Belmont Club

The Fatal Phrase

A friend of mine once had a minor fender-bender and got out to inspect the damage. The other driver strode up to him and said in a manner suggesting he was untouchable declared “don’t you know who I am?” My friend half-seriously replied, “should I”?  The reply infuriated the other driver, as if it were a put-down. Maybe it was.  The words “don’t you know who I am” were in the news again in connection with Dominique Strauss-Kahn.


The hotel housekeeper that he allegedly assaulted was said to have given this narrative of the attack:

The maid said she tried a variety of tactics to get herself out of the room and away from Strauss-Kahn. She said, “my manager is in the hallway,” which he wasn’t — but the former IMF chief wasn’t scared off. The single mother allegedly told the Frenchman that the job was important to her and any conflict with a hotel guest would result in her losing her job.

“Please stop. I need my job, I can’t lose my job, don’t do this. I will lose my job. Please, please stop! Please stop!” she told Strauss-Kahn, according to law enforcement sources.

Strauss-Kahn allegedly responded: “No, baby. Don’t worry, you’re not going to lose your job. Please, baby, don’t worry,” Strauss-Kahn responded, according to investigators. “Don’t you know who I am? Don’t you know who I am?”

But why on earth should a chambermaid at a hotel know offhand who the IMF head was, or indeed, what the letters “IMF” even stood for? At least DSK has a plausible claim for being known throughout the earth. But what about the man who demanded special treatment because he was contestant on a reality show? Google returns more than 9.3 million references to the famous words “Don’t you know who I am?” and the number of nobodies who have used them is astounding.


Commenters at the Times of India said that DSK “should be awarded an honorary Indian citizenship” because every minister, commissioner and magistrate in the subcontinent used the same argument to justify double parking their cars, tearing up traffic citations or otherwise helping themselves to whatever they wanted. India is not alone. DSK should be an honorary citizen of the world. If anything proclaimed the universal humanity of the IMF Executive it was the alleged use of that famous phrase.

So why do people use the high handed approach? Maybe because it sometimes works.  James Taranto cites an article in the Scientific American which found that people who acted imperiously are often treated as important even though they may be absolutely nobodies.

being publicly rude also seemed to engender a perceived sense of power. A hundred twenty-six subjects watched one of two videos. One of a man sitting in a sidewalk café and acting courteously, the other of the same man stretching his legs out on a chair next to him, tossing his cigarette ashes wherever, and barking orders at the cafe staff. Subjects thought the crude man was more likely to be a decision-maker and get his way than the same man behaving himself.


But there’s more to self-importance than the rewards of successfully bluffing. People actually like to feel important. they crave recognition and using the words “don’t you know who I am” indicates they believe they’ve arrived and the waves should part before them. Benedict Carey, in a 2006 New York Times article, explored the lure of fame.

“To be noticed, to be wanted, to be loved, to walk into a place and have others care about what you’re doing, even what you had for lunch that day: that’s what people want, in my opinion,” said Kaysar Ridha, 26, of Irvine, Calif., a recent favorite of fans of the popular CBS reality series “Big Brother.” “It’s strange and twisted, because when that attention does come, the irony is you want more privacy.”

Irene Cara’s hit song “Fame” expressed the desire succinctly. “I feel it coming together, People will see me and cry, I’m gonna live forever, Baby remember my name.” Perhaps the most poignant counterphrase to “don’t you know who I am?” is the question, ‘who was he?’  because strange as it may seem, many people who imagine themselves famous cannot accept there those who don’t know them at sight.


‘Who was he?’ is a sign of the ultimate futility of Fame. When James Cagney expires on the steps of a church in the final scene of Roaring Twenties the police officer asks who the ragged corpse is. The ex-gangster’s faithful girlfriend  answers, “he used to be a big shot”.

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