A few years ago the much famed/maligned Shashi Tharoor infamously commented on the Indian Railways as ‘cattle class’ thereby antagonizing a large section of Indians. Then he went on to create a foreign relations blunder when he made a comment on bringing in Saudi Arabia as an ‘interlocutor’ to deal with the terrorist activities from across the borders. He lost his job as minister of external affairs. Recently the newly elected Chattisgarh Chief Minister commented that he would even seep the streets if asked by Sonia Gandhi. Our politicians are known to make such blunders in the public and later to retract them saying ‘that was not what I meant’. Prince Philip, husband of British Queen has been known to make such indiscreet remarks in the public and putting the monarchy into embarrassing situations. He went on to coin a term to mean ‘the talent for putting one’s foot into one’s mouth’. He called it Dontopedalogy.
It is said that to create a reputation it will takes years of hard work but to destroy it one needs only a stupid utterance. Didwe ever felt that ‘if only our mouth had a back space button?’ or, ‘If only I knew when to zip-up my mouth.’ or ‘Oh God what an Idiot I am to make such a statement?’ During our social gatherings, in our lectures, while delivering an address to an august gathering, between friends, colleagues, with bosses, with members from the opposite gender we keep making mistakes after mistakes for which we later regret. Regret over a lost friendship, a lost reputation, a lost job, the list goes on. Knowing what to say, and when to say is an art and it is all the more important today as we live in a cosmopolitan, globalized society.
Wise men said ‘think twice before you speak.’ ‘Words once uttered cannot be taken back.’ But unfortunately many a time our tongue runs faster than our brain. And then the self talk starts, ‘Oh God what have I done.’ Words are very powerful. Once we utter a word we lose control over it. Everyone who listens to or read it has the right to interpret in their own way. Literary criticism and Deconstructionism discuss in detail about the written words and their interpretations. The freedom of expression is good but we need to keep in mind that the audience is free to misinterpret you and misquote you. So being tactful pays.
Can these types of tactlessness be understood from a conceptual point of view? What kinds of people are more prone to such controversies? Why some people continuously keep repeating such unsocial, tactless, rash behavior and keep offending people while others may utter the same thing but will never offend anyone. Or, why some people are tactless and keep regretting over their tactlessness while others give a damn about it. In the big five personality profile being sociable is a factor under extroversion. Tact is one of the factors discussed under extroversion on the degree of care we take in speaking. People who have a low score in tact generally tend to blurt out their mouth in places least expected.
Another factor discussed in big five is accommodation (the degree to which one defer from the other). It discusses the need for approval from the others and those who have a low need for others approval may tend to cause inconvenience others through their tactless/straight remarks. Coupled with these two if the person has a high need for stability he/she will end up worrying about it and spending sleepless nights. While people who have a low need for stability may be tactless but at the same time will never get unnecessarily bothered by the same.
To conclude Dontopedalogy can be a personality trait that constantly gets people into trouble. It can create high degree of anxiety to a lot of people but for some it can become a means to be at the center of attraction. However in organizations one has to be careful about what one say and write. Age old of wisdom which cautions one to zip up when not needed is something worth practicing.
Prof.Shaji Joseph | Asst.Prof @ SCIT