People are awful, and that’s the way I like them. Whenever some spiteful squid of a person tells me about another fellow’s terrible behavior, I just smile. I smile because despite his abominable acts, that fellow still has people who love him and a place to sleep and better taste in clothes than I will ever have. And that makes me happy, because I have certainly done things as bad or worse than any of the nasty crap he’s done. He and I may not have been punished as we deserve, because the world is not fair. Then again, if we all got what we deserved, it would be a mighty sad world.
I like people so much that I watch them a lot, in what I hope is a non-creepy way. They are more entertaining than any blockbuster movie in the past 50 years. They’re more fun than a Wii, that’s for damn sure. Even when I can kind of start predicting what they’ll do, the way they do it still gushes charm. And people never enthrall me more than when they somehow, mystically, figure out how to act around one another without ever talking about the rules, or really saying anything at all about it.
You may feel that I’m now communicating to you in ancient Babylonian, or in the language of crayfish, because my words make no sense. I will produce an example for you. When you walk into an elevator that has people in it, you know there are certain rules for behaving in there that don’t apply anywhere else. For example, in an elevator you must move as far as possible away from anyone you don’t know. If someone gets off the elevator, you have to readjust like those B-Bs in those stupid games so that everyone can move farther away using the newly freed space. No one ever told you to move the hell away from those people. No one handed you a rule book for riding elevators. But you, and every other elevator-riding human, know how to behave.
I’ve never just ridden the elevator all day to enjoy this phenomenon, because I’m not a sociopathic freak, or at least I’m not one yet. But I have wandered around looking for similar behaviors, and I didn’t have to wander far. If you look carefully, you’ll see that when I check out at the grocery store the whole process is choreographed like Swan Lake. I stand in line, which is nothing special—I do that lots of places. While waiting, I snatch looks at trashy newspapers and Baby Ruth bars and magazine covers showing women with breasts bigger than their heads. But I try to pretend that I’m not actually looking at them—that I’m really passing the time checking out the carpet cleaning machines and the Pepsi display shaped like a football helmet. As if anyone would care.
Then when the person ahead of me is unloading his cart, it’s okay to pay surreptitious attention to what he’s buying. I may think, Ooh, marshmallows, cinnamon gelato, and Cocoa Puffs. I see someone’s getting back in shape. But I make sure not to look like I’m reconnoitering his groceries. And for God’s sake, I would never make any sort of comment about them, even if he were buying Crisco and syringes so he could shoot up lard.
If the guy in line ahead of me asks for three price verifications on a can of Pringles, then writes a two party, out of state check, I’ll get mad. I’ll grumble, and I’ll roll my eyes at the shopper behind me. But I won’t kick the moron in the shin, raise my voice, or even say anything to him. When the moron is at last in the parking lot, then we can all bitch him out and enjoy doing it, but we can’t do it to his face.
When it’s my turn to check out, I must follow a protocol. What do you think would happen if I just walked up and handed the cashier a fist full of money before he scanned my items? What if I nudged the cashier out of the way and tried to scan my items myself? What if I tried to pay with 10,000 pennies, or with a gold watch? What would happen if I asked the cashier for his autograph? These things aren’t as outlandish as you might think. Someone from another culture might not know they’re wrong. But I know all about these things, even though I have never taken a class on grocery checkout etiquette. I just absorbed the social conventions over the hundreds of times I bought bananas and cup cakes.
This all makes grocery shopping sound a lot more exhausting than it really is. But in fact, the conventions smooth out the whole experience so that you don’t have to think as much. You don’t have to wonder what the heck to do when the credit card scanner starts blinking at you like a lemur in the daylight.
It would be nice to have such strong social conventions in other situations, such as buying an over-priced television, farting in a job interview, and trying to get a table in a restaurant that’s far too classy for you. I think we can take care of this. The other awful people and I will get right on creating those social conventions for everybody. It beats breaking out of court houses, starting bar fights, and yelling in church at mean, old religious ladies.