I’m a keen advocate of being able to walk down a street uninterrupted. My ability to deal with everyday social norms like asking a shop assistant where the cheese is or thanking someone for holding a door open for me have reached a level where I can almost pass as someone conversationally capable. However, step beyond those boundaries and into relaxed chitter chatter and I collapse like poorly erected scaffolding (though without the potential loss of life).
My problem is not wanting to come across as aloof and unfriendly, but also not wanting to spill my whole life story to a complete stranger for the sake of a minute or two of awkward back-and-forth.
I was in an electronics store the other day looking to buy a portable TV for a camping trip when a lady walked in asking to see their vast range of Dictaphones. She proceeded to expel onto the poor young assistant how she had been disciplined by her bosses at the fast food restaurant where she worked for verbally abusing other staff and wanted a recording device to record the disciplinary meeting as she was ‘pretty sure’ they would ‘try something on’ and that she knew her rights and was going to make a counter complaint against the complainants as they obviously had it in for her.
No word of a lie, she then proceeded to lay down every sordid detail of the events as they occurred and her current position at her work place for at least the remaining ten minutes I was at the store, even repeating the whole scenario to other unsuspecting members of staff at the checkouts. This outpouring of personal information was probably more than was required by the assistant’s initial enquiry of “What were you planning to use it for?” to which my reply would probably have been a rather general “Just to record some meetings and stuff”.
Though, when I think about it, the shop assistant probably had it coming. The trouble with shop assistants, especially in electronics stores is that you never know when they might be genuinely trying to help you or if they’re just trying to push a sale. The worst kind of stores are the empty ones with bored sales assistants patrolling up and down the shop floor; the hard-sellers who pounce on you the minute you even consider stepping in to take a look.
Like any kind of relationship, the ultimate turn off is being pounced on by the desperate, needy types who trip over themselves trying to please you when all you were really after was a bit of a fling.
It’s a terribly stressful situation; browsing the shelves in the eerie silence of the store, feeling their eyes burning in the back of your head, waiting for the inevitable moment they stealthily waft up to you and ask the dreaded question: “Are you looking for something in particular?”
They grin, but it’s a hollow grin; possibly the kind of grin you’d last see before you end up with a knife in your back. Usually a reply of “No thanks, I’m just looking” is enough to ward off the less determined of sales people and they’ll demurely slink off back behind the counter, but sometimes you get the persistent ones; the ones who insist on reeling off the many colours this particular model comes in, or the accessories they have for them. “Would you like to test it?/try it on?/give it a spin?” they doggedly continue.
“No thanks, I suddenly have to leave all of a sudden for some unknown reason” as you return the item to its shelf and head for the relative safety of anywhere but here.
“Well do you want me to take your details? I can give you a call when we get more in stock. Could I interest you in our catalogue? Will you marry me?”
As you step back out into the sunlight, you take a deep breath and swear you’ll never set foot in that store again.
Then as you talk a relaxed stroll down the high street, checking the contents of your wallet are still intact, you’re caught unawares by the dreaded armies of clipboard wielding street collectors who use what can only be described as aggressive hospitality to drag you into their trawlers net of direct debited donations and ten minute long dialogues explaining what it is they do (other than pan handling on the street). You try and throw some loose change at them to ward them off, but of course, they don’t take cash, do they? They can only take bank details and idle promises of £5 a month for the rest of your life. “How much can you spare? How much can I put you down for? Are you against the cruel act of puffin strangling sir? Do you know that 5000 brown bottomed shrews are killed every year by Keith Chegwin? Can I count on you to support the program to reintroduce the grey wolf into Britain’s parks and gardens?”
I’m not an ignorant person, but I certainly hadn’t considered the plight of all these rare species and vulnerable sectors of our society when I stepped out of my front door this morning with the sole intention of buying some new pants. What makes it 3.4 times worse is that they always ask you how your day is going, compliment your jacket or quite simply, start my just saying ‘hello’. To break social protocol and completely ignore them is the correct thing to do, as iron-hearted street-wise automatons will tell you. But to an obsessively mannered drip like me, it feels dastardly; like stepping on the fingers of someone hanging off a ledge. I might as well turn around and give them an evil cackle and a jab in the eye with my bony, twisted finger just to complete the impression. It’s even worse if you’ve already made eye contact. Eye contact is like some unwritten contract that means you’ve noticed the other person’s existence and must, therefore according to English law (I’m pretty sure I read that somewhere), must engage in pleasantries with said party – on pain of death by archer.
You feel equally as bad if they do finally reel you in. Everyone else walks past you, a look of relief on their faces as they see you take the bullet for them. You’re the chump who took the bait; got played at their own game as you then pathetically try and find any excuse to backpedal out of it.
“Sorry, I’ve got to go; my parking ticket is going to expire”
“It won’t take a minute sir.”
“Err…I’ve just realised I left ten boxes of Vienetta on my back seat and they’re going to melt.”