Like Lard, Only With the Mouth

The more I look at the world around me, the more I start thinking that I have no place in the society everyone else lives in. It’s almost that I’m an alien visitor who does not understand the strange ways of the earthlings. (Yes, I know the word you’re thinking of, but I care not for it. We shouldn’t rush in to judgements like that; it’s like using antibiotics for colds all over again. It’s medically dangerous.)

I, you will be aghast to find out, do not like it when people smile or laugh. Not generally, that would just be weird. People smile when they are happy and they laugh when they find something amusing or uncomfortable. That’s how I have always understood it, and that is how it should be. Natural.

Except that that is not how it is. People, also a shock to me, smile and laugh in order to manipulate the person they’re in conversation with. I think of this as “Social Lubrication” and it really bothers me. I don’t like it, and I don’t think I do it. I’m prepared to be called out on that one though.

Let me explain what I mean in slightly patronising, excruciating detail. Just to clarify, this is not a gendered issue: I have experienced this behaviour in men, women and children. It’s a human issue.

I find the deliberate display of emotions not readily felt to be utterly cynical and downright abusive, but I see it done every day all around me. The following examples describe the two main forms:

  • I’m telling you something negative, but I don’t want you to think I’m a normal person with opinions, so I’m going to do a little chuckle while I do so, so you don’t hate me. Please please please don’t hate me. Opinions are horrible things.
  • I am sitting here minding my own business, not really thinking much, when someone I do not like comes to talk to me. I can’t leave my face doing nothing, so I’m going to smile like a concussed nun. Faces doing nothing are angry faces.

The problem here is the projected perceptions of others: I am entitled to my opinion, but I think that you’ll think I’m horrible if I appear to have negative opinions about you; I feel the need to grease the wheels of social interaction, so that things don’t become awkward. Reality is a human construct.

The implication I draw here is that the idiot doing the smiling hates being told negative things, and so assumes everyone else feels the same way. This is a projected insecurity and I resent it wholly.

It becomes a bigger problem when it starts to rule our lives. I have a good friend who cannot simply tell the truth. He will never say “You know what? I cannot be bothered to leave the house today. I want to sit here and scratch my nuts for a bit, is that OK?”; instead, because he thinks it will make people feel less upset, he says “Feeling ill; can’t come out. That OK?”. I may just block his phone number.

It has become so ingrained in his behaviour that he cannot let anyone down, make anyone feel bad or do anything which risks making him look bad, that lying has become his default position. The rest of the world spotted this years ago, and so now can’t tell whether we can trust a single word he says about anything. Ever. This is a crisis of trust, based on an overuse of social lubricant.

Hiding your complaints or your criticism in a laugh is a childish lie. If you are a grown up please act accordingly, or be stripped of your privileges. I’m not suggesting that you go out and try to hurt the feelings of the people you meet as you go about your day; that would be cruel. I advocate honesty. It’s described as the best policy for a reason. Clichés are just truths we’ve heard once too often.

Another manifestation of this kind of behaviour is the sales face: it is a smiling face, welcoming and friendly and it makes you feel special. It is found on the heads of people who are saying kind things to help you get through your transactions as quickly and as painlessly as possible. The moment of pain comes in when you see the next person in the queue receiving precisely the same treatment.

Why are you smiling for them like that? It was meant for me, not for them. I’m the special one: Me!

It was intended to calm you down, put you to sleep, so that you would get your shit done, and then get gone as quickly as possible. This person has a bloody job to do, and you’re just getting in the way of them getting through their day. You are not special, you’re just one of the herd. Hurts, doesn’t it?

I’m not trying to dump a handful of sand in to your beloved social lubricant; I’m just trying to express how uncomfortable it makes me feel. I don’t deal well with social situations: I clam up or over share; I come off as angry and aloof or I giggle and fawn; I’m often so freaked out simply by being involved in a conversation that I’ll either not shut up, or I’ll mumble irrelevancies towards a confused face.

I am the one who will cross the street to avoid talking to someone – a vague acquaintance, an old school teacher, or a colleague – or I’ll pretend I’m doing something on my phone to let people pass by, when I’m walking down the street. This is the kind of social lubrication I need: an analgesic; a way to feel comfortable in my own skin, or easily conversational. Whisky for breakfast it is, then.

It’s the people who seem most friendly, most chatty and most comfortable in their skin who seem (to me, at least) to be those most engaged in lubricating behaviour. Part of me suspects that I’m very jealous of them, and that what they are doing is displaying skills which I don’t possess. That makes me feel good: hard earned skills are worthy of envy. The rest of me suspects them of sociopathy.

The people who commit this most grievous of sins refuse to see it as an issue; it should be clear what they mean and I am an idiot for not seeing it. It is one of the many things which are frequently described as being “obvious”; it is the cost of doing business, and those of us not prepared for it are barely conscious troglodytes, unfit for human interaction. At least that’s what I see in their eyes.