There's a hole in the bucket, dear Liza, dear Liza...

The hurly-burly continues over at Chez Capitaine Awkward. One particularly intelligent comment points out that many of the people who protest that they don't know how to be not-creepy are making the mistake of viewing "not-creepy" behavior as a list of concrete things that one must not do, rather than an exercise in pattern-matching and applying shortcuts like generalities. Some of them are doing it for the same reason my mother used to do it -- if they take you at your literal word, they can rationalize doing something ever-so-slightly different the next time, and then finish up by getting angry at you for "changing the rules" because you how the hell was he supposed to know not to do that if you didn't say?

I'm sure there's a technical psychological term for this aggravating game somewhere, but it's known, at least to me, as 'please don't eat the daisies'. The reference is to an essay by the late Erma Bombeck Jean Kerr, in which she describes what happened one night when she and her husband left the children with a babysitter and went out for a nice dinner. They left the sitter and the kids with what they thought was an exhaustive list of dos and don'ts for the night, thinking that this would make things go smoothly in their absence, but they came home to find the babysitter alternately freaking out and apologizing, and the dining room centerpiece devastated. It never occurred to them that they'd need to mention that the daisies in the vase on the table were not to be eaten, so they didn't, and their youngest son promptly did.

It's an excellent shorthand for describing that sense of dumbfounded horror you get when you realize that you are going to have to start composing sentences, to be spoken aloud, explaining that the only reason you didn't specifically forbid him to do the thing you are upset over is that no human being in their right mind would ever think to do it. It's kind of hilarious, if the person coming up with these new and innovative ways to pass the time is four years old and in the end nobody was really hurt. It is exactly the opposite of hilarious when you're twenty-four and having to deal with it on a near-daily basis.

The question then arises as to how you're supposed to learn these magical social skills, if there's no cheat sheet. Most people learn them the same way they learn to walk and speak their native language: they hang around people who already know, they give it a try, and they fall flat on their ass a lot until they get it right. It's another one of those things that's funny when you're four, and not when you're twenty-four. The norm in most societies is to know the basics by the time you're an adult; if you don't know what you're doing at all, then you do things that people who do fit the norm find strange. It skeeves them out because with no point of reference, they can't predict exactly how you'll be awkward next. Tangentially, I'll note that this is why a lot of socially-awkward people still have a few close friends, and a lot of creepy fuckers don't -- once you've hung around someone awkward for a while, their behavior becomes easier to predict, and then you can judge whether those predictable behaviors make them a trustworthy person or not. Creepy fuckers remain unpredictable, feeling entitled to do whatever the hell they want and changing their mind whenever it suits them, and hence feel 'dangerous' even if they don't present any immediate physical threat.

You can also learn it by catching a nice case of hypervigilance from the same crazy people who gave you the awkward in the first place. This is the way I did it. My mother is somewhat paranoid of other people, to put it politely, and two of the things she taught me unfortunately well were that people are basically lying about what they think every time they open their mouths and that I had to be constantly watchful and suspicious, lest I miss a cue and overstay my welcome; and that I needed to know her mood at all times, so I could get the fuck out of sight whenever she was having one of those days that ended with her sitting at the kitchen bar and yelling through gritted teeth that she couldn't fathom why she had ever had kids in the first place and we needed to leave her alone. Personally, I don't recommend it. It's a super-effective way to learn to read people, but only in the same sense that squirting the cat at completely random times throughout the day is a super-effective way to teach him not to climb the drapes. You won't find him perched on the curtain rod anymore, but you also won't be able to drag him out from under the bed.

A good way to start deciphering body language, if you're too terrified to start with real people, is movies. Silent movies in particular are excellent for this, as most of them are done in pantomime. Cast your mind back to your high school language class for a moment, assuming you haven't intentionally repressed those memories for your own peace of mind. For the first couple semesters, you had a book, laid out in what I hope was a nice orderly fashion, that taught you a series of words, which it then went on to use in a lot of the most brain-dead sample conversations you will ever hear in your life. After maybe a year of this, you probably got to the point where you at least recognized the language you were learning when other people spoke it, even if you weren't very good at catching more than a couple words at a time. Then the instructor brings in a video to watch or a tape of a TV show in the language you're learning, and oh god what happened I think it broke my ears I have no idea what's going ooooooooonnnnnnn. The reason you didn't get anything from the random TV shows or movies or songs is that your textbook was teaching you the language as native speakers think it should be spoken, whereas TV produced for native speakers is full of language as it's spoken in real life. The two are very different, and people get very bizarre and defensive when you point this out.

Silent Movie Panto is the equivalent of Textbook Human. Because there was a very limited amount of space for the intertitles, most of the story had to be conveyed sans dialogue to an audience who might or might not share the specific ethnic or national background of the performer. So the gestures and expressions are simple, clear, and at least mostly free of personal idiosyncracies. Pay attention to what you're watching, and how it makes you feel. Once you've identified the broad strokes of what makes you think someone is 'happy' or 'sad' or 'angry' or 'flirtatious', move on to later sound films, and see if you can recognize the subtler versions of them.

Personally, I'd recommend Charlie Chaplin, if you do take the silent film route. A lot of his stuff is conveniently up on YouTube. I've developed a sort of simmering, ongoing obsession with him over the past few months, partly because I think his films are charming and funny, but largely because I find him fascinating to watch. The subtitles on his subtitles have furigana. You know how sometimes hearing people learn ASL for the sake of a hearing-impaired spouse or a family member, and get so used to using it that they start to sign along with whatever they're saying aloud, totally on auto-pilot, even when everybody they're with can hear them? Chaplin did that with Panto. All the time. There were times when he said very little, but when he did open his mouth he generally didn't think it was worth lying about what he thought, so it's very, very rare when his words and his body language don't match.

I have other lists of modern actors and actresses who are both very congruent like that off-stage, and excellent at making themselves be congruent in character when on, but give it a go with something that forces you to watch kinesthetics rather than relying on the audio. You might be surprised.

Just a reminder that my birthday is coming up, and in honor of not being stuck with the above-mentioned crazy people anymore, I'm running a kind of a pledge drive. Carry on!


  1. psst - "Plesae Don't Eat the Daisies" was by Jean Kerr, a much earlier domestic humorist.

    1. Was it? Oh well. I don't own any of the relevant books by either author to check -- these were things I was getting out of a public library twenty years and three thousand miles ago. Corrected!

  2. Another angle on 'don't eat the daisies' is 'are you acting smarter than my cat?'. My cat is smart enough to figure out that if I don't want him on the red chair or the blue chair I probably don't want him on the yellow chair either; he's also smart enough to infer that if the last two groups of humans he lived with didn't want him sitting on their laps I'll probably be the same. Sometimes he's wrong - I'm still trying to convince him that I wouldn't mind him being a lap cat, actually - but he's obviously trying to be good (or at least not get into trouble) and applying some basic logic there, and a human who doesn't do the same is going to get on my shit list pretty quickly.

    1. I dunno, man. I've had some pretty stupid cats. There was the one who was convinced the only way to get off the roof was jump into the pool. I'd have concluded he just liked water, except he was SO PISSED every time...

    2. You do need to use a reasonably smart cat as your baseline, yeah. *chuckle*


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