Me, Decoded in 25 Questions
There is a car in the parking lot at work that accents it’s headlights with a lustrous set of plastic eyelashes. Another vehicle in town that I see from time to time, a large pick-up truck, has a disturbingly-realistic set of over-sized chrome testicles dangling from it’s trailer hitch.
What would our grandparents think of the resources we now have at our disposal for expressing our personal style, these greatest generation folks who used the same leased-from-the-phone-company model of black telephone as all their neighbors; these geezers who, in their ignorance of pumpkin spice and soy milk, drank the same kind of coffee in the Fall as they did in the Spring? What would they think of our desire to have a personal style in the first place?
I have, for a great many years, labored under the delusion that I was unique in certain ways. “Unique” about what, I’m hard-pressed to say. In the kind of humor I enjoyed, I suppose. In the clothes I chose or in the way I assembled items on my bookshelf.
“This reminds me of you!” A friend would say. They would pass along a book, tell me a joke they’d recently heard, or they would point out a cute jacket while the two of us were window shopping. “This is just like you!”
These kinds of remarks, these acknowledgments from others that something was “just like me” (and therefore not like someone else) served to reinforce my notion that I had some sort of personal style and individuality. The bubble has burst, though. I now know that I am not unique in the slightest. I am a “type,” am so very common, in fact, that any linguist or psychologist worth the paper his master’s degree is printed on could decode me, could tell you my age, my profession, what part of the country I was from, based on how I answered a handful of questions. I have learned this by taking lots of online quizzes.
I took a dialect quiz last week. It was put out by the New York Times, and I have included the link at the end of this post. The quiz, 25 questions in length, is multiple-choice in format. Here is a sample question:
“What do you call the insect that flies around in the summer and glows in the dark:
_I use lightening bug and firefly interchangeably
_I have no word for this
I answered all the questions honestly. I call them lightening bugs. I address large groups as y’all, and the meteorological phenomenon in which it rains while the sun is shining: I do, in fact (and despite the idiocy of the expression) say under such weather conditions that “the devil is beating his wife.”
When I submitted my answers to the quiz, do you know what happened? The southeastern portion of the US lit up in oranges and reds. There were blood-red dots on the three cities whose participants’ answers were most similar to mine: Columbus, GA (i.e. my hometown), Montgomery, AL (which is an hour away from Columbus, GA), and Greenville, SC. The beautiful, far-away cities that I’ve yet to visit, places like Portland, Oregon and Bar Harbor, Maine, were a cold blue. In which one of these blue cities do people call lightenin’ bugs “peenie wallies?”
I took a different quiz last month about mental age. It asked questions about my attitudes on health and fitness, cell phones, career goals, and parenting styles. After I answered the questions, the quiz said that my mental age was 37 years. 37 happens also to be my chronological age – exactly! I was hoping to find that I was mature, or maybe young at heart. I’m not. I am 37 and I act and think like other 37 year olds. I get a new cell phone as often as other 37 year olds. I am common and predictable.
Another recent quiz claimed it could advise as to which careers were suited to my personality. I took the quiz, and the results indicated I should work in a school or hospital setting. I have worked in three different settings since beginning my career, and they are…school, clinic, and hospital.
If my personality is suited to the professions of teaching and healthcare, my cultural personality, according to another quiz, said that as an overly-outgoing, loud, friendly person, I was most like people from the state of Mississippi. I am actually from Georgia, but we all know that Mississippi is basically Georgia with a slightly larger waist and laissez-faire attitude about school work.
Why do I take these quizzes? I know where I live and where I grew up, after all. I know my age and temperament. I guess what interests me, the reason why I keep taking these quizzes, is that I am intrigued by how my answers differ from yours. What makes me who I am? How am I different from others? Which questions on the dialect quiz determined that I was a south Georgia redneck and not a Tennessee hillbilly? In what ways are my opinions and attitudes different from someone who is 27 or 47?
I am very common. Most ordinary. That is the bad news. The good news is that are lots of people who think, feel and speak very much like me. Whatever I am, I am not alone.