Gwnewch y pethau bychain

The Killjoy Effect

That annual celebration of gladiatorial conquest and capitalist art known as the Superbowl was last night. During the hours-long telecast, I’m told, the New Orleans Saints defeated the much-favoured Indianapolis Colts, providing a sense of civic pride and joie de verve to a city that hasn’t had much cause to celebrate in recent years. Well done, and congratulations to the winning team for their accomplishments.

But that’s not really what I wanted to talk about.

Today, as I scroll through various blogs and journals, interspersed between the reactions to the game by fans of all stripes are the messages from the cynically aloof, who write paragraphs to inform us about how they did not watch That Game at all, nor did they check to see who won, because they, you see, could not care less about (spit) football.

I find this an interesting phenomenon which is not restricted to sport. If you look at any pursuit which inspires a passionate following, you’ll find a group who defines their superiority to the hoi polloi in terms of The Sort Of Thing I Don’t Care For.

I admit, I can be as prone to it as anyone. Yesterday, my friend Joey asked on Facebook: “Wasn’t there some sort of big football game today?”, and with a sly wink and straight face, I replied, “Yes, there was. Chelsea beat Arsenal, 2-0 :)”

There’s a certain sort of tribe recognition at work there, a signal to one another that we’re in that set of people who isn’t invested in the Big Thing Everyone Else Is Doing. When I see articles about the Twilight craze, I wrinkle my nose a bit and shake my head, having a firm and considered distaste for a series of books and movies I have not actually read or seen, nor do I have any particular inclination to do so.

In some ways, this is a very natural thing for us to do. No matter how much we desperately wish it was otherwise, we are shaped inevitably by our culture, often in ways that we don’t immediately comprehend or even notice. When we do see a shaping force we dislike, we take a forthrightly opposing position to it (and thus, are indirectly influenced by it, if only by creating our sense of opposition.)

But like most behaviours, some people take it too far. A sly wink and a quip insufficient to show they are not part of the maddening crowd, they write bitter essays about their studied indifference to the entire thing and how they never could see what anyone sees in it anyway. This both annoys and fascinates me. It fascinates me because what’s strikingly obvious about these little screeds is not that the writer doesn’t care about the subject in question, but rather it is very important to the writer that you know he doesn’t care. Someone who honestly doesn’t care about something would simply go on about their day, not caring.

It annoys me because while it’s ok for one to be archly solipsistic in one’s own blog; that is, after all, what blogs are for, it’s positively obnoxious when it’s done in actual conversation. If two people are having an excitable conversation about a topic of great interest to them, and you walk up and say, ‘Oh, you’re talking about $TOPIC. I never really understood what people see in that. It just doesn’t interest me.”, you have effectively a) derailed the original conversation, which was presumably being enjoyed by the original participants, and b) focused the conversation on yourself. The people you’ve now interrupted may feel the need to defend their love of $TOPIC, or they may feel they must change the topic, because someone has inserted themselves uninvited into their chat and declared the current subject not only uninteresting, but unworthy of the attention of anyone with more than a marginal level of sophistication.

There is a name for this sort of person: a killjoy. Killjoy is a great word, because it requires no explanation. A killjoy is someone who kills joy. It is someone who manages to make themselves feel better by holding themselves above whatever it is that anyone else enjoys, and makes wry and cutting remarks about the sort of people who like *that* sort of thing. (One manifestation of this particular personality is the Cool Hipster, whose primary criteria for declaring something art is whether or not anyone other than himself has ever heard of the artist. Many brilliant artists cease to be brilliant, in the Hipster’s world, the moment they actually achieve recognition outside the small and insular circle of the Hipster and his friends.)

Now, one can certainly have any sort of opinion on any sort of topic that one wants. It is, as they say, a free country. But the next time you feel the need to insert yourself into a conversation just to express your alleged indifference to the topic at hand, ask yourself: “What am I trying to accomplish here?” If you are genuinely curious as to what someone else sees in it, perhaps you can have a useful conversation and walk away with some new understanding about the subject you didn’t have before. If, only the other hand, all you’re really wanting to do is demonstrate how insufferably superior you are to the unwashed masses, do everyone a favour and just walk away and wallow quietly in your smug grandiosity. No one wants to hear it, and there’s little enough joy in this world already without someone coming along and draining it from the room.


Digital visualization


Personal Soundtrack


  1. Indeed. I used to be similar to that and I hope I’ve gotten better at it (if I’m not much interested in XYZ, and if someone asks me about it, I’ll tell them that, but I’ll usually put on the postscript that “it doesn’t make it a bad — it just means I’m not interested.”

    I don’t understand trying to derail a conversation that I had no part of to begin with.

  2. I was really tempted to reply to your post with, “I’d reply to your post, but this sort of post doesn’t really interest me.”

    But it’s not true, and besides, I think it’s a good post.

    I find I’m more likely to do the killjoy thing when already in a conversation with people I don’t know very well that *was* about something I liked talking about, but then became about something I didn’t know about, and sometimes I’ll find myself going, “Ah, I’m not really into fu sort of thing,” because I don’t know what fu is.

    Sometimes I’m just acting pointlessly elitist in some sort of strange urge to save face, but other times I want to say something so I’ve got an opportunity to scour my horrible memory for some clue as to the conversation.

    Luckily, I don’t use this tactic with people I know well (and are therefore inured to blank looks from me) because I often get Benet or someone saying, “Of course you know what I’m talking about, this is the CD you gave me last month.” Ooops.

    • I don’t think “I’m not really into fu” when a conversation you’re already in turns towards fu is quite the same thing, so that’s ok.

      Really, it’s the implied “…and you shouldn’t be either, if you had any taste or sophistication” that bugs me. 🙂

      If I genuinely don’t know something about a topic, I am more inclined to say “I don’t know anything about fu. Tell me about it?” and see if maybe fu is something I should look into.

  3. Yesterday, on the telephone, told me he had NPR on, and it was full of people explaining that they don’t follow football, of course, and here’s what they think about the Superbowl. We agreed that if they don’t know about the subject, they should either talk about any of the things they do know about (and presumably have jobs as radio people because of) or, if they think the show should discuss the game, bring on someone who does know about it. The latter would not have been difficult.

    I then told that it might be amusing to wait a month or so, and then ask those radio presenters their opinion of people who are proud of their ignorance.

  4. I think you’ve hit precisely on the issue at hand: the “insufferable superiority”. This was a really great read.

  5. I definitely enjoyed your post -- I get the feeling that there’s a song cue in there somewhere, too. 🙂

  6. Yes, this.

    Nobody is required to like football. Nobody who doesn’t like football ought to be expected to follow it.

    But it’s just mean to attempt to denigrate the joy and fun that people who DO like it get from it.

    Besides, the times I’ve watched football, in the company of people who have liked it, I quite enjoyed it — because of the shared experience and the reflected joy of my friends. It doesn’t mean that much to me personally, but it means a lot to me that my friends like it.

    • I watched the Superbowl for the first time this year (well, the first half, here in the UK it was 5 hours later at night). Admittedly part of my reason for doing so was because of The Who being on at half time, but I did it with friends who are really into it and who were willing to explain stuff to me (and I know little about any sort of football; cricket, snooker and crown green bowling are my preferred spectator sports), and I actually found it interesting. Probably not interesting enough that I’ll watch it if I’m on my own and there’s anything else on TV, but enough so that I can now expect to enjoy it if friends want to watch it.

      I think that a lot of the ‘superiority’ of the game-haters is because it is so common in the culture to denigrate anyone who doesn’t like “the national sport”. When I was growing up one of the automatic questions was “what team do you support?” (Association Football, aka soccer) and “I’m not interested in football” would get you beaten up (literally, several times until I picked a team at random). This has the natural effect that when the victim grows up and can’t be intimidated any more they lash back against the ‘herd’.

      But interrupting someone’s conversation to tell them that they are stupid in liking something is just plain rude. There are dozens of things other people like doing which I don’t find interesting or pleasurable, and the reverse is true as well. If we are talking about it then fine, I’ll say when I don’t know anything about the subject or can’t understand it (like knitting), but if they want to geek about it I’ll just go somewhere else.

      (As for the TV show stuffed with people who are proud that they don’t know anything about the subject, that’s just weird. The TV station deserves to lose audience…)

      • wow, you grew up with a loutish set of kids! i was certainly laughed at for not knowing about cricket, but i can’t even imagine being beaten up for it.

        • Well, this was football and we all know what sort of louts football fans are! (I’m referring to soccer, of course, not commenting on anyone else’s fans.) But it’s a basic “not fitting in” — even without me saying (or implying) so they took it that anyone who didn’t join in with them was an enemy. So if I’m going to be branded an outsider and fair game anyway I may as well make it into a virtue, right? If they make fun of me for not liking their sport then I’ll laugh at them for liking it.

          Except that I didn’t. Somehow I grew up knowing and accepting and even rejoicing in the fact that everyone likes something different, long before Star Trek introduced IDIC. Part of it I certainly got from my family, part very probably from SF reading in general, and part a general indifference to the ‘herd’ (if they leave me alone I’ll leave them alone; I had a few close friends and didn’t care either way about most of the rest). It seems that most people, though, get polarised.

    • Indeed. And that makes a big difference.

      Of course, the essay isn’t really about football, per se. The Superbowl reactions were just the latest manifestation of a trend that I see whenever something is “too popular”

      • Yup. And my statement applies pretty much equally to Pokemon, formerly-obscure bands that hit it big, Harry Potter, and various television shows and movies.

  7. As a teacher, I have found that having a short conversation about something that doesn’t rock my world or interest me much, but does mean a lot to my student pays big dividends if I pay attention and remember details about it.

    I had a number of short conversations today with students about THE GAME, and asked a couple of “dumb” questions that made them happy to explain, and shared my favorite commercial. Seeing them so very pleased and happy that I took interest in something they liked made me feel like I’d given a bit of joy. Seeing you post that shutting down such conversations is being a killjoy really resonates with me.

  8. football killjoys

    I think the most irritating example of this, specifically in reference to the Superbowl, came several years ago on a mailing list I was on. There were, as usual, multiple threads about multiple topics going on, including one in which a few of us (sports fans being a distinct minority on this list) started discussing the Superbowl. People felt it necessary to hijack the conversation thread with comments on how much they hate football, don’t care about the Superbowl, etc. When I called the offenders on their rude killjoy behavior, trying to draw a parallel (when a thread starts on kitting, about which I know nothing, I simply don’t comment on that thread; is that so hard?) they Didn’t Get It.

    It’s one of the worst things about fannish/geeky crowds (a.k.a. my major social group)-- that it’s OK to be “open-minded” and yet see no contradiction when stereotyping and slamming sports (or Christianity… or Republicans… or monogamy). Most folks in the group aren’t so actively rude, of course, but they’re much much more tolerant (to put it mildly) of such behavior than they are of the stereotyping and denigrating more-acceptable-to-geeks, less-mainstream views.

  9. Im a part of the unwashed masses??!! Woooohooo! I knew I was in with a good crowd. Now I wont sweat it every month when bath time comes around.

    I do agree with you on this. Well spoken.

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