What do you do when you're told an urban legend as truth?

Once one has begun to recognize the frequency of urban legends in daily life, this issue can become a problem. Many who are relatively new to urban legends will point out people's apparent "gullibility with glee, only to often be met with a harsh response. Here is Jan Harold Brunvand's suggestion (from his book The Baby Train, pp. 28-29.)

Gentle Reader:

How to respond to someone telling an urban legend as the truth is a serious etiquette dilemma worthy of Miss Manners' attention. But you need not write to America's premiere authority on correct social behavior, since I myself have researched the proper course of action--one that's accepted in all the best spas, country clubs, and hair styling salons.

The mannerly method of dealing with someone who insists on the truth of an urban legend is called "The Polite Persistent Questioning" technique--PPQ for short.

Let us take a typical situation requiring the PPQ approach. Say you are gathered with friends on the patio of a fashionable home one moonless evening, sipping expensive Scotch whisky and daintily nibbling an occasional hors d'oeuvre selected from a tray proffered by an attentive servant.

(Actually, the same advice applies if you're on a camping trip toasting marshmallows by the fire, but my example sounds more like a Miss Manners reply.)

Inspired by the atmosphere, someone begins to tell "The Hook," and you, as an urban legend aficionado recognize immediately that this story is as old as the Scot you're drinking and as phony as the hostess's smile.

Are you expected by the rules of etiquette to keep your mouth shut and endure this recital of falsehoods? Must you let it stand as the truth that a couple parking on lovers' lane heard a radio warning of an escaped maniac with a hook replacing his lost hand? Or that they drove off rapidly and later found a bloody hook dangling from the door handle?

No, indeed. But neither can you simply state outright, "Baloney! That's merely an urban legend that everyone heard at scout camp years ago."

The socially proper reaction to this situation is Polite Persistent Questioning.

At intervals during the recital of such a legend, you may ask some sweetly phrased, but pointed, questions:

--"Goodness! Why would they give a dangerous maniac a hook? Wouldn't that simply provide him with a powerful weapon?"

--"You mean he reached for the door handle with his hook hand? I would think he'd use his other hand for that."

--"Isn't that a remarkable coincidence that the hookman was lurking outside the car just at the moment when the announcement came on the radio?"

--And the best question of all, "Did the young man really walk politely around the car to open the door for his date, after being angry enough to spin his tires as they left their parking place?"

The idea of PPQ is not to pit yourself personally against the storyteller and imply that he or she is lying; that would be a worse gaffe than spreading a legend in the first place. Instead you should strive to create an atmosphere of innocently querying the story's details. This might encourage other listeners to raise further questions.

At just the moment when the narrator seems about to retract the tale, you should rescue the poor soul by saying--as if you just happened to remember it--"Oh, I believe that really happened somewhere else! Didn't I read about it in a book by Jan Harold Brunvand called . . . oh dear, what was that title?"

At this point, it is considered socially correct to reach into one's billfold or pocketbook and extract a small card on which is written in black or blue-black the full titles and publication dates of Brunvand's books, and to mention that you saw them for sale at some fashionable boutique

Go Home

This page is maintained by Terry Chan