Monday, November 25th, 2013...9:47 pm

jeffrey winke | the shallowness of human nature

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The Shallowness of Human Nature

Jeffrey Winke | Photo by Mike Starling

I guess I’m a bit of a sourpuss… a killjoy; but I find most social niceties to be insincere and irritating. What I’m referring to are the empty pronouncements, offers, and promises that are a part of daily life. Sociologists refer to it as “social glue” – the actions which bind us together.

Frankly, I get unglued when I’m the recipient of these empty social glue phrases. They bug me.

Case in point: I buy a candy bar at a convenience store or pay for gas at a service station or purchase a couple of bags of groceries and the clerk hands me a receipt and says, “Have a good one!” First, what is the “one” that I’m supposed to have a good one of… a good day? a good life? a good bowel movement? The anonymous clerk and the anonymous me have conducted a 12-second at most transaction. Do they really care about me having a good one of anything?

I know the clerks are just trying to be nice…. but why the necessity to say something pointlessly nice? Maybe I’d feel better if the clerk would say, “Thanks… because of your business, we stay in business, and I get a paycheck every week.” Honestly, that’s what it’s all about.

Case in point 2: Our sweet cat suddenly manifests problems so we go to the emergency vet. Unfortunately, it is terminal and the merciful thing is to terminate his life. We’re heartbroken. The staff at the clinic are nice and handle everything well. A few days later we receive a hand-written note that says:

“Please accept an (sic) condolences for the loss of (our cat’s name). We hope that the many memories you have with (our cat’s name) will help you through this difficult time. If there is anything we can do for your family, please let us know.

The Doctor and Staff of
(the name of the clinic)

Sending the note is very thoughtful, touching, and nice but why throw in the empty offer in the end: “If there is anything we can do for your family, please let us know.” What exactly is the “anything” they’ll do in this offer? Will they cook for us? Clean our house? Would the young vet hold me in her arms, rock me, and stroke my temple while murmuring sweetly that everything will be OK. Is that part of the anything they will do?

Case in point 3: I’m recently at an event and a guy who I was friends with in high school recognizes me. It’s literally been 40-some years since we last saw each other. We talk and catch up in 15 minutes and get pulled back to our current lives, so as we’re saying goodbye he says, “We should do lunch sometime.” My inane response was, “Yeah that sound’s great, let’s do it sometime!” We just had a pleasant encounter. It was nice to jog old memories and feelings of youthful friendship. But it’s clear that neither of us will want to really get together for lunch. It just won’t happen… so why was it said?

I remember a similar instance that happened years earlier. I called my old friend’s social courtesy bluff and said, “Lunch sounds great…how about next Tuesday?” His face paled and he nervously patted his breast pocket as though checking for his calendar. He said, “I’m not sure what my commitments are next week, so give me a call,” while quickly leaving. Since we never exchanged phone numbers, I thought it might be fun to go into full stalker mode and look up his home and work numbers and start leaving messages. I didn’t really do that, but I got perverted joy imagining the panic I could create leaving a message like, “I hope this is the right number… the phone book shows your wife’s name as Kelly and it looks like you live close to where my therapist’s office is… I’ll drop by sometime next week after my Coping with Reality therapy session. Which reminds me… there’s an interesting guy in my anger management group—ex-biker with sexual predator abuse issues—who’s doing real well and is supposed to make new friends, I’ll bring him with me. See you guys soon!”

These insincere platitudes really bug me. They’re not necessary and are shallow attempts to connect. This whole sense of social bonding – this desire and need to connect with others seems to point to a fundamental flaw in humanity. We apparently are so insecure that we need to create the illusion of connections even when they don’t exist. The bartender or hairdresser who appears to really understand us are prime examples of faux friends who we take comfort in believing that they really understand.

Good, solid interpersonal relationships are fine and healthy. I don’t have a beef with our need to connect with others on a deep, personal level. I like the fact that we can spend a lifetime earnestly trying to get to know others. We diligently attempt to assemble sections of the jig-saw puzzle called our life. If we’re lucky, big sections can be assembled. And yes, occasionally a piece or small section can come loose, requiring us to quickly tamp it back in place. Even if pieces or small sections fall out along the way, we still know what the big picture is about.

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