Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Sympathetic Braking

A guy I used to work with had the strange habit of laughing at inappropriate moments. By that I don't mean he was bizarre for finding humor in awkward moments because, Jesus, I hope we all do, but rather that he would laugh at things that simply weren't funny. I would tell him about some new procedure we were supposed to follow or maybe a product we had gotten in and, absolutely guaranteed, what would follow was a laugh of some kind. Now me, I have a pretty decent sense of humor. In fact I do what I can to laugh everything off since it's the closest thing I've discovered to a perfect defense mechanism, so I can tell you with some certainty that if a joke was present, even the slightest inkling of a grain of an iota of a speck of a joke, I would see it for what it was. But this guy, he would find it where it simply didn't exist. I swear his default response to sound was laughter, immediately followed by processing it in the auditory cortex of his brain to determine volume and pitch. The result: it reduced me to shambles. I would lose focus entirely, stop talking long enough to return the laugh or ask what was funny or try to roll with it and find some non-existent thought-train. Just trying to keep up, my face became a roller-coaster. It went like this. Talk. Laugh? Scowl. Smile apologetically. Laugh. Talk? Continue. Repeat? By the end of the ride I could barely stop my own face from spasm-twisting through a tense supply of vibrating clown-smiles. This was one minute. One minute of an eight hour work day.

Absolute shambles.

The reason I bring him up is he taught me a phrase, which is sympathetic braking. Telling me one day about his pet peeve, he explained sympathetic braking as a driver applying the brakes because they see the brake lights of other cars, even those of oncoming traffic. He told me how it really pissed him off because it slowed down the flow of traffic for no good reason. I suppose it's another defense mechanism. A way of responding to danger, of saying, "What do they know that I don't?", of playing it safe. Maybe there are horrors just out of sight, ready to be driven into. I can see what he was getting at. But I can sympathize.

Lately I've noticed the power of smiling. This isn't where I try to convert you to Christianity or preach the power of sportsmanship by showing you a kid who refuses to cheat at basketball, this is an honest observation on surface-level instinct. Working with the public, I've noticed how little you can get away with talking to people if you just flash a smile. It's become almost a science experiment, to see human interaction reduced to its most simple form. Subject One approaches Subject Two. Subject Two smiles. Subject One returns the smile. One minute later, Subject Two smiles again. Subject One smiles and exits. I don't mean to brag, but it's been working.

People read into things. They infer and they fill in the gaps, which is another defense mechanism. Mystery breeds confusion. The less you give them the more gaps they're forced to fill, in order to enact the completeness required by their psyches. They seem to have only two filler materials at hand: if they don't like you, it's everyone they've ever hated. If they do like you, it's the one person they like the most: themselves. Neuro-linguistic Programming is based partly on this idea- reflect a person back to themselves and they will like you. Cross your arms when they cross their arms. Adopt similar speech patterns. Smile when they do.

It's so easy. People want to smile and feel comfortable. They want to fit in. They want to be among like people with like thoughts and like actions. Give them a chance to do that and they'll love you for it. And then you've got them.

If this all sounds very artificial of me, it is. In public, at work, I tend to be a bit awkward. Not crushingly so, but a bit alien at times. I don't know if I'd call it self-conscious as much as I'd say self-aware, like a computer which has come to realize it's a computer. So aware of the impact of my sounds. Constantly streaming footage of my own expression in the top-left corner of the screen. I understand the effect I have and so I second-guess it, see it vividly halfway through and become forced to analyze it in real-time. It's a bit like when you're watching a talk show and you see the guest notice the monitor with their own face on it. They stare off, entranced by their own image and how it appears and how it moves. There's just no disguising that look, so specific in its spiraling horror, and I've come to recognize it as my own, as my standard, funny as it may be to say it. If it were more pronounced I might not function at all. Less pronounced and I might be someone else entirely. I seem to have a handful of such malfunctions.

The reason I fell apart working with that guy is simple: I used up all my energy in a race against his smile. I distrusted my own, often stoic but not unhappy expression and darted back and forth trying to follow his map. But his map was wrong. I tried to fit in with an earthquake.

You have to trust your schematics, the way you were built. Me, I waste too much time on face upkeep. I should be my own madman.


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