porcelainandporcupines

Archive for June 2014

There is no polite way to ask someone if they’re about to eat an unreasonable amount of hot dogs. That’s not specific to hot dogs, actually; no matter what a person is eating, a comment on the quantity is going to be a judgement. Many is the time I heard “Wow, you sure do eat a lot of salad,” as though having eaten an entire bowl of lettuce that was not topped which chicken was remarkable in comparison to the half a bowl of lettuce left over by those who had also eaten several chickens worth of tenders. That the relative insubstantiality of lettuce plays no factor at all in deeming the quantity of consumed lettuce excessive underscores how very impolite a similar judgement regarding hot dogs – whose substantiality is well-established even as the actual substance of which they are composed remain a mystery – would be. To question someone on the number of hot dogs they’re eating is to question their judgement, and questioning their judgement is akin to questioning their worth as a human being.

This question of what constitutes a reasonable serving of hot dogs came to mind around lunch time, when I was struck by an aroma as I entered the break room and, upon further investigation, discovered 6 hot dogs quietly baking in the toaster oven. There was only one other person in the break room, but her office is also in the break room, so there was an outside chance that the hot dogs were not hers at all, much less entirely hers. I could not, however, ignore the possibility that all 6 hot dogs were intended for just that one person. Which, frankly*, seemed like a lot.

But, as previously stated, there was really no way to determine this. “Wow, that’s a lot of hot dogs,” is maybe appropriate talk if you work in a carnival hosting a hot-dog-eating contest, but a carnie I am not. I did note a lack of buns in the break room, and so considered that the seemingly excessive number of hot dogs was a purposeful counterbalance to the lack of buns. I almost considered that the excessive number of hot dogs compensating for the lack of buns might be indicative that someone was on the Atkins diet, but then I remembered that it’s not 2003 anymore and everyone loves carbs now, just so long as they’re whole grain, local, and gluten-free. Unless they’re following the Paleo diet, but I don’t want to think of what the world might be like if I knew people who followed the Paleo diet, even if just casually through work, so I abandoned that line of thought pretty quickly and returned to a slightly modified version of the original line, that, even without buns, 6 hot dogs is a lot of hot dogs.

Even determining ownership of the hot dogs was tricky. “Are these your hot dogs?” could go a lot of ways, depending on inflection, and I wouldn’t trust myself to sound non-judgmental on an inherently judgmental issue. Without ever considering that I was putting far too much thought into an ultimately trivial matter, I finally settled on “Hot dogs for lunch?”, believing that the statement-in-the-form-of-a-question was my best hope for neutrality, even if it left the greater issue, that of the Ideal Number of Hot Dogs and How it is Most Likely Less Than 6, unanswered.

The answer, it turns out, was yes. And this is how I discovered that there are some people who consider 6 hot dogs to be a perfectly reasonable lunch. However, instead of focusing  how myself and this person differ dramatically in our approaches to diet, I focused rather on the tremendously inane question I had just asked, how little it contributed to a genuine exchange of knowledge, and how very happy I was about it.

Because, as I’m sure you can imagine if you’ve ever found yourself in a situation that involves coworkers, the Hot Dog Situation was not my first interaction with this person, nor was it my first awkward interaction with this person. On one previous occasion, she had gone in to quite a bit of detail on the excellent rapport between herself and her chiropractor, ending with “My chiropractor thinks I’m hilarious; she said I should be a stand-up comedian;” and while I did intrinsically understand that “Oh, are you funny?” would not be the right thing to say, how to respond to a person extolling qualities that I’ve never seen manifest has always eluded me. In this situation, I responded with a couple of my favorite sounds that can pass for language, the tried-and-true “Ah. Huh.” Another time, I remarked on the temperature in the room, which caused her to launch into a lengthy discussion of an attempt to get tickets to an event that required costumes but was not Halloween, and although she was generous enough to pause occasionally to allow me to speak, I was thoroughly confused about how this talk of costumed adventure was going to swing back around to be about the temperature, which was noticeably colder than it should have been, and so could only fill the silence with quizzical looks and more silence.

From her perspective, I’m sure that looked like a failure to hold up my end of the conversation. But for me, in between not understanding that there was no connection between temperature and costumes, and that none would be forthcoming, I was looking across a generational divide, steep and glorious as the Grand Canyon.

For her, these are the years to spend swearing your life will be free of workplace banalities like “Hot dogs for lunch?” Your life will be meaningful, it will involve costumes and hard to get tickets, and you’ll stupidly fall in love with guys who refuse to wear watches because they refuse to live their lives by someone else’s schedule, and not because they’re an inconsiderate asshole who’s always late. You will be someone who has something to say.

For me, though, what I understand is that sometimes, I’d rather politely end a conversation than engage in one that doesn’t interest me. That having something to say is quite a bit different than wanting to hear myself talk. And that, while the meaningless inanities could certainly indicate that the person talking is not interesting, there’s a greater chance it means they’re not interested in talking to me. Just as it took me an unfortunately long time to cotton to the dude without the watch, I did eventually come to realize that the true and lovely meaning of utterly mindless chit-chat is that we find ourselves together at this place and time, so why don’t we just leave it at that.

(*Pun intentional and without apology.)

There was a time not too long ago in memory but perhaps a bit further back as the crow flies when, instead of taking to the internet to share half-formed thoughts however deeply felt, I would walk on down to the Pamplona cafe and write. Not, as many of my friends did, in a journal; I have never managed to quite wrap my head around the thought of writing for no audience – particularly when the alternative is to pass hours upon hours with the same thoughts whirling around my head in a most productive fashion. Instead, I would put pencil to paper to write letters to my friend Naopi, who was living in Greece at the time.

An interesting thing about these letters, or so I think, is that, although I did almost nothing at all in my free time except write to her (then, as now, it took me an exceptionally long time to complete a single letter), I always had lots to talk about. While the overall topics are probably pretty similar to the categories on ye olde blogge here – people being strange, shopping, animals – the specifics of most of those letters have been lost to the hoary mists of time, and possibly the recycling can. Except for one topic, which I remember quite well : what makes a person boring.

There are two main reasons why I remember this topic : one is that, as soon as I mailed it off to Naopi, I received from her a letter dissecting what is was that made a person charismatic; she couldn’t possibly have received my letter before writing her own – the Greek mail system being notoriously slow in the mid-’90s – and I thought it an interesting and symbolically meaningful statement on our friendship that we would both approach the same topic at the same time, but from such very different directions. The second is that there was a cute boy involved.

Said cute boy was Luke, who had been a classmate of mine at the college Naopi attended as well. Luke and I had a few classes together, and he played in a band with a guy who lived downstairs from me freshman year (whose roommate that freshman year, a propos of absolutely nothing, took dreadful notes), so I had ample opportunity to appreciate his classic, Aryan dreaminess.  Luke’s most important quality, it turned out, was that, in one chance encounter behind a Walgreens in Somerville, he utterly obliterated the very boring theory I had spent so many weeks working out.

Then, my theory had been that whether or not a speaker was interesting was determined by energy. It was a simpler time then, I was young, and so it made sense to the optimism of my youth not that any topic would be inherently uninteresting, but that a lack of energy and enthusiasm displayed by the speaker would translate to a corresponding lack of interest in the audience for anything they had to say.

That day on the bike path, though, Luke was interested in whatever it was he was talking about. He was smiling, eyes crinkling, hands gesticulating an amount appropriate to the topic. Also : still very handsome. If we were in a silent movie or being watched from afar through high-powered binoculars, it would not have been unreasonable to conclude that our conversation was of great interest and perhaps some little import. When, in fact, the conversation was stunningly dull.

So boring. It was so boring! I don’t remember at all what we were talking about, but I do remember a peculiar sense of loss as I realized that there would be attractive people in my life that I would have no interest in talking to, and a more profound sense of disbelief as my theory of energy crumpled in front of a handsome face, clearly so jazzed about the topic, and yet, somehow, so, so boring.

I have, of course, been bored many times since then, and even, on a few occasions, by a handsome gentleman. Though I have not had reason to return to my formal studies, I have, through repeated exposure to things and people that are not at all interesting, realized that “boring” can not be reduced to either the presence or absence of one single element, but instead is the complex result of the interplay of several factors:

  • The most sure sign that you are at the advent of a boring conversation is an assumption by the speaker that the audience has knowledge it could not possibly have. This gambit is often employed by the advertising industry, which will develop products to help you sync to the The Cloud, perfect its BB Cream, or list the 10 most tell-tale signs of Imposter Syndrome, without ever having established that the cloud, cream or syndrome actually exist and, further, serve some purpose. They do not.
  • In conversation, this will typically present as an especially difficult part of a task that has not been previously discussed, and, as in advertising, is an attempt to hook the audience’s interest by exploiting the audience’s unwillingness to admit they don’t know something and risk looking foolish. Unfortunately, my typical response to context-free information that sounds like nonsense is not worry that I don’t know what’s going on, but rather to conclude that the speaker is kind of a dick.
  • An addition signifier of a boring conversation is the inclusion of numerous but completely unnecessary details. This one is difficult for me to point out, as there are few things I love more than unnecessary details – it’s kind of my signature. And, indeed, a well-deployed detail can add flavor and depth to a story. However, few are the people in the world who would enjoy an in-depth discussion of each individual vegetable that could potentially top a Subway Sandwich, even if the shredding of the lettuce could indeed be the key to replicating that sandwich at home.
  • A corollary to unnecessary detail is the allusion to other unspecified details. The speaker may reference a previous event as though it had been aforementioned , e.g. “So then there’s that whole thing,” the emphasis on that indicating the potential of interesting, or perhaps even scandalous, information. As with the assumption of knowledge, this is often an attempt to get the audience to ask after that whole thing, thus prolonging the conversation and the speaker’s role as the center of attention. Don’t fall for it.
  • While the speaker might happily digress in a direction of their choosing – revisiting that whole thing, for example – they will not allow for the natural flow and development of a conversation that can occur between two (or more) equal participants. Even if another participant does manage to introduce a new topic, a boring speaker will always revert back to the original topic.
  • Similarly, while it may feel like a boring conversation just will not end, the fact is that is that a boring conversation is actually far, far longer than an interesting conversation. As with the previous point, it is impossible to bring to this conversation a natural end; even if you were to tell the speaker that you knew exactly what they were going to say, and then prove that by going ahead and saying it, the speaker would still continue on the predetermined path of what they want to say. That may sound far-fetched, but I’ve done it.

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