Have you ever noticed how scrupulous politeness can be annoying, even alienating? You know what I mean - when the person you're talking to is being breathlessly civil, apologizing for every second thing they say, couching every statement in ways carefully calculated not to give offense, as though your ego were made out of porcelain and you were just sitting there dying to take things the wrong way. I don't know about you, but I see this as fundamentally unfriendly. For one thing, all this mincing and tip-toeing stresses me out; plus, precisely because the other person is trying so hard, I end up thinking of all the ways I could construe what they're saying to me as offensive - ways that would never have occurred to me otherwise. But more than that, it just feels like a way of establishing / emphasizing one's otherness, a way of saying "you're not like me - I neither understand you nor like you, and so if I have to deal with you I'll do it by holding you at a formal distance". I don't know. Maybe it's just because that's what I do - when I really dislike someone but have to interact with them, I'm always chillingly correct. Do other people feel this?
And while we're on the subject of things you can have too much of - you know how you always walk into a coffee shop and think, "God! why is this place always so crowded!"? Well. The other day I walk into a Starbucks (one of those big ones, mind, with a dozen plus tables) and there's NO ONE ELSE there. At first I think, oh wow! No annoying teenagers discussing their clothes and boyfriends, punctuating every second word with like; no idiot in a suit talking self-importantly into his cellphone; no hapless customers gawping at the menu as if they'd never heard of a latte before, and spending fifteen minutes trying to decide whether they wanted a tall or a grande. Even the sofas are free! At last a chance to sink back with my book and a cup of coffee and read away in peace.
Two minutes of doing this and the silence is beginning to creep me out. I look up from my book and there are four people behind the counter, all standing around with nothing to do, looking at me. I try to sip my coffee more appreciatively, as though savoring each mouthful. I try to look more contented. Is it closing time? Am I keeping these people from leaving? No, the coffee shop's open till 10.00 and it's only 7.30. Why is there no one else here then? Is there something wrong with this Starbucks that I don't know about? Do they put knock-out drops in your coffee and then drag you into the back and saw you into little pieces? Is there some kind of health alert out? Is it national No-Coffee day? I feel like I'm trapped in a Hopper painting.
Oh my god, one of them is coming over. What does he want? Maybe he's going to throw me out. What's that in his hand? Careful now. Okay, that's far enough buster. What's that? Is my coffee good? It's standard Starbucks brew, for christ's sake - oh, forget it. Yes, yes, it's fine. Would I what? Would I like to try a strawberry frappucino? On the house? Ah, couldn't get coffee to mask the taste of the poison, eh? Had to use strawberries (Yech!). No, no thanks. Just what kind of sucker do you take me for?
After a while, the folks behind the counter start talking - just kidding around with each other. At last, I think. Now they're not paying attention to me. Now I can relax. Except - have you ever tried ignoring a conversation when it's the only sound in the room? It's hard, believe me. Pretty soon I know all about Amanda's corns, am nodding along to Steve's suggestion that she bathe her feet in warm water when she gets home, my book still open in front of me but almost entirely forgotten. I keep trying to shut this conversation out, but I can't - it's too clear, too insistent.
Five minutes later, two loud-mouthed twenty-somethings walk in, go sit on the table on the other side of the coffee-shop start off a high-pitched conversation along the lines of "Then I was like, "Oh my god! he is such a jerk", and then she was like..".
I beam at them in gratitude.