The saying “familiarity breeds contempt” devalues the many benefits of familiarity. The word “contempt” implies either disgust, or disrespect. Familiarity by itself does not lead to either disgust, or disrespect. Familiarity usually leads to a sense of security, comradeship and trust.
A mother will send her child to school with a familiar friend. But, she will not dream of it, if the person triggers her disgust. Benjamin Franklin said “Fish and visitors smell in three days.” Not three days, but three seconds are enough for you to feel disgusted by a new acquaintance. It is some unpleasant truth, not familiarity, which triggers such disgust.
Apart from disgust, contempt also means disrespect. If your subordinate treats you with less respect than before, the reason is not familiarity, but that you lost social status. Your position moved down in his subconscious list of social priorities. You became less important to him. But, he does not feel contempt (disgust) for you. His contempt (disrespect) is a result of his indifference to your concerns. The reason for such contempt is not familiarity, but the psychology of herd supremacy.
Familiarity Breeds Contempt – Leads To A Sense Of Security
More knowledge can lead to less approval in cases, when people have specific priorities. Michael I. Norton reports that, the liking of members of a dating site for their dates decreased substantially after they had met them. Dating is a situation, where a prospective life partner is being evaluated against personal priorities. The negative scores reported by Norton were not triggered by familiarity, but by personal priorities. Similarly, at a job interview, the priority is job suitability and a low score will lead to rejection.
But, in the course of normal social interactions, familiarity leads to a greater sense of security and liking. The experiments of Beach (1992) suggest that even remote familiarity leads to vague liking. Beach introduced four fake students to a large college course. Each of the fake students - chosen to be of similar appearance - attended the course to varying degrees, some going to many classes, others to few; but none interacted with the other students. At the end of the course, the best liked student, despite never being talked to, was the one who had attended the most classes.
In the commercial arena, the advertising industry aims to make a brand name become as familiar as possible to the customer. When marketing cars, cell phones, or toiletries, the average customer is likely to encounter a successful brand name several times a day. The name is seen on television, newspapers, magazines and on highway signs. The buying decisions of customers are based on their higher sense of security for a familiar brand name.
Familiarity Breeds Contempt – The Rudeness Of A Few
Sadly, the familiarity breeds contempt idea influences many people to withdraw from social contact. It favors the idea that closer relationships will lead to pain. Contempt implies painful social rejection. The same neural circuits, which report pain, fire when a person experiences social rejection. Sensitive people fear that familiarity will lead to the discovery of some contemptible weakness. Their expectations of pain come from their past encounters with bullies, who are contemptuous towards some “disgusting characteristic,” or towards perceived social inferiority.
Rude people act unthinkingly and instinctively. They viscerally disapprove of the varying racial, religious, political, or physical characteristics of people. They are arrogant towards people they consider to be inferior. But such people form a minority. A few bullies should not prevent you from getting closer to the majority of people, who are kind and considerate. An open approach to many people can help you to identify and avoid the narrow minded ones. For the few rude ones, there will be many, who can become your good friends. The false view that familiarity breeds contempt should not narrow your social interactions. Familiarity actually widens your choices.
Familiarity Breeds Contempt – Disgust Aspect
Disgust is a primary emotion, which drives people to avoid unclean, inedible, infectious, or gory objects. The emotion can be triggered by the smell, taste, touch, or vision of spoiled foods, dead bodies, poor hygiene, or body fluids such as feces, vomit, or phlegm. Musically sensitive people may even be disgusted by a cacophony of sounds. Disgust triggers a characteristic facial expression, which is common across ages, races and cultures around the world. Contempt is typically expressed, when the corner of the lip is tightened and raised slightly on one side of the face.
While disgust developed for the avoidance of objects, evolution adapted the emotion to discourage destructive social interactions. Functional MRI experiments have revealed that the anterior insula in the brain is particularly active when experiencing disgust, when exposed to offensive tastes, and when viewing facial expressions of disgust. Specific social situations also activate those neural circuits, which are associated with disgust. Mirror neurons enable social groups to share such emotions, which control social behavior.
Communities feel disgust towards individuals, who lie, steal, cheat, sell out, or betray their own values, threatening the entire group. Unfortunately, when when one social group feels threatened by another, the disgust emotion creates raw prejudice. Disgust leads to bigotry in the forms of sexism, racism and religious extremism. It was responsible for the oppressions of the cast system in India. The disgust aspect of contempt defined the quality of behavior towards such people.
Familiarity Breeds Contempt – Disgust Behavior
Disgust occurs, when someone does not meet certain racial, religious, or moral characteristics, or does not live up to expected interpersonal standards. Disgust impels people to become “cold” and physically and psychologically distance themselves from the object of disgust. Disgust eliminates empathy for such people. Lacking awareness of their feelings, disgust causes them to make scornful, or sarcastic comments.
Disgust prevents people from openly confronting, or personally interacting with such people. Their desire is that the object of contempt should remove himself or be removed by others. John Gottman suggests that the most destructive aspect of marriage is the expression of disgust. Such behaviors reflect either innate prejudices, or a lack of empathy and understanding. Familiarity has nothing to do with such instinctive disgust induced expressions of contempt.
Familiarity Breeds Contempt – Disrespect Aspect Of Contempt
Disrespect, which is another subconscious aspect of contempt, is actually a behavioral lapse. The person fails to show respect, because he does not recognize the person as being important in his life. Respect is a social emotion, which controls the behavior of social hierarchies in a group of people. Respect compels individual members to voluntarily ignore their own needs to serve a social superior. Respect, motivated by fear, sets off a placating pattern of behavior, conceding power to the strong.
Respect pays attention to the superior person, defers to his judgments and values the relationship. A respectful approach saves the weak from being attacked by the strong. Instinctively, people respect their superiors and ignore their inferiors. They feel little need to pay attention to the feelings and needs of their inferiors. Even a subordinate can act with disrespect towards his superior. Such unconscious behavior makes the victim feel the pain of social rejection - the pain of being treated with contempt. The culprit feels no emotion, but merely ignores the victim.
Familiarity Breeds Contempt – It does Happen
In rare cases, Mark Twain's view “Familiarity breeds contempt – and children” can lead at least to disrespect. Attendants to people in positions of power can become awed by their celebrity friends, homes and limousines. But, as time passes, the human failures and foibles of such idols become exposed and the sense of awe subsides. Such weaknesses could also trigger disgust. If they feel safe enough in their positions, they could even show disrespect. In both cases, it is not familiarity, but other psychological factors, which lead to contempt.
Familiarity Breeds Contempt – Familiarity Along With Control
Quiet people sometimes worry that the disrespectful behavior of a subordinate happened, because she was allowed to become too familiar. Such disrespect is not caused by familiarity. Some people are dominant by nature and they need to be dealt with differently from those who naturally respect authority. Dominant people are social predators, who constantly assert status in small ways. They will feel superior and act with disrespect, if your behaviors lower your status.
Do not let your subordinate become convinced that her needs and opinions are more important than your own. If you imply that your needs are less important than the needs of your subordinate, she will believe it to be true. If you defer to their views, rather than hold your own, they will feel that their opinions are superior. Preventing such loss of control requires conscious effort. Cesar Milan, the “dog whisperer,” demonstrates the principle of status in a herd. He is able to prevent hyperactive dogs on his leash from attacking visitors, or chasing other dogs.
He communicates his position of command through deliberate and occasional tugs of the leash. When dealing with aggressive people, who constantly tend to move into your space, it is important to steadily exercise control, even if the decisions involved appear petty. Make it clear that your needs have precedence. Assert your control over the work, even if the decision appears unimportant. Better to appear petty than to dismiss the subordinate after he has trampled all over you.
Familiarity Breeds Contempt – Misreading Contempt
The pain of social rejection is felt strongly, when a person has lost status in her social circle. A high status implies respect, where people are conscious of your presence, attend to your needs and value your opinions. It is painful to be in a situation, when status is lost. Such people feel the pain of being ignored, of being treated with less respect.
Once you have completed a purchase, a salesman may pay you less attention. It is important to understand that the people who show less respect are not showing contempt. Their minds no longer warn them of the importance of the person. It is painful, when you have been overlooked for the position to be the next manager. Do not add to your pain by thinking that any disrespect shown to you by your colleagues is an expression of contempt. While a few may be vindictive, the majority will merely be reacting instinctively to new realities.
This page was last updated on 31-Dec-2013
For my peace of mind, I earmarked 20 minutes for meditation on the terrace. With my eyes closed, I sense my hands on the chair and feel the numbness in my feet.
I feel my breath flowing through my nose, my throat, my chest and my stomach. I can hear the chirping of birds, the phut phut of auto rickshaws, the occasional roar of a truck and the insistent hooting of horns.
The wide sky and the treetops come to my attention, when I open my eyes, I see a pale moon over two hundred thousand miles away. I see the nuclear fires, blazing for millions of years in the pale globe of the setting sun. I see a single star millions of miles away in space.
I can see green shoots coming up on a tree, watch the dives and swoops of birds, the great circles of the hawks and flocks of birds flying home for the night.
Diffused light from the sun reflects off a parrot on the tree and enters my eye through a pinhole opening. I sense the bustling mood of the bird, even though it is smaller than a drop of water in my eyes.
All these things are seen and felt by me in a few brief minutes. In the distance, is the head of a man seeming to be no bigger than a pea. Yet, that head too sees and feels such things. Ten million people in this great city see and feel in ten million ways.
My mind wanders to a misty view of postwar London; an exciting glimpse of Disneyland. An awed view of Tiananmen Square. The looming Himalayan ranges. My mind takes me to distant galaxies.
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