The invisible They
All my life I’ve been mystified by the knowledge and expertise of that enigmatic, all-knowing being known as They. They say that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. They say teenagers need more sleep than adults because their bodies are growing and changing so fast. They say it is better to give than to receive. They seem to have an answer for everything and we seldom question their authority. Yet, nobody ever says just who They are. Why do we put so much faith in someone nobody seems to actually know personally?
I suspect that They might just be another name for The Neighbors. I heard about The Neighbors a lot when I was a child. Mostly it was in the form of an admonition from my mother, as in, “What will The Neighbors think if they see you wearing those slacks with a rip in the knee?” And later, as a teen, “What will The Neighbors think if your date doesn’t get you home at a decent hour?”
There were times that I began to wonder if my parents were in charge of the rules, or if everything was decided by The Neighbors. Sometimes, The Neighbors were even less identifiable and were known only as People. I worried about what People would think when I was allowed to buy a pack of cigarettes for my dad at the grocery store. The grocery clerk glanced at my list, saw that Mother had written Camels down right after, coffee, toilet paper, and oranges, and he added the cigarettes to the bag. It was apparently unnecessary for Mother to worry that People would be scandalized to see me checking out “Forever Amber” for her at the library. The librarian didn’t seem to mind and didn’t even ask who it was for. She stamped the due date inside the cover and put the card in my file, as if she thought it was for me. (Actually, I DID read it before it had to go back to the library, and thought it was no big deal; the stuff by Edgar Allen Poe was a lot more shocking.)
In my efforts to try to figure out just who They are and just why people seem to put so much faith in everything They say, I’ve noticed some things that might explain some of it. People seem to repeat what They have said if it’s something we’ve all heard many times during our lives. They say that if March comes in like a lion, it will go out like a lamb. (In that instance, They were probably some shepherds who got caught in Iowa during the girls basketball tournament.) Nobody knows who originally said that if you have cold hands, it naturally follows that you must have a warm heart. (Probably the same bald guys who claimed grass wouldn’t grow on a busy street.) We’ve all heard most of those things so often that we just accept them and never give a thought to who said them first.
Sometimes, people give Them credit for their own ideas, beliefs, or prejudices, just because it seems to lend their statements more credibility and lets themselves off the hook in case they are wrong. This tactic comes in handy when you know you’re on shaky ground and can’t prove your statement. It’s easy to tell someone that They say eggs aren’t so bad for you after all. It’s not so easy to say that you believe that, and risk getting a lecture about cholesterol. They say that walking is the best exercise and that jogging and vigorous workouts can do more harm than good. Most of us readily embrace that notion simply because we hate to sweat and we don’t like pain, and besides, it’s quicker and easier to take the car.
And quite often They get stuck with the blame for faulty memories. When a person can’t quite remember who or what authority is responsible for something he’s been told or believes, it’s human nature to give the credit (or blame) to They. Can’t remember the name of the fashion designer who said teal blue is the new black? Tell your friends that They say teal blue is the IN color this fall. Sounds more impressive, as if all the fashion mavins agreed, so who cares if you can’t remember the name of just the one who actually said it. Don’t recall the research lab that caused your favorite brand to be taken off the market? Just say that They said it might cause cancer, or hangnails, or hair loss if you use too much. In this instance, They sounds like real authoritirs with power, maybe even the United States Government itself!
There is one real problem with depending on They to get you out of trouble when you are speaking with less than reliable evidence and authority, Someone just might be bold enough to challenge your statement and ask you to explain just who They are. The only advice I have for dealing with that is to smile mysteriously and, in a voice fraught with confidentiality, tell them. “The people who really know about those things.” If that doesn’t work, you’re on your own.