feelings on the recipient’s side – good feelings, bad feelings, and anything in between. And from these arise love and hatred, then words and actions that increase our entanglements, and then sufferings of all flavours and tastes.

Furthermore (yes, that’s not all), something is off, because the exchange lacks personal responsibility for the uttered generalisation in (at least) three dimensions. Labelling someone as schtroumpf is shorthand for any (or all) of the following – much more complex – observations (that, by nature, would be a lot harder to share):

  • “You know what? I’d love to do what you’re doing, because…”, or: “You know what? I’d never do what you’re doing, because…” – followed by an explanation on why we’re so obsessed about drinking water (in a positive or in a negative way). So the real message is that I can – or cannot – see myself doing what you’re doing because I have my own likes and dislikes, sympathies and antipathies, favourite dishes and nauseous memories. As in: “You say laughter, I say laughter”[10]. However, this doesn’t make either of us a schtroumpf.
  • “You know what? I really appreciate what you’re doing, because…”, or: “You know what? I really dislike what you’re doing, because…” – followed by an explanation on why we’re for (or against) drinking water in the case of the particular person involved. So the real message is that I encourage or discourage you from doing what you are doing because I have a value system that implies certain attitudes or behaviours on the side of people like you. As in: “Don’t worry, be happy!”[11]. However, this doesn’t make either of us a schtroumpf.
  • “You know what? Somehow, a part of me that I tend to ignore dreams of doing what you’re doing, because…”, or: “You know what? Somehow, a part of me that I tend to ignore abhors the idea of doing what you’re doing, because…” – followed by a self-reflective perspective on why we ignore this part of our being and its attitude towards drinking water. So the real message is that I’m triggered by what you’re doing because it resonates with sides of myself that I’m not fully comfortable with. As in: “Looking back at you”[12]. However, this doesn’t make either of us a schtroumpf.

In all three cases, when we dismiss the more complex version of phrasing our reply and instead stick with the generalisation of calling the other one schtroumpf, once again, we fall prey to the easy allure of our mind’s snap judgment without inquiring into its validity, variations, or possible interpretations – and produce an evaluation that elicits feelings on the recipient’s side – good feelings, bad feelings, and anything in between. And from these arise hopes and fears, then words and actions that fortify our judgments into beliefs and convictions, and then disappointment and pain in all forms and shapes.

The good news is: We can do better[13]. In practical terms, next time you feel the urge to call someone schtroumpf, pause and think twice. Think about what makes you think that the other one is schtroumpf, and think about what that tells you about yourself. Then say something – or not. And next time someone calls you schtroumpf, pause, take a breath and ask them what makes them think so. Listen to what they have to say. Maybe they’re right, and you are schtroumpf after all.

May all be schtroumpf.


[1] For the regular readers of my blog, it’s not like I wrote nothing in the last four weeks – it’s just that I posted something elsewhere. If you’re interested, read here [retrieved Sept 30, 2015]. BACK TO TEXT

[2] A romantic (if not kitschy) version of this observation can be found here [retrieved Sept 30, 2015]. BACK TO TEXT

[3] Just for fun: Watch this [retrieved Sept 30, 2015]. BACK TO TEXT

[4] And for a bit of cynical heartbreak, listen to this [retrieved Sept 30, 2015]. BACK TO TEXT

[5] Like, for example, here [retrieved Sept 30, 2015]. BACK TO TEXT

[6] The latest of which is the brilliant (and instructive) “Regenwürmer pupsen nicht” (loosely translated as “Earthworms don’t fart” – don’t ask, please). For such cases, my friend Noa Jones once recommended humming “These boots are made for walking” [retrieved Sept 30, 2015] as a one-size-fits-all countermeasure to remove catchy tunes from your system. Try it yourself, it works. Most of the time, at least – until the earthworms (and earworms) creep back. BACK TO TEXT

[7] By far the best summary (from a scientific point of view) is Daniel Kahnemann’s “Thinking Fast And Slow” (2011). If you haven’t read it, make an effort and find the time to read it. Slowly. If you have read it, read it again. More slowly. BACK TO TEXT

[8] Disclaimer: The following doesn’t say anything about the cute little blue guys (and girls) generally known as smurfs (“schtroumpfs” in French, “Schlümpfe” in German). I’m just borrowing their universal language token for the sake of illustration. Apologies to everybody who loves (or hates) smurfs. Please, do not take this personal. It’s not. It’s schtroumpf. BACK TO TEXT

[8] Disclaimer: The following doesn’t say anything about the cute little blue guys (and girls) with the revolutionary white hats generally known as smurfs (“schtroumpfs” in French, “Schlümpfe” in German). I’m just borrowing their universal language token for the sake of illustration. Apologies to everybody who loves (or hates) smurfs. Please, do not take this personal. It’s not. It’s schtroumpf. BACK TO TEXT

[9] However, we’re both aware of the fact that this is about as exciting (and therefore as comment-worthy) as: “All days have 24 hours, Monday is a day, therefore Monday has 24 hours”. Most people will not gain a reputation for their social media savviness through this kind of posting. BACK TO TEXT

[10] Timeless – here [retrieved Sept 30, 2015]. BACK TO TEXT

[11] In case it’s not already spinning around in your head, here‘s a version you can listen to [retrieved Sept 30, 2015]. BACK TO TEXT

[12] Like, in so many melancholic words, here [retrieved Sept 30, 2015]. BACK TO TEXT

[13] Assuming, of course, that we’re interested in building, maintaining, or improving the relationship with whoever we’re interacting with. If this is not the case, there might be other ways of dealing with the situation. Like, for example, when we encounter a mosquito who calls us food…  BACK TO TEXT

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