Mastered in childhood and carried into adulthood, the dumb boy face is a pernicious mask handy for avoiding accountability, writes Craig Bloomstrand.
I found my kitchen coated with a thin, greasy film. Every surface appeared to be sweating. I began a search, and found two large and very empty spray bottles and half a dozen rolls of used paper towels in the wastebasket.
My seven-year old son and his buddies had shined the entire kitchen with Armor All. You know the stuff, used for shining plastic and fake leather. They polished every surface, all the appliances, cupboards, woodwork, windows and floor.
I knew what had happened. Spray bottles, endless paper towels, shiny!
I could easily imagine the scene, five boys polishing in earnest and chattering away about baseball cards and B-B guns. They had surprised me before with their industriousness.
I asked the boys, “What were you thinking?” They stood in a ragged line and immediately slipped on the dumb boy face, silent with that unmistakable goofy blank look pasted on their faces.
Boys aren’t stupid, they just don’t think too far down the line. Rarely malicious, boys tend to put one foot in front of the other and it leads them into some remarkable situations.
From my own childhood, I remember that the tendency to “check out” or go unconscious is never far away. Call it innocence, testing the limits, or natural curiosity, things can go horribly wrong and boys tend to feel uneasy when confronted with the consequences of their actions.
The question, “What were you thinking?” usually evokes the same reaction. Dumb boy face.
“How did that arrow come down through the convertible roof and stick in the seat of the neighbor’s car?” Dumb boy face.
“What happened to the dogs fur?” Dumb boy face.
“How did your underwear get lodged in the toilet?” Dumb boy face.
Becoming aware of life’s consequences is quite frankly, “complicated.” The dumb boy face is understandable. A child has to start somewhere.
When the boys drenched my kitchen with Armor All, I was curious. I genuinely wanted to know: “What were you thinking?” I found the image of five boys busy polishing every surface of my kitchen to be funny. I was not angry.
The boys jumped to the conclusion they had done something wrong and quickly slipped on the dumb boy face in an attempt to defend against my anger.
Once they were reassured I wasn’t angry they explained their motivation.
The boys had slept over the night before, and I made them black oatmeal for breakfast. They had volunteered to clean the kitchen after breakfast. They worked hard and wanted to do a thorough job shining every surface. The boys were not only helping, they were grateful. They wanted to show it by doing an exceptional job. They were proud of what they had done.
I understood, although the floor remained slick for any one in sock feet for weeks. Each time I slipped I was reminded of their extra effort.
Besides, I’d been lost with a cloth and a bottle of Armor-All myself, shining the sun dried, vinyl seats in an old truck until they sparkled. My wife and I went for a drive and both slid across the slick surface every time we went around a corner.
She gripped the dashboard tightly, looked at me and asked, “What were you thinking?”
I slipped on the dumb man face, looked her square in the eye and replied, “What do you mean?”
Unfortunately the dumb boy face matures into the dumb man face and shows up too often in our culture. Men are not stupid, but the blank, guilty look that men cultivate when confronted, or caught in the act, is so recognizable and common it bears examination. Sure to get a laugh on sitcoms and comedy sketches, the dumb man face evokes the eye rolling of women, and supports the notion that men are actually just boys in a rather large lumpy package.
In more serious situations, the dumb man face loses its innocent quality and becomes layered with anger or defensiveness. Businessmen or politicians hauled before Congress for misdeeds, or questioned in court with regard to their actions and decisions often slip on a blank or angry face. Underneath this mask lies a fault line. A man may attempt to use his face like a shield but it remains a transparent shield, easy to see through and difficult to confront.
Accountability: An obligation or willingness to accept responsibility for one’s actions. To account for one’s behavior.
I’ve known men who insist on wearing the dumb man face throughout a lifetime, angrily making excuses or justifying their actions. They often reach the end of life full of regret and isolated.
I’ve also known men who take full responsibility for their actions. They reject the notion that men are perpetual boys in a rather lumpy package and resist the “dumb man face.” These men are rare, but you’ll know when you meet them, they tend to be the quiet men with a confident look in their eyes.
Wisdom: The ability to learn from the past and use it to shape the future.
Without personal accountability there is no wisdom.
The dumb man face?
Men slip it on occasionally regardless how wise they become.
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image credit: Ted Sakshaug/Flickr