The wrongness of strangers

Here's what I love about wrongness: it's relevant to absolutely everyone in the world.  That single fact kept me sane(ish) throughout the four-year process of writing this book.  True, I lost faith in the writer on a more or less daily basis, but I never once lost faith in the idea.  How could I? Our odd relationship to error and its often monumental consequences are on display in newspapers, world capitals, jury boxes, hospitals, boudoirs, and therapists' offices every single day.

I was reminded of all this over the weekend, when I went to Grand Central Station to interview total strangers about their own experiences with being wrong.  It seemed like the ideal place to put the wrongness-is-relevant-to-all-of-us hypothesis to the test.  As a kind of global crossroads, Grand Central is both metaphorically apt for a book on erring, and a great place to find a remarkable cross-section of humanity. 

Witness the fact that I talked to (among others) a British couple visiting New York for the first time; an appellate court judge; a former-15-year-old runaway turned construction worker; a retired titan of finance; a pair of Midwestern teenagers; a young man from Barbados; a charmingly philosophical 16-year-old and his rightfully proud mother; a 30-something grandmother; a ten year old kid (being wrong makes him mad); a man with the most astonishing mustache I've ever seen; and -- thank you, New York, I love how you continue to be the most generously, dazzlingly, staggeringly weird place in the world -- Arjuna and Shanti, two tantrically minded "transformational warriors" whose mission is to "save the planet from boring relationships."  Trust me, if you'd seen their outfits, you would've interviewed them, too.  And, as it turns out, they had great things to say about being wrong.

Actually, everyone had great things to say about being wrong.  I was blown away by how eager people were to talk about their mistakes, by how frank and funny and moving their comments were, by the amazing range of their responses -- from being wrong about the weather to being wrong about their marriage.  That's another thing I love about wrongness, and that has buoyed my faith in the subject all along.  It's not just that it's relevant to everyone.  It's that it is relevant in so many different ways.

If you walked into Grand Central and asked a bunch of strangers to tell you about the hardest moment of their life, most people would decline to talk to you.  If, instead, you asked them to tell you a funny story, most people would draw a blank.  But ask them to tell you about being wrong, and suddenly the barriers fall away.  This weekend, thanks to a bunch of total strangers, I frequently cracked up, and occasionally teared up.  If the experience renewed my faith in the idea of wrongness, it also renewed my faith in our sometimes disheartening but occasionally awe-inspiring species.  I'd gladly go back next weekend and do it again.

I'm grateful to everyone who took the time to talk to me.  Never mind that I was a stranger, never mind that they had trains to catch: did people have two minutes to talk about being wrong?  You bet they did.  They had five.  They had ten.  They had as long as it took.  Thanks to their efforts -- and also to Amanda Katz and my amazing filmmaker friend Liv Gjestvang -- I'll have a short video about wrongness to share with everyone soon.  Watch this space! 

 

What was this guy wrong about?  Here's a hint: his answer was the most common one I heard, by far.   Kudos to the blog-reader who can guess it.  Give it a shot in the comments section.

 

Okay, maybe you don’t have strong beliefs about the “right” way to load a dishwasher, or about your sweetheart’s propensity to do it “wrong.” In that case, either you are unusually saintly or (like me) you don’t own a dishwasher. But you almost certainly get involved in domestic disputes about who’s right and who’s wrong all the time; we all do. Although interpersonal arguments can have a number of causes – from serious and painful breaches in trust to the fact that we haven’t had our coffee yet – an impressive number of them amount to a tug-of-war over who possesses the truth. We fight over the right to be right.