Friday, January 15, 2010

You Talkin' to Me?

You know the bizarre forced small-talk you have with someone when you run into them on the bus or something? Not some complete stranger, but not a real friend-friend either, just some casual acquaintance who shit his pants at your birthday party years ago, or whatever? This conversation usually sucks, and should be avoided.

You’re on the subway or the bus and you peripherally spot an acquaintance of this type. You have a few different options. Pretending to sleep is popular, but also lacks ambition, and is usually pretty transparent. You also run the risk of actually falling asleep and missing your stop.

A more daring and acrobatic approach is to twist your body and head in such a way that it becomes impossible to look in the assailant’s direction, and then, try to act casual, and as if you always sit that way.

“This is how I always sit, leaning to left and staring at the floor next to my left shoe.”

You can often combine this contortionist technique with looking out the window, but you will potentially look crazy, and often will develop a kink in your neck. Therefore, I would say that burying your face in a book, newspaper, or handheld video game is probably the safest bet. There is no real risk of injury and you’re being entertained at the same time.

Now, regardless of your efforts to avoid eye contact or recognition, sometimes the acquaintance will still recognize you and want to “catch up”. Who wants to catch up anyways? I’m fed up with having to put up with having to listen up when someone I didn’t even keep up with while growing up feels they need to take up my time. It makes me want to throw up. Why can’t they just shut up?

They’re annoyingly tenacious too. Have you ever had someone tap on your shoulder, to try and force you to look at them? First, you fake sleep, but still you feel them getting closer and closer. You see them in your peripheral vision after you fake wake up and bury your face in a book, music full blast. You know that it’s coming. They’re not going to let you avoid them. They’re on the offensive. They’re going to initiate a conversation. Fake sleep, fake wake up, fake read, and, regardless, you’re still going to have to fake talk and fake care. Tap, tap, tap!

“Hey! Hey? Hey! Second grade? Remember?! We played marbles during recess?”

They always open with some nostalgia to somehow try and convince you of how important they were in your life. As if this one memory is supposed to rank in your mind’s Billboard Top 100 memories. Sadly, in the back of your mind, you worry that it might actually be in their Top 5. Everyone played marbles. You played marbles with everyone. Strangely, you don’t remember ever playing with this person. But regardless, you pretend to remember.

“Oh, ha, yeah well, good times. My, you’ve really grown into that moustache… Cindy is it? It’s just so great to see you again. I was sleeping and then reading, but this is way better. Don’t you love when you’ve been at work all day and your breath smells like ass?”

After the ice breaker, there’s always some ultra vague question about your entire life since you last saw this person eighteen years ago.

“So what are you up to now?”

To which you give a generic mechanical response, as if you’re filling in a form for an insurance company, wishing you could give something more like:

“I was up to page seventy-five. I guess I won’t make it to eighty today thanks to you. Happy, pappy?”

This brings me to my next point: ending the conversation abruptly and efficiently, without being rude. With public transit, you can just get off at the next stop. First, though, be sure to ask them quickly if their stop is next. The last thing you want is to exit with them accidentally and then have nowhere to go but stand and talk.

“So where are you getting off?”
“75th and Turd.”
“Oh, yeah? This is my stop, see you around.”

Next stop: elevators.

Elevator conversations are the worst. Even if you’re in the middle of telling some great story, the moment you get on that elevator and those doors seal you in, the conversation just sort of fades. Often times this is because of some other random person's presence, and you feel weird continuing, figuring it would be impossible for them not to eavesdrop. After all, they don't deserve to hear your story, right?

“[…] so then I says to the guy I says… euuuh… I says…” he stops suddenly as he notices in the corner of his eye, next to the glowing lit up button for the tenth floor, the stranger is listening, watching, judging. Silence then prevailed as they all stared at the magically increasing digital number, wishing it would jump directly from number three to their floor, so that they may hear the soothing sound of the bell and be the chosen ones.

Sometimes it’s not even that. Sometimes it just inexplicably stops being a good story as soon as that door slides closed. There must be a scientific reason for it, kind of like animals not mating in captivity. Maybe it's the close proximity of everyone and the sudden inclusion of their smells that makes everything just all too real.

But what I’m more interested in destroying here is that other form of elevator conversation. Not the one that dies mid-flight, but the one that was started during the elevator ride, with some total rando that you usually try and avoid altogether. You have nothing pertinent to say to them, and they don’t have anything to offer you either. Unfortunately, camouflage here is much trickier, because you’re in such close quarters. Stare at your feet, the corner of the elevator, the door, or even the numbers. Just don’t look at anyone. This becomes harder in those mirrored elevators, but can almost always be achieved. Just believe. Don’t worry about looking weird. Everyone is doing the same thing. Everyone is uncomfortable. Have you ever seen the way most people flee out of elevators? They have their nose right up to the door crack as their floor approaches and then as soon as the door starts opening, they sort of exit sideways?

“I’m free!” he thought to himself, as he walked determinedly to the comfort of his sterile grey cubicle. It was private, and he sure liked it that way.

The only people looking all around are the people that want to talk to someone. They look around hoping someone else will accidentally look at them. Then they can reel them in and start right off into their bullshit. It’s so intimate, so close, so disturbing and creepy with that romantic dim lighting. If and when you do get that rare gem of an individual who insists on talking to you, about work, sports or himself, and you’re not getting off at the next floor, change the subject to the weather. Even though experiencing weather is maybe the only thing you do have in common, oddly enough, it still seems to help end pretty much any conversation.

“I’m so swamped. How about you? So how are those reports going? Mine are crazy. Man, its crazy. Man, I’m crazy, right?”
“What? Yeah, sure, man, how about that weather? It’s fucking cold.”
“Yeah, it’s… yeah I can’t believe it. So I –”
“Yep, cold” he abruptly interrupted. He then very comfortably resumed staring at his left hand, as he had been doing prior to that unpleasant vocal interference. He notices that he is just one number away from his escape. A calm washes over him, while in the background, a voice can still be faintly heard, yammering on about global warming.

The worst cases are when you get someone who doesn’t seem to understand that an elevator ride is roughly thirty seconds long, and gets into something that could potentially carry over into your post-elevator life, if you’re both going to the same floor. Now, you’re off the elevator and you’re just praying they're not going in the same direction as you, so that at least during their next pause for air, you can run for the hills.

“Well, I’m going this way. Bye.”

That brings up the other big problem with elevators, you can’t just pretend you need to get off at the next floor. You made your choice at the beginning. They saw. They know. You’re riding all the way to the bottom, and so are they. That’s why when I get on I press all of the buttons, so that I have an exit plan in case I need one.

Next floor: the walking encounter.

On the sidewalk, on the street, in the park, at the mall, you see them in the distance. It’s snubbing time. The walk-by ninja snub is an art form. The key is to look like you still were naturally moving your head around, but that just casually, not ever has your line of sight gone in their general direction. Avoiding eye contact of any kind is always the goal. But, don’t just fixate your head in the opposite direction of them, since this looks robotic and would be a dead give-away. The desired effect of the walk-by ninja snub is to not have to talk to them, but to somehow still have them go home and say:

“Hey honey, I saw Poonis Lagoonis today, but he never saw me. Man, he looked fat.”

Success, you’re a ninja, albeit, apparently a fat ninja.

If your eyes do meet, and you’ve recognized each other, go to your next level of defence. Keep a steady pace but pull out the wave, the salute, the finger gun (only the single gun, never the dreaded double guns, and please, no arm pumping), the hat tip, the wink or the head nod and just keep walking. Do not stop under any circumstances. Chatterboxes will see stopping as an open invitation for the brutally long stop-and-talk. Do not throw in a “how’s it going”, as they often lead to a “bla bla bla, and you?” response, which could be the beginning of a conversation. If you instinctively feel that you absolutely must make some kind of sound, keep it to a single, or double clicking noise made with the mouth. Figure out what combination feels the best for you. Personally I go with a single finger gun / wink combo, with a double clicking noise from the mouth.

If after your mute or semi-mute greeting, they also keep walking, then you’re in the clear. This person is not a stop-and-talker, and probably also wishes that you had not made eye contact in the first place. On the other hand, if they do stop, you’re screwed. You can keep walking, but then you look like an asshole. The point is to be an asshole, but not to look like an asshole, a subtle but important distinction. The stop-and-talk is the toughest conversation to get out of. The only way out is to say that you are running late and have somewhere to be. It’s probably best to have one of these excuses handy every time you step foot outside your home, just in case you have a run-in.

“I’d love to stay and chat, but I just took some laxatives.”

Walking really fast all the time helps. This can help back up your “gotta run” story, but also increase your chances of a successful walk-by ninja snub. Speed is your friend.

Only apply these techniques to people you really don’t want to talk to. Sometimes you may wish to welcome small-talk on your daily journey. Once in a blue moon, you may even notice someone you actually wouldn’t mind chatting with, but you're not sure if they saw you, so you go out of your way to approach them. However, while approaching, watch carefully, and if you notice them employing any of the above mentioned techniques, don’t be hurt. Just walk away, and remember, according to the internet and several websites, not just Wikipedia:

“This is the sum of duty; do naught unto others which if done to thee would cause thee pain.” – Mahabharata 5:1517

That’s it. I need to go – I’m running late for a miscellaneous appointment.