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The Lake Wobegon Effect
April 1, 2013 |
Dear Mr. Keillor,
In Wikipedia, "the Lake Wobegon effect" is defined as "a natural human tendency to overestimate one's capabilities, [and it] is named after the town. The characterization of the fictional location, where 'all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average,' has been used to describe a real and pervasive human tendency to overestimate one's achievements and capabilities in relation to others."
But as I've listened to your stories over the years, I've come away with a different take. You speak often of how shy the residents are and how little they toot their own horns. I grew up among older Norwegians and Swedes who, rather than overestimating their capabilities, often downplay them and turn the conversation in another direction. If anything, they indulge in a little false modesty in order to avoid seeming to boast.
Have I just misunderstood at least part of the theme all these years?
You're right about the reticence of Wobegonians in keeping with their Scandinavian heritage ("Don't think you're somebody") and their genuine modesty and their tendency to step away from any sort of praise. I share that tendency and I try to understand it because at times it seems rude of me -- if someone says "That was a good show" and I hurry to point out what was wrong with it. (And it is rude. And I've learned to say, "Thank you" and shut up.) I was brought up to be modest, though I secretly entertained delusions of grandeur, imagined being heroic, saving lives, winning games, setting world records. In a small town such as Lake Wobegon, the social fabric of the community is so important that the members are careful to avoid attracting too much attention that might turn into envy. Your life might depend on your neighbors and if you get a reputation as someone High and Mighty, people might not come to your aid as readily as they ought to, figuring that you're much too capable to need their help. Look at the rich and famous who have died in stupid accidents because people nearby didn't dare warn them. I think of my dear friend Corinne, a brilliant teacher, an irrepressible lefty, a quick wit, a staunch friend, whose friends didn't recognize the depth of her depression -- because she was, after all, Corinne -- and then she killed herself. So the "Lake Wobegon effect" is a bunch of hogwash where Lake Wobegon is concerned. And the slogan about all the women and all the men and all the children is so obviously not about overestimation -- when you say that all the children are above-average, you are saying that tests and grades and intellectual measurement are not, in the end, so important. If everybody is above average, then you have junked the idea of averages. That "pervasive human tendency to overestimate one's achievements" is found in New York and Los Angeles and in Wikipedia, but it doesn't have anything to do with the Little Town That Time Forgot.