Wednesday, October 01, 2014

The Well-Oiled Cogs

It is widely understood that politeness, manners and gestures of courtesy help in social cohesion and safety.

Today morning in the gym, I witnessed something strange.  A woman "smiled" at me out of recognition.  We work out at the same time early morning.  But the smile was so blatantly artificial and momentary that instead of generating well-being, it generated distrust and woe.

It used to be that when a person greeted me with "Hey Good morning.  How are you doing?" I used to contemplate, considering it an expression of genuine interest, and think of an authentic response.  Not that I was going to really talk about a mid-life crisis, but "Great" seemed to be an exaggeration most of the time.  It felt fake.  It would have been more precise for me to say "I'm doing fine, thanks."  Now-a-days, I just respond mechanically: "Great, how are you?" And the answer is always: "Good, thanks!"  And I heave a sigh of relief at the successful end of this three-way-handshake.

On some of my more reflective days, when I am not feeling very communicative, I have to gather my energies for an outward expression, and then effort-fully mutter something positive.   And it can't be just a monotonic "gud" or the other person might feel insulted.  It has to be a stretched out waveform: "Goood!"

When I enter the gym, I have to hear "Have a good workout."  I have to say: "Thanks", even though I really like to stay silent for a few hours every morning.  Then when I leave the gym, I cannot escape being told: "Have a great day!"  And I have to again muster a smile and say: "Thanks, you too!"

It's not that I am a depressed person.  I am not even an introvert.  I am interested in other people.  I wish nobody any ill.  In fact, I genuinely wish these buggers well.  They keep the gym so clean and organized.  But please don't ask me to express it in trite phrases.  That's just not me.  I would much rather, as I once did, express my appreciation for a particularly helpful gym worker to the gym's manager.  The manager was quite surprised at my gratitude.

One of my favorite authors, David Foster Wallace, writes about this fake bonhomie in his "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again":
You know this smile, the strenuous contraction of circumoral fascia w/ incomplete zygomatic involvement – the smile that doesn’t quite reach the smiler’s eyes and that signifies nothing more than a calculated attempt to advance the smiler’s own interests by pretending to like the smilee….Am I the only consumer in whom high doses of such a smile produce despair? ...
And yet, the Professional Smile’s absence now also causes despair. Anybody who’s ever bought a pack of gum in a Mahattan cigar store, or asked for something to be stamped FRAGILE at a Chicago post office or tried to obtain a glass of water from a South Boston waitress knows full well the soul-crushing effect of a service workers’ scowl, i.e. the humiliation and resentment of being denied the Professional Smile. And the Professional Smile has by now skewed even my resentment at the dreaded Professional Scowl. I walk away from the Manhattan tobacconist resenting not the countermans’s character or absence of goodwill but his lack of professionalism in denying me the Smile. What a fucking mess.
After the gym "incident" today morning, I wondered why that woman had to smile that fake smile at me.  Why couldn't she just nod or say "hi" with an upward flick of her eyebrows?

I concluded that she was entirely unaware of her smile.  It was an almost autonomic gesture.  Realizing the extent of her zombieness, I felt sorry for her.  She wasn't in the service industry.  She didn't have to smile.  But she did, and it was an excruciatingly fake smile.

In the office, on every Monday, there is another interesting question: "Hey, how was your weekend?"  I have learnt to not proffer details and make others envious about my off-beat pursuits, and have learnt that the polite answer is: "It was nice.  I/We went to random-but-not-out-of-the-way-place-x for a random-but-regular-act-y.  (e.g. "I went to Dana Point and spent a few hours oceanside.")  How about you?"

One of my friends once ranted that he wanted to shout at his co-workers when asked about his weekend: "None of your effing business mate.  I have given you folks fifty waking hours of my week which will never come back.  Please don't intrude on the ones left.  For the love of God, let me have a life which I don't have to tell you about."

I think he was overreacting, but I could also empathize.  Being a "professional" can at times demand in-authenticity, an appearance of being institutionalized, and a fake enthusiasm and cheerfulness.  It can get to people.  Some people would just like to do their work and go home.  This added obligation of yoo-hoo cheerfulness and of feigned curiosity about others at one's workplace feels like a malignant form of overtime.  Fake interest requires effort.  We get exhausted after entertaining guests with whom we cannot be ourselves, or who we are afraid of offending.

Social lubrication can be taken too far.  When there is too much oil, the cogs don't really mesh.  They just slide over each other, and never really interact.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Not very relevant to this context , but still worth reading and giving a thought..