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"Acquired Tastes" mind matters
October 23, 2002

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There are two idioms I completely detest. Here’s one of them: “It’s an acquired taste.”

What exactly is an acquired taste? It’s something that you don’t like but learn to appreciate over time. One common acquired taste is alcohol. Another is tobacco. These two products will make your tongue curdle the first time you taste them, yet they’re quite popular.

Why do I hate the expression? Because the very idea of an acquired taste is appalling. If you don’t like something, then you shouldn’t waste your time pretending to like it until you do. If I told you that after enough time you can grow accustomed to having your head punched, would you hold still while I swing my fist? I’m serious. Because boxing is an acquired taste, absolutely. With practice, boxers learn not to fall unconscious after getting slammed in the temples over and over and over again.

There’s something to be said for learning to survive, or attempting to excel. Astronauts and ice skaters learn to control their equilibrium so that weightlessness and spinning don’t make them vomit. Chefs and waiters grow calluses on their hands to withstand burns. Soldiers and fighter pilots are trained to withstand sleep deprivation and to react rationally during moments of mortal terror. If you ask the skaters, waiters, and pilots why they do it, they’ll tell you that the ends justify the means. They value the goals they want to achieve, and they’re prepared to put up with hardships to get there.

So nurses learn to tolerate the stench of the bedpans. Police officers trust themselves to patrol dark alleys. Computer programmers survive months of vending machine dinners. Baggage handlers and bartenders get used to noise. Some people even choose to remain celibate. They all believe that there is something to be gained, if they can just stick it out for a little while longer.

This must be why people learn to like to alcohol. Is getting drunk that profound?

Take something less controversial: caviar. I don’t think there’s a single person on the planet who can tell me honestly that they liked caviar the first time they tasted it. I certainly didn’t. Tom Hanks in the movie Big certainly didn’t it. And yet right now, as you read this, there are probably hundreds of people eating the stuff, at more than $150 a spoonful. These “connoisseurs” once wanted to consume fish eggs so badly that they tolerated both high cost and bad taste. Why? To look sophisticated.

It’s no different with teenagers and cigarettes. Anyone who has tried smoking will tell you that the first cigarette is terrible. Many smokers admit that every cigarette tastes terrible. Still, they adapt, because the alternative of nicotine withdrawal is too unpleasant. No such addiction stems from caviar consumption. But smoking, they think, is cool.

Clearly, acquired tastes aren’t limited to foods. There are bad television shows, bad computer programs, and bad neighborhoods. There are unpleasant jobs and poorly written books. There's nasty weather. “You get used to it,” they say, and then they remind you of the benefits: popularity, money, image, the allure of convenience. It’s as though tolerating the lack of these things is worse.

Well, it just so happens that being unpopular, uncouth, poor, and inconvenienced are acquired tastes, too. Talk to people, ask them about it. Better yet, try these feelings on for size, over and over and over again. Trust me, it’s not so bad. You get used to it.

Oh, the other phrase I can’t stand? “It builds character.”

Get over it.

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Copyright 2002 Seth Maislin

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