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Sunday, 28 September 2014

Sofa so good

"Douglas called me an arty-farty jessie, a couple of years ago," I overhear Fraser telling a group of young teachers, at a drink and nibbles educational event, so I'm forced to butt in and set the record straight.

"I did no such thing," I tell them. "Fraser referred to himself as an arty-farty jessie* a couple of years ago. But he's been blaming me for it ever since."

A Spock-like eyebrow from the man conveys his scepticism more fluently than words, so I babble on, attempting a little levity. "Just because he writes poetry, can't play football and wears women's underwear doesn't make him a jessie," I say.

"Not true," he tells his adoring audience. "I'm an excellent football player."

They laugh and he dismisses them, then shakes his head at me. "You will never learn, laddy," he says. "Denial raises doubt. It makes more people think that what you're denying might be true."

"I  was countering what you said," I tell him.

"But you did it so loudly that half the room heard," he says. "So forty people now suspect both that I'm an arty-farty jessie and that you go around telling everyone I am." 

"So what do you suggest?" I say, as he plucks a vol-au-vent without looking from a passing tray and pops it in his mouth. He's a suave bugger and no mistake. Writes prose and poetry, does ingenious things with technology, looks great in a kilt. Kind of guy you can imagine rolling a cigarette with one hand while sat on a bucking bronco.

"Let's look at the facts," he says, taking me lightly by the arm and leading me to a plush sofa in the corner, below a painting of impossibly sharp mountains rising from a rocky river. "Although facts are a lot less effective than you might imagine. That is the point."

I'm trying to listen to him. I really am. I know he's going to tell me something interesting. But suddenly I'm not at a posh reception. I'm in a Carry On film. Because the bloody sofa has me in its clutches and is sucking me in. It's like being engulfed by a giant marshmallow. I panic and start to flail, but that's the worst thing you can do with man-eating marshmallows. It makes them mad. I force down the fear and stay still, finally stopping sinking when my head is two feet lower than Fraser's. 

"Comfy?" he says.

"Have you sat here before?" I say, turning my head sideways and up, to see him.

"Several times," he says.  "Fun, isn't it?"

"Stop messing about," I say. "Tell me the story. You want to set the record straight but can't use facts. What can you use? Fiction, blank verse, elegant epigraphs on the back of a napkin? Gimme a clue."

"That's a longer conversation than I've time for now," he says, glancing at his Rolex. "But let me briefly outline the problem for you, then we can look at possible solutions another time. Phone my secretary and she'll give you an appointment."

Birds can be happy, I'm sure, with their heads turned ninety degrees left and forty five up. Humans can't. Perched precariously on my knee, what's more, I've got a bone china cup and saucer, which strained-muscle vibrations have started tinkling tunefully together. Keeping this short is fine by me.

"Two mechanisms mean facts can have the opposite effect to what you intend," Fraser tells me. "First, most people feel psychological pressure to move towards the norm."

"The norm of what?" I say.

"Any kind of behaviour," Fraser tells me. "Suppose you're mounting a public health campaign aimed at obesity. On learning lots of other folk are overweight, plenty of people put on a few pounds. Which is not what you wanted. It's called the boomerang effect." 

"A study carried out at California State showed what was happening. It also suggested what you could do about it. Then there's another backfire effect, which is even worse. If you give people hard facts that contradict their strongly-held beliefs - that climate change is caused by the sun, for instance - it can make them cling more tightly to them. It's called motivated reasoning."

He glances at his watch again and rises from the sofa, causing me to sink more deeply into it.

"Don't go," I say.

"Fascinating, isn't it?" he says.

"Yes, but that's not it," I say. "I need a hand out of here." 

"I'm sorry," he says. "That's not a job for an arty-farty jessie."

"I didn't call you that," I say.

"I don't believe you," he says and is gone, leaving me with grave doubts that I'll ever see my arse again.

definition: an effeminate, weak or cowardly man. 
usage: "What are ye greetin for, ya big jessie?"

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