Faucet Confusion Syndrome
Faucet Confusion Syndrome

Faucet Confusion Syndrome

Sally just got an email from her sister. She was lucky to be sitting down when she saw it. Otherwise, she might have fainted. You see, her sister caused an ugly scene at Sally’s home two years ago, stormed out, and remained silent until now.

The email could have contained an apology, something like “I apologize for behaving so badly at your home and for taking two years to find the courage to take responsibility for what I said then.” It didn’t, alas, say any such thing. It just offered small talk, as if the incident had never occurred and thus no apology was necessary.

A lot of people are behaving like Sally’s sister these days. More, it seems, than ever. They suffer from what I call the Faucet Confusion Syndrome (or FCS). People who suffer from this malady treat others like faucets, expecting them to be available at all times, to be turned on or off as needed, without being accorded the basic courtesies expected in human interactions.

FCS doesn’t just occur in families or among friends. It also occurs in more formal situations, such as the following:

  • An Alzheimer’s facility schedules a Thanksgiving dinner event, in which residents’ family members are invited to enjoy a meal with their loved ones the Sunday before the holiday. The activities director sends out the invitations, which include this R.S.V.P. request: “Please let us know if you will be attending, so the kitchen staff will be able to prepare.” Eighteen people respond and the staff prepares accordingly. Then on the day of the event, forty people appear and expect to be fed. (Here twenty-two people suffer from FCS.)
  • While an author is working on a book that is under contract to a publisher, several important questions arise that he needs answers to before continuing his work, so he emails his editor for answers. When a week goes by without a response, he writes again. Two weeks later, while still waiting for a reply, he receives an email from the same editor, who says nothing about the author’s questions but instead directs him to fill out an unrelated form and return it by express mail. (The editor, too, has FCS.)
  • A man who has worked for a midwestern company for many years has decided to retire and move to Florida. One of his co-workers organizes a dinner in his honor. More than twenty people support the idea, a number of them enthusiastically. All of them assure the planner that they will be there. On the day of the event several announce they will not be able to attend, but the majority say nothing, either in advance or afterward—they simply do not attend. (More examples of FCS.)

The causes of Faucet Confusion Syndrome have not been definitively determined, but several possibilities have been offered. One is bad parenting. The rationale here is that FCS sufferers were not brought up to be considerate of other people. This idea has merit. The problem is that it assigns responsibility entirely to the parents. At some point, even those who were deprived of parental guidance should be able to figure out that others deserve courtesy.

Another suggested cause of FCS is the fast pace of modern society. People are so hurried today, the argument goes, that they simply don’t have time for the social graces that were highly valued in previous generations. Some who hold this “different lifestyle” view also claim that what really matters is not the behavior itself but the person’s good intentions, which tolerance demands we attribute to everyone, evidence to the contrary notwithstanding. Such thinking used to be termed rationalizing—making what we want to believe sound reasonable even when it is not. (The term is now considered too judgmental for use in polite society.)

The more likely cause of Faucet Confusion Syndrome, however, is the promotion of narcissism that has occurred over the last half-century. It began with the popularization of Humanistic Psychology, which held that each of us is inherently wise and good and deserving of high self-esteem. Though that view of human nature led to the idea that “I’m OK, [and] You’re OK” (that was an actual book title), in practical terms it translated to “I’m OK and you’d better remember it.”

That was hardly surprising. When ego is overinflated, there’s little room left for consideration of others. And for decades our egos have been pumped up obscenely. Grade school students have been taught to chant, “I am beautiful, I am wonderful, I can accomplish anything.” Teachers have been warned that chastising students for misbehaving stifles their self-actualization. Large chunks of the curriculum have been turned from lessons in the 3Rs to exercises in self-esteem.

Leading psychologists like Carl Rogers proclaimed, “the locus of evaluation is in the person, not outside.” (So much for the rules of etiquette or, for that matter, the Ten Commandments.) He also assured us we can create our own reality and that feelings are more reliable than thought. “When an activity feels as though it is valuable or worth doing,” he wrote, “it is worth doing.” (Just imagine what behavioral doors that idea opens. On second thought, don’t.) That line of thinking inspired others to write books like these warning of the dangers of feeling guilty for our behavior: Goodbye to Guilt, Graduating from Guilt, Healing the Shame that Binds You, and even (I’m not kidding) The Guilt-Free Gourmet.

I can’t count how many times I’ve heard from the pulpit, “You’ve got to love yourself before you can love anyone else,” but I know it’s more times than I’ve heard “If you spend too much time focusing on self-love, you’ll have little or no time left for loving your neighbor.” But nothing tops this gem from best-selling self-help author, Reverend Robert Schuller: “The core of original sin . . . could be considered an innate inability to adequately value ourselves.” In other words, instead of Adam blaming Eve and Eve blaming the serpent, they should have offered the defense that they lacked self-esteem.

Schuller’s gift of overstatement was also on display in the title of that book: Self-Esteem: The New Reformation. Lest Catholic readers feel smug at this point, this endorsement from then Notre Dame president, Father Theodore Hesburgh, appeared on the cover: “Dr. Robert Schuller’s book is a provocative piece on the power of self-esteem and its relationship to a theology of mission.” (Huh?)

In light of such conditioning to put self above others, we shouldn’t be too shocked at the cases of Faucet Confusion Syndrome we encounter. The real puzzle is that the condition has not reached epidemic proportions. In that fact there is hope. In the meantime, we can lessen the disappointment of being treated like a faucet by keeping in mind the words of Benjamin Franklin: “Blessed is he who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed.”

Copyright © 2012 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved

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Vincent Ryan Ruggiero