A Primer for the Execution of Anti-Social Behavior
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Writer's comment: As per the instructions of this English 101 assignment, I modeled my essay after “A Primer for the Punctuation of Heart Disease,” by Jonathan Safran Foer. In his work, Foer examines nonverbal communication within his family. In his mind, a simple silence between him and his father actually speaks volumes about their relationship, history, and dependence. Foer views silence as a precious tool for facilitating communication. I inspect the opposite potential of silence to triumph over communication and therefore consciously deny a human relationship, history, and dependence. I wrote a primer on avoiding small talk, attempting to use humor to present a social paradox. The barriers we build against others provide a sense of control and empowerment; yet, when constructed against us, those same walls seem unjustly imposed. We need to be able to deny others the privilege of speaking to us, but more than that, we need them to want that privilege. I would like to thank my instructor, Kerry Hanlon, for reassuring me that it is all right for a writer to sound unreasonable and even slightly unhinged, as long as the writer commits to her flaws.
Instructor's comment: All four of the essays that Jarrie Chang wrote this quarter were phenomenal. My other favorite, “According to Experts,” won honorable mention. Jarrie wrote “A Primer For the Execution of Anti-Social Behavior” in response to the first assignment of the quarter, which asked students to analyze, classify, and translate a non-verbal phenomenon, human or non-human, into words or another type of symbol system. I gave the students the Foer essay mentioned above as an inspiration. Jarrie’s essay showcases her knack for injecting the perfect amount of absurdity into a narrative. The details she chooses are hilarious because they manage to seem outrageous and extremely realistic at the same time. For example, the fact that a suspiciously wet toothbrush is enough to make Jarrie’s narrator take a late night trip to Safeway is just crazy enough to seem totally believable. I also love the way that the essay is as much about the narrator’s psychology as it is about avoiding small talk. We see the narrator working hard at the beginning to present a portrait of herself as self-sufficient, aloof, scientific, and critical, but by the end of the essay, the portrait cracks.
—Kerry Hanlon, English Department; University Writing Program
Iconsider myself a friendly person. I smile at strangers on the street, I say “thank you” to cashiers at the supermarket, and I play peek-a-boo with babies. Yet just a week ago on the bus, I groaned internally as we pulled over to a stop and my former roommate boarded the bus. While we had not parted on bad terms, I do not hesitate to state that we were no longer great friends by the time she moved out. With this in mind, I quickly diverted my gaze and barricaded myself as thoroughly as possible behind the newspaper in my hands. Evidently not thoroughly enough. She plopped down beside me and resolutely flicked the back of the newspaper, officially ending the façade.
“Oh, hey,” I said, forcing my tone to embody the combina-tion of surprise and boredom.
“Hey,” she replied. “How’ve you been?”
“Good. Pretty good. How are you?”
Silence. And so it began. What I was afraid of. What I knew would happen the moment she sat next to me. The strain of forced small talk.
“Do you still live in the same place?” she asked uselessly.
“. . . Yeah.”
This went on for ten minutes. It was labored, it was painful, and clearly, both of us were relieved when I finally said, “Well, this is my stop. I’ll see you soon!”
The worst part of engaging in small talk is knowing that 95% of the time, like house fires, it could have been avoided. All it takes is a little initiative and a few preventative measures. One strong but subtle way to avoid small talk is to adopt the correct facial expression. The most effective facial deterrents are the Sneer and the Look of Complete Engrossment. Both suggest an air of inapproachability to the observer. I usually wear the Sneer when I walk down the street and don’t want the CalPirg worker on the corner (God bless them) to harangue me into donating money to a worthy cause. In order to achieve the Sneer, I furrow my brow and attempt to force my mouth into a straight line—a position that is often more forbid-ding than an actual frown. The Look of Complete Engross-ment works best when I am stationary and have an appropriate object handy—a book or picture, for example. The efficacy of this facial deterrent rides on the subtlety of the eyes, which I have trained to glaze over at a moment’s notice. This takes practice, but once mastered will become a valuable tool in any small talk avoidance utility belt.
The Sneer or Look of Complete Engrossment, however, sometimes require extra emphasis. They often need to be paired with more general body language, such as the Slump, the Crossed Arms, and the Partial Back Turn. On special occasions, the Slump can be combined with the Crossed Arms and the Partial Back Turn. This body language signals a de-fensive and unwelcoming message to the observer. A few days ago, I spotted an acquaintance while standing in line at a café. I hadn’t seen her in months and the sheer number of superficial questions we would have to ask each other, such as “What’s your major now?” “How many units are you taking?” “How is (name of mutual friend) ?” frightened me. I immediately took inventory of my arsenal of aversion tools and decided on the Sneer and the Crossed Arms. A moment lat-er, I watched from the corner of my eye as she slipped into line just a person or two behind me. We proceeded to pretend that we had not seen each other. I bought my cookie and left. Mission accomplished.
Small talk can be best avoided when it is anticipated. In these situations, the basic tools of conversation deterrence can be used in conjunction with far more elaborate measures. Among them are the Fake Cell Phone Conversation and the Pretending to Read tactics. I usually employ these measures when I’m entering a place where I feel certain I will meet someone I do not wish to speak to, such as a lounge or library. Be forewarned: the Fake Cell Phone Conversation presents certain risks. For instance, the phone could actually ring in the middle of a nonversation. In order to avoid this rookie mistake, turn the phone off or at least on silent.
Pretending to Read, while simple in its execution, does not always provide sufficient defense against unwanted small talk, as demonstrated in my run-in with my former roommate. However, Pretending to Read While Highlighting Random Passages brings avoidance to the next level. When combined with the Look of Complete Engrossment and the Slump, Pretending to Read While Highlighting Random Passages gives off the unmistakable aura of busyness. Shuffling Pa-pers Needlessly and Scribbling Violently in a Notebook while wearing the Sneer also enhance this false image of impenetr-able industriousness.
As helpful as these aversion methods are in maneuvering around small talk, 5% of the time, failure is inevitable. J.D. Salinger put it best in his novel The Catcher in the Rye, when the protagonist, Holden Caulfield, endures a mind-numbing conversation with his brother’s ex-girlfriend and her date. When they part ways, Holden reflects on the phoniness of his behavior with these sorts of people: “I’m always saying ‘Glad to’ve met you’ to somebody I’m not at all glad I met. If you want to stay alive, you have to say that stuff, though.”1
Accordingly, if and when these tactics of small talk deter-rence fail and eye contact is made, it is important to realize that the battle, while hard-fought, has been lost. Once the barrier of eye contact has been breached, standard social etiquette mandates that a smile be cautiously offered in the ac-quaintance’s direction. This inevitably leads to a conversa-tional exchange. However, I still take measures to ensure that an old friend recognizes that just because I have to engage in small talk does not mean that I have to like it.
Again, body language plays a crucial role. I have found that Glancing Repeatedly at my Watch and Sighing Dejectedly invariably take their toll on any conversation, stripping the small talk to the bare essentials before both parties walk away feeling mutually dissatisfied. This not only serves the purpose of creating an inhospitable conversational environment at that moment, but also heightens the likelihood that that particular acquaintance will never solicit small talk with me again.
I went to Safeway last week and I found myself in the same aisle as an old friend from the dorms. He lived just two doors down from me then and now stood no more than ten yards away. It was nearly two in the morning and the entire market was sufficiently empty. I was at Safeway at two in the morning because my toothbrush had been wet when I had picked it up earlier that night and I had reason to believe that my roommate had used it. I cursed her in my mind as I faced what could easily become a meandering and painfully awk-ward conversation. Nonetheless, I wasn’t quite sure if he had seen me and I risked calling attention to myself if I turned around too abruptly to escape to another aisle. I decided to take my chances at going unnoticed. I drew in a deep breath, concentrated on perfecting the Look of Complete Engrossment and squinted meditatively at the prices of deodorants. After a few moments, I ventured a stray glance in his direction. His eyes rather hostilely scanned the over-stocked shelf of razors, his back turned toward me at a suspiciously intentional angle. He folded his arms somewhat shiftily across his chest.
I abandoned my Look of Complete Engrossment and stared in Genuine Shock. He not only wore the Sneer, but his shoulders were defiantly slouched over and he had also utilized the Crossed Arms and the Partial Back Turn, clearly indicating a violent desire to avoid me. More than our mutual desire to avoid each other was my growing indignation that someone with whom I had on more than one occasion stayed up all night talking would employ such deliberate deterrent tactics against me. I mean, I had helped this guy with history papers. I had pulled him off of the floor after he puked in the boys’ shower stall. I had done his laundry, and now he was trying to Sneer-Slump-Cross Arm-Partial Back Turn me? So I walked up to him and said, “Hi, Robbie.”