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Monday, March 12, 2007


Predictable remarks

Most of the time, I have a high opinion of human nature. But when it comes to originality, sometimes I get a bit down.

The reason I'm on the subject is that I was watching the Crufts show on TV last night. Now, I'm genuinely phobic of dogs; last month, a neighbour's pet scampered across the street to investigate me and I actually screamed. However, when they're in the little glass box that sits in the corner of my living room, and there's no chance at all that they could get me, then I actually find them quite interesting to watch. So I settled down to follow the show. My usual remark on the species ('fucking mutt, fucking mutt, honey please don't let it kill me') were replaced with comments like 'Go Italian greyhound!', 'Look, a dog dancing, how nice!' and, occasionally, 'Who on earth wants a ball of fuzz like that?'

The winner of the show, and congratulations to all concerned as long as they don't let it bite anyone, was a dog called Fabulous Willy. Yes, that was the dog's name. The handler appeared on the show, patting the pooch and saying happily, 'They called him Fabulous Willy. And they knew what they were doing.' Because the dog was fabulous, you gather, rather than for any other reason. The judges evidently agreed about the dog's quality, which is why I'm bringing up the whole subject - I suspect that Willy's owners are too happy to care what I say right now - but when he said 'They knew what there were doing,' my instant response was, 'Did they?'

It entertained my inner four-year-old for a moment. Then I realised that I was probably speaking in unison with about ten thousand people across the nation. Sorry, Willy.

Because if you present people with a stimulus, they respond. And often, they respond very similarly. This was a fact that I discovered when working in a toyshop. We had a variety of things, but one of the steady sellers was some 'decision dice' for children. Each facet had a different action on it: Eat, Sleep, TV, Read, Tidy Bedroom and Do Homework. They cost a pound each, so they made a good impulse purchase, for which reason we kept a box of them on the counter. We sold some every day. This was good - the darn things were paying my wages - but oh, did I start to hate them after a while. Because every time customers came in with children, they had to discuss them. This is what they said:

Adult: 'Look, Bobby, you roll these dice and they tell you what to do.' (Reads off the list of options.) 'I think I'm going to weight them so they always fall on Tidy Bedroom/Do Homework!
Bobby (grinning): 'No, they should fall on TV!
(Hilarity ensues.)

Or at least, it ensued on one side of the counter. I, on the other side, was suffering from a form of water torture, because every single bloody person made the same bloody joke. Imagine listening to the same joke half a dozen times a day, every working day, and having to pretend to like it, knowing that everyone who makes it thinks they're being witty. It wasn't just that a joke gets dull after a while. It was that everyone produced this quip with the air of being smart and original. You know how the average person considers themself above-average? It was that with humour. The customers, who I couldn't contradict - even if it hadn't invited firing, it would have been pointlessly unpleasant, because they were all nice people - reckoned they were being inventive. I, from experience, knew they weren't. It created a great echoing gulf between their version of reality and mine, which was enough, on busy days, to make me feel like I was the only sane person in the world.

But of course, I'm not. I say equally predictable things all the time. The trouble is, because I tend to move around rather than stand at the same spot listening to everyone's comments, I don't know when I'm saying them. My latest remark could be a flurry of originality, or it could be so unoriginal that rust will form around my lips, sealing them deservedly shut, if I ever say it again. I don't know. I can't tell. For all I know, there are a thousand people typing variants on this very article even as I speak.

I'm scared.

Personally I have an absolute horror of...no, I can't even type the word.

Having worked in both the restaurant and hotel business, as a waiter and front desk clerk, I can witness to this phenomenon happening all the time. When you deal with any job that has high "people-traffic," you get the same comments and jokes over...and over...and over. For instance, at the hotel, we actually made cookies for guests to have as they came in. And every single freakin' guest would do one of two things, without fail. They would ask, "Oh my, did you make these yourselves?" and then giggle as they scampered off with the full plate. Or they would say "Oh, those will spoil my dinner!" and then scamper off, again with the full plate. And you don't want to know what happened when the cheerleading convention stayed there. I've never seen so many girls trying to steal cookies without anyone seeing them do it, even when the plate is directly in front of the desk we are standing behind.
This applies to our writing too. This is why I really need my critique group. Often something will come back from one of my beta test readers with a note in the margin says, "cliche." It can refer to a phrase, a sentence or even a situation. I don't do it on purpose. But the fact that my readers have seen it a hundred times before means I have to change it, quick.
Irritatingly (when they're family members), some people say the same clever joke again and again, to new people. My father has two or three in rotation for people who moved from somewhere cold to somewhere hot. ("Don't have to shovel sunshine!" being my least favourite of the lot.)

My name being part of a nursery rhyme, I got that rhyme a lot. I never am sure if people are joking when they tell me how good my English is for a second language speaker. (It is my first language, and as far as I know, I sound like a native speaker.)

It's really only jokes that do that. I say normal pleasantries to people all the time, and they hear these normal pleasantries in response, and I don't think anyone gets annoyed.
In rereading my comment, I realise I wrote enough ungrammatical sentences to belie my claim to English as a native language, but it's just that I am a lazy proofreader.
I loved this post! I worked as a medical technologist for years and every bloody time (I just HAD to use that line) the patient would tease me about being a vampire when I collected a sample...
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