My Word's

an occasional column by
Marylaine Block
October 5, 2003


How often have you read about, or lived through, situations that were intended to be one thing and ended up being something else altogether? Protestors plan a peaceful demonstration, but a few of them start throwing rocks through store windows and setting cars on fire. A rock musician does a stage-dive, but nobody in the audience catches him. Teenagers invite a few close friends to a party when their parents are out of town and suddenly their house is overflowing with kids they've never met, drinking and smashing things. People are standing around, scratching their heads, trying to figure out what went wrong, and saying, "It wasn't supposed to happen that way."

What these situations have in common is people who composed mental scripts that didn't work. They thought, "I'll do or say this, and then they'll do or say that," but the other actors in the scene blew their lines, did something totally unexpected.

Those people aren't unusual. I think we all write such scripts in our head. Who among us as a child didn't have that wonderfully satisfying fantasy about watching our own funeral, where sobbing family and classmates say how sorry they are that they'd abused us, misunderstood us, failed to love and appreciate us as much as we deserved?

You could even argue that creating mental scripts is an essential requirement for growing up. We learn to do it early, from the first moment we understand that people are sometimes annoyed, even outraged, by our spontaneous acts and innocent blurtings. We learn to think a little before we speak and act, to anticipate how our friends and family might react.

But once we've created the scripts, it's important to tinker with them. When people violate our scripts, react differently than we expected, we modify the scripts. It takes a lot of trial and error before we learn the exact distance between "charmingly cheeky" and "outrageous," between "pleasantly assertive" and "aggressive," between "sure of yourself" and "obnoxious know-it-all," between "accommodating" and "doormat."

Sometimes our scripts fail not because people violate them but because facts do -- our knowledge of the situation was insufficient. Our government planned for a swift, decisive victory in Iraq, after which we would restore order quickly and turn the government over to a newly developing democracy supported by its oil revenues. Our planners didn't anticipate how much work and money it would take to restore the power grid, water supply, and oil processing system, because they had no idea how decrepit and under-maintained those systems were. They didn't anticipate the total breakdown of order and the rampant looting.

That's why, ideally, we develop alternative scripts. First because our information might be wrong. We might not be having such a hard time now if our military planners had acknowledged the possibility that the State Department's conflicting views of Iraq's future, based on a well-grounded understanding of its history and culture, MIGHT be correct, and had worked up an alternative plan for that scenario, just in case.

We also create alternative scripts because we know each person's reaction to our opening line will be unique, based on his personal history and values. So we might prepare several possible answers for a job interview: if she asks me about the most important thing I ever learned from a particular job, I could talk about a project that taught me to value teamwork, or I could talk about a boss who showed me that you never really lose by standing up for what is right. Which answer we actually give would depend on how we read the preferences of the person conducting the interview.

As we write our scripts, though, we have to realize that all we can write is the opening line. Since this is life, not theatre, other people are not obliged to speak the words we've written for them. We can set something in motion with our words and actions, but we cannot control how people respond.

Nor can we even be sure that we ourselves will be able to carry off that opening line. Will we really be able to sail into the room looking glamorous and nonchalant? Convincingly tell that lie about why we want the day off? Impress our bosses with our absolute mastery of all the pertinent information? Not even Bill Gates gets a guarantee like that; demonstrating a new software release to hundreds of investors, he was embarrassed when instead, the blue screen of death popped up on the stadium-sized screen.

So, supposing that we can't carry off our opening line, do we have a back-up plan?

I suspect most people don't. That's why I think that if you don't like the role you've been given in somebody else's script, your best bet may be to figure out that script and violate it. At least one bank robbery was foiled because the teller laughed in the crook's face when he handed her the note. That wasn't in his script. He had no idea what to do next, so he ran. There's a vulture whose defensive strategy is to vomit on its predator. Now there's a script violation for you; do you suppose anyone planning to attack you would still be in the mood after you threw up on him?

Or perhaps you could switch them to a different script. That's what happened when a young man was threatening to throw himself off a cliff; a bystander pointed out to him that he'd left his car's headlights on, and the man dutifully climbed up off the cliff to turn them off and save his car's batteries. I think that's also what happens at fast food restaurants when they offer to super-size your order: if you came in with a mental script about calories, they invite you to switch to a script about value for money.

I'm convinced we are all scriptwriters. How successful we are in writing our own lives, though, may depend on our understanding that.

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