Talking to people is hard.
Mostly, this isn’t the peoples’ fault. People are generally easy, except the ones who aren’t, and most of those wind up in prison or law school or get shipped off to Washington to argue with each other. The real problem is all of the darned rules.
When conversing with another human being, there are at least three sets of guidelines you have to keep in mind at all times:
1. Society’s rules. These are dictated by the time and place and sometimes street on which you live, and there are a lot of them, and you’re expected to automagically know them all, based on what the people around you are doing.
“Should you shake hands to greet someone? Bump chests? Kiss cheeks? Tongue, or no tongue?”
Do other people make eye contact when they chat? But not too much eye contact? Do they greet strangers on the street, or no? Should you shake hands to greet someone? Bump chests? Kiss cheeks? Tongue, or no tongue? And exactly how much tongue? Is it different for, say, greengrocers versus your grandma? These are all important questions.
In certain situations, the rules go even further. If you find yourself in a group wearing powdered wigs and talking in high German voices about the opera season, then you may have traveled back in time (and space) to 18th century Vienna or thereabouts. Or you’ve stumbled into the fringes of a Napoleonic War reenactment. Or your friends throw some really hinky parties. You should probably get new friends. Fast.
2. Your rules.
You’re weird. Well, maybe you’re not weird, but I’m weird, and have my own set of guidelines for dealing with people. I’m assuming you probably do, too — because I’m weird, but I’m not that weird.
And so, you prefer to keep conversation partners on your left, because that’s your good ear or your better pinching hand or you always flee to the right from danger. Or maybe you refuse to discuss that time when Sri Lanka won the cricket World Cup in ’96, because the wound is still too fresh. Or you don’t like having your cheeks licked.
Whatever your oddball peccadilloes, they’re always in the back of your mind. You steer the conversation toward some, away from others, and entirely off a cliff to avoid the worst. Your reasons are yours alone and rarely, if ever, discussed or even acknowledged. Meanwhile, there are…
3. The rules of whomever you’re talking with.
One-on-one or in a group, the folk(s) yapping back at you have their own foibles, freakshows, dos and don’ts. You don’t know theirs, and they don’t know yours. Maybe their uncle was the nose hair trimmer for that Sri Lankan team, and the tale of those plucky (yeah, you see what I did there) cricketeers is topic numero uno on their lips.
That’s nobody’s fault. But it’s damned awkward. And hard. Talking is hard.
So I’ve decided to make it easier. I’ve devised a verbal passcode, a test — a secret wordshake — to allow certain conversations to circumvent all these restrictions and pitfalls and pecking orders. A shared message that indicates those things are unnecessary — let’s relax our silly rules for the moment, and screw whatever society wants us to do this week, and have a genuine conversation. Maybe a laugh. No wigs, licks, no cricket — unless you’re into those things. And then that’s definitely what we’ll be talking about.
Of course, the message was key. I’m a certain kind of person. I’m easygoing. I’m not especially deep.
Well, maybe I’m a little deep. Frankly, I don’t know how deep others’ yardsticks go into the pools of their own psyches, either.
(Okay, I just checked, and mine’s actually a “footstick”. Maybe I’m not so deep, after all.
Anyway, I like humor, I like creative things, silly things and smartasses. I don’t talk about the weather well, and I’m no good at keeping track of all those rules I talked about. It makes me tired. I’m fairly mystified by a lot of social conventions and I’m not all that interested in studying up on them. Using a passcode that’s a quote by another character who (except for the smartasses, maybe) feels much the same way seemed natural.
That’s right. I’m talking about Ralph Wiggum.
(What, you were expecting F. Scott Fitzgerald?)
Thus, I’m now starting any potentially promising conversation with the following lead:
“So… do you like… stuff?”
I know. It’s genius.
And also slightly safer than “My cat’s breath smells like cat food.” Which is nice.
If the beauty of a halting half sequitur eludes you, allow me to lay it out. There are four common sorts of response to this question:
A. Frowning silence, as exemplified by Lisa Simpson, to whom Ralph was speaking in the scene. The people reacting this way don’t know the quote, can’t think of a response and are generally now disappointed to find themselves in the sort of conversation where such things are said.
These people will likely question where they made a wrong turn in life and extricate themselves as quickly as possible from the encounter. Which is what we’re all hoping for.
B. Frustrated non-silence, in the form of furrowed brows and replies like “what the hell is the matter with you?” or “I said, do you know why I pulled you over?”
These people are no more helpful than the first, but if a hothead is so hair-triggered as to be set off by a question like this one, then they might be entertaining to watch for the next hour or two. From afar. Because angry people way across the room are funny.
Well. Funni-er, at least.
C. Excited recognition, like “Ralph is my favorite!” or “Ooh, that’s from that show about them yellow cartoon people!” or “Ya-aaa-ay, stuff!!!1!eleventy!” Or worse, listing for you aaaaaaaall of the “stuff” they, indeed, very very much, like.
These people are way too loud. They hop around a lot and Facebook-like captions of cat pictures on their SIdekicks and some of them wear Hello Kitty, but you can’t tell whether they’re wearing it ironically or they’re really wearing it, or why the hell the socks have to match the headband and oh god, they’re talking again and no, I totally don’t want to slide over there to be in your selfie and for the love of Christmas, just settle your shit down already.
Luckily, these people are like hummingbirds. So if you get this response, you can always feign ignorance — “Ralph who? I just wondered what your opinion of stuff is.” — or pretend ‘stuff’ is actually Helmund von Schtuff, the noted German industrialist who co-patented the shoelace aglet in 1873 but died a syphilitic pauper and nothing else interesting happened to him ever. Because let’s talk about him, Sparkles. That’ll be a hoot.
And then they’ll leave. And you can breathe again.
So what’s left?
D. The ‘click’. It could be a wry smile. A Wiggum quote in reply. Or the “official” passphrase response: “Yeah, I like stuff… and junk.” Any of these, or a hundred others, will do. The connection is made, the wordshake shook.
The key is agreeing on what it means. Namely: we’re outside the box here. Kindred conversational spirits. Let’s talk about something nobody else talks about, because they’re busy talking about the nothing — the fluff, the “stuff” — that everyone talks about. Local weather, pass. Did you hit any traffic? — *bzzzzzttt*! This is a splendid and too-rare opportunity; toss the talking rules, and dig a little deeper.
(That’s “foot-deep” only, of course. Of course.)
Will it work? Oh, probably not. Sure, it all makes sense to me. But getting others on board — especially the right others — could be a problem. It’ll probably involve talking to people.
And talking to people is hard.Permalink | No Comments