The piccolo effect

Today something rather silly happened to me. A fellow messaged me on OKCupid. His profile contained the line, "I am afraid of plains." In a fit of whimsy, assuming that he had fallen victim to a rather common misspelling, I replied,
Is it the flatness or the large amounts of grass that gets you? ;)
I soon received the reply,
Please tell me, is that flatness and grass a quote? You're not the first to say that.
And that shamed me. The reason it shamed me is because of (what I have dubbed) "the piccolo effect". It is a rather queer phenomenon that I suspect we have all witnessed or unwittingly been a part of. My attention was first drawn to it some time ago when I stumbled upon a blog post from a musician. This musician played, I seem to recall, a saxophone, and took their instrument on the bus on a regular basis. Inevitably during their ride, a stranger who observed the musician struggling with the large case would comment, "Bet you wish you played the piccolo, eh? Haha." At some point the author had had enough of it and wrote a rather scathing post about how people who think they are making witty or clever remarks are rarely doing so, and it's better to just keep your mouth shut.

The most remarkable thing about this is that people who play a large instrument are asked the "piccolo question" an alarming number of times - cellists have particular trouble with it. It seems to happen in all geographic locations (although sometimes piccolo is replaced with flute or tin whistle) and be said by a large variety of people, each thinking they are making a smart remark. A Google search of relevant keywords turns up forums of people complaining of these piccolo remarks, and even a Facebook group.

When I was a teenager and my younger sister was in her baby and toddler years, people would invariably comment to my mother, "Oh, you have a built-in babysitter!". This was particularly strange because everyone who made a comment to that effect said the exact same words: built-in babysitter. If I had to guess how many times I heard that comment, it would be in the hundreds.

I think this is something which more people need to be made aware. It falls under the sarcastic, "Oh, I haven't heard that one before," but I think people don't realize how out of control it really is. There's a difference between someone cracking an obvious pun and someone making more of a creative leap in their remarks, and yet it seems that even the latter is subject to the whims of the collective (sub?)conscious. I would be interested in seeing what the equivalent of the "piccolo question" is for other hobbies and professions, so that I could do my best to avoid falling prey to the piccolo effect again.

I'm still kicking myself for it.

6 things about

The piccolo effect
  1. I know I am guilty of that. And tall people get crap like that all the time... the "How's the weather up there?" thing. he actually afraid of plains then? Like, wide open grassy areas?

    I never had luck with OkCupid. Except in finding creepers.

    Lots of luck in the creeper dept.


  2. Yea, apparently he actually IS afraid of plains. Whodathunkit?

    My technique for OKCupid is to plaster "MY BOYFRIEND" and "LOOKING FOR FRIENDS ONLY" all over the place. Usually people are courteous enough not to hit on me until the third message or so, whereupon I just ignore them.

  3. I try my best not to label people and shove them into tiny, labeled drawers, but it's a subconscious thing sometimes. If you don't share a certain characteristic with someone, it stands out and that can be irritating for someone who gets the same crap over and over again. I don't know where I'm going with this, some kind of relativistic diatribe on stereotypes, I think.

    But! Don't feel bad for pointing out that typo. Grammar fascism is awesome.

  4. You have a profile on OKcupid?

    Have you ever been to either of these blogs

    Why Women Hate Men or Psychotic Letters From Men

    Please go check them out.

  5. Nice blog by the way, really well written. I think you're right that we have probably all been on the receiving and the giving end of the trite, formulaic pun 'meme'. Sometimes I think we we say them to bridge an awkward social gap; a kind of linguistic place holder while the brain struggles for a genuinely unique thought to impart.

    And that's the problem, in my opinion, to have a truly unique thought is actuially pretty rare. Sometimes what we think is a unique thought has actually occurred to many people in the same situation.

    Instead of being ashamed of doing it ourselves and frustrated when others do it to us, maybe pause for a minute to wonder at how amazing it is that with all the permutations of language combinations and thought patterns available to the human brain we are all wired pretty much the same underneath!

    Although the next person that tells me that I'm throwing a shoe at ;)

  6. Philosophukka: I've always been disturbed by the concept of "the collective conscious" (I think that's how it's usually named), which many people use to explain how people with no prior relation could have the same idea around the same time. It's used to explain the common occurrence of several unconnected inventors inventing the same thing near the same time. I almost wonder if this "formulaic pun 'meme'" (I like that wording) is a less spectacular example of the same thing. :O


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"Whenever you find that you are on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect."