“Be nice,” is the advice I would give someone who was accused of being crazy. “Be nice and smile a lot,” I would add. This doesn’t sound like an adequate defense to such a malleable charge, but if someone accuses us of being crazy there’s probably not much we can do to change their mind. This defense acknowledges that by suggesting we convince those who surround the accuser that we’re kind and we genuinely care about them. By doing so, we might gather a defense team who will mount a defense team that leaves our accuser in the minority.
Most of us have never had others seriously question our sanity. They might say things like, “You’re crazy,” or “You’re insane,” but they often say that with a wink and a nod. To those who have seriously been accused of being so far outside the mainframe that it has diminished their quality of life, we offer this advice because we’ve witnessed others rush to the defense of a person they consider nice, regardless what anyone else says. These defenders are prone to dismiss most eccentricities of the nice and kind as endearing qualities. As these eccentricities begin to build up, people will talk. They will share stories and compare notes, but again, if the subject of this scrutiny is considered nice, sweet, or genuinely kind, their defenders will only ramp up their defense.
One of the primary components of selling this nice façade is a warm, pleasant smile. A genuine smile not only speaks of peace of mind, it disarms observers searching for cracks in our foundation, and it might serve us well in our attempts to conceal our eccentricities. Anyone who has seriously been accused of being crazy might be surprised to learn just how disarming a simple, warm smile can be. “You think she’s crazy?” observers might say in the face of another’s accusations regarding a subject’s crazy characteristics, “because I think she seems nice.”
“And you’re basing that on her smile?” we argue. “Ted Bundy had a radiant smile too. Do you think he was normal?” It doesn’t matter to them, for the idea that a crazy person seems nice, based on their warm, glowing smile is the primary point and the end of the discussion to others.
Observers have bullet points that they look for when they’re trying to spot crazy people. Are these bullet points fair? It doesn’t matter. We have created them to help us avoid saying, or doing, the wrong thing to the wrong person who might go crazy on us. One of the most prominent bullet points we look for is nastiness.
Most people don’t choose to be nasty, but they’ve been attacked so many times over the years that when they meet new people they’re defensive. They attack before anyone can attack their vulnerabilities. They become so accustomed to being attacked for their characteristics that being nasty is the first arrow they reach for in their quiver. The goal of this preemptive attack is to convince us to avoid them, and that is just fine to the crazy person for they have not found a better alternative to avoid being attacked. The problem with this strategy is that the accused might find otherwise sympathetic souls joining in on the discussions of their unpredictability, until the crazy person’s peers reach an agreed upon characterization that they will not expect. The solution is so simple that most crazy people have never considered it as a viable strategy before, smile and be nice.
I used to work for an online company. The company rewarded its employees with a month long sabbatical for tenured service. While on this sabbatical, my department hired a number of new people. One of them was a crazy person named Abbie Reinhold. One of the first things Abbie did, to introduce herself to the group, was defeat any impressions we might have about her. This preemptive attack was comprised of confrontation and nastiness that dared anyone to challenge the impression she may have made. This defense gained her a reputation, however unfair, of being a cat lady.
To this point, no one knew if Abbie Reinhold owned a cat. She simply fit the stereotype, arrow for arrow, bullet point for bullet point. She could’ve been the prototype for the cat lady on the television show The Simpsons. The stereotype is an affixed staple in our culture, because there are examples of it. It’s not true that all women who own cats are crazy, of course for we’ve all met perfectly sane women who have an inordinate number of cats as companions. We’ve also encountered women who scream at these cats, as if they’re human, and they find that they get along a lot better with cats than they do humans for all of the psychological underpinnings that are indigenous to a cat lady.
When I arrived back at work, I found that those in charge of making seating arrangements placed this crazy woman across from me, in the cubicle I faced. Did I know that Abbie Reinhold was a little crazy? How could one not sense that something was off about her, based on her preemptive attacks?
My attempts at building a psychological profile on someone, based on first impressions, had been so wrong, so often, at that point in my life that I decided to give Abbie Reinhold a chance. Mary, one of the precedents for how wrong I can be, sat right next to Abbie Reinhold. I was so wrong about Mary that I decided Abbie Reinhold might be another Mary. Mary was a woman of solitude, and a little “off”, but it turned out that Mary was such a sweet woman in all other matters that she became anecdotal evidence for how wrong the psychological profiles we build can be.
As that first day wore on, I noticed that Abbie talked to herself a lot, and while I do deem those who talk to themselves a lot a little crazy, I cut all new employees a little slack. Some of the cases we worked on for this company, could be quite difficult and overwhelming, and I had firsthand knowledge of how difficult and overwhelming the job could be for a new person. For this reason, I paid little attention to Abbie Reinhold on that first day.
On the second day, Abbie Reinhold began talking to herself when I sat down at 8:00 A.M. up and to the point when she left at 5:30. Man, I thought, this poor woman is really struggling. Abbie’s frustrations were on display for all to see, but as I said I empathized. We all have coping mechanisms for dealing with the stress and pressure of the job, and we all know that coping mechanisms can vary, and they are often unique to the person. If this woman’s coping mechanism included talking to herself, who was I to judge? She did talk to herself a lot though.
The third day was something altogether different. The coping mechanism of talking her way through a case progressed to screaming. Abbie developed the habit of silently screaming at her computer. Everything about her face and mouth suggested she was screaming, except for the sound. Her head was bopping, and she bared her teeth. I glanced around to determine the source of her frustration. I couldn’t find anything. She was new though, and I continued to offer her some slack, but the progression didn’t ebb and flow in the manner it had in the past days. Abbie’s frustrations had progressed. Matters, such as these, don’t usually phase me. I’m a calm and levelheaded guy, but I had one foot pointed to the door in case her frustration resulted in some sort of ultimate resolution.
I worked in various computer companies for near a decade at that point, and I saw so many anomalies of human behavior that her idiosyncratic behaviors were noteworthy. Nothing more and nothing less. Did those of us around her laugh when she laughed for no apparent reason, we did. Did we share raised eyebrows when some noises escaped her otherwise silent screams, we did. Those who might call us out for those judgmental reactions have to understand that it’s human nature to laugh at something we don’t understand. When we witness what we consider a confusing anomaly, our impulsive reaction is to either laugh or cry, and I wasn’t so afraid of her that I would cry. I came close the next day, when I saw her eat a cookie, as everything about that act appeared to crystallize the notions I had that she might be crazy.
I would never go so far as to say that I’m a macho man who fears nothing, but I can say without fear of rebuttal, that I’ve never experienced anything resembling fear, while watching another person eat a cookie. I don’t think I feared her, in the truest sense of the word, but I did have goosebumps.
What are goosebumps? Some have theorized that they are a physiological phenomenon we’ve inherited from our animal ancestors. They’re useless to us, because we don’t have a coat of hair, but the reason other animals may use the same elevations in the skin is to protect against the cold and to make themselves appear larger when confronted by a potential threat. I didn’t consider Abbie Reinhold’s ravenous consumption of the cookie threatening, but the physiological phenomenon occurring on my arm suggested that I might want to consider getting larger just in case.
I assumed she was diabetic, as I have known many diabetics who were calmed by a cookie. I don’t know if that was the case with her, but she ate that cookie in the manner I suspect one would after starving themselves for three days.
I watched every bite she took. I don’t know what I was waiting to see, but I was watching. Watching is probably the wrong word to describe what I was doing, for I was not looking at her. By the time Abbie Reinhold began eating the cookie, she and I established the rule that I was not to look at her, so I trained myself to pay attention to her, without looking. I was looking at my computer, but I wasn’t typing or doing anything work-related. I was staring at her without looking at her. When she finished that cookie without any progressions, I did not sigh, but I was relieved.
In the days that followed, I would see her laugh. When a person sits behind a computer for ten hours a day, the mind drifts. Those of us who worked in the service industry dreamed of a day when we didn’t have to work with people. Once we achieved it, we realized we needed more human contact. To satisfy this need, we drift back to the rude thing the supermarket checker said to us, and we conjure up a perfect comeback while staring at our computer. We remember the hilarious thing our friend said to us, and we laugh, and we think up the perfect addition to their joke. Some of the times, we find ourselves so wrapped up in these memories that a smile or a grimace might slip out. When this happens, we drop that expression as quickly as possible, and we scan our surroundings to make sure no one saw it. This woman didn’t seem to care about any of that. Her smiles turned into uproarious laughter. Her grimaces turned into silent, vehement screams.
In the professional climate of office workers reading the words on their computers, the white noise of the sounds of typing, can lull all employees into a safe harbor of the mind. Anything and everything is distracting. Drop a pencil on the carpet, and six people might turn to watch you pick it up. In this climate of solitude and servitude, whispers are distracting and annoying. The relatively benign sounds of soft laughter can lead others to roll over to see what you’re laughing at on your computer. Other employees did this, in the early days of Abbie Reinhold’s tenure on our team. After a couple more of these incidents, fewer and fewer rolled over to Abbie’s desk. We would laugh, however, but it was a laugh of empathy, for we knew how often we drifted into our own daydreams. We managed to restrain ourselves from displays of emotion, but we knew how close to that line we were. Over the course of our brief tenure together, Abbie shattered the shackles of embarrassment by reenacting scenes from her life without shame. When a non-team member would stop by our desk to ask us a question, and they would see her turning left and right with laughter or anger, they would ask us about it, and we would say, “Just ignore it.” On one such occasion, she placed a hand between her breasts and apologized to her computer screen for laughing so hard. She wasn’t speaking to me, the unfortunate witness to her activities. She wasn’t speaking to anyone.
When Abbie Reinhold talks to herself, she gesticulates in a casual manner that one uses to expound upon meaning. These gesticulations progress to a flailing of the arms, in a manner reserved for partygoers having one hell of a good time. She swirls in her computer chair, in a Julie Andrews, “The Hills are Alive” manner, when she appears immersed in a wonderful moment in her life, and she says mumbles responses to the fictional characters who surround her.
I wondered one day if she is talking to people in the future or the past, or is she one of those rare individuals who –like a Kurt Vonnegut character– is unstuck in time, and is living in the past, the present and the future at the same time?
I wondered what Abbie Reinhold would think of me if I started talking to myself, followed by uproarious laughter and wild gesticulations. Would she laugh from a distance at my foolish actions, to reveal how oblivious she is to her own? Would Abbie laugh at me with full knowledge of her actions, but by ridiculing me, she hoped to gain some distance from the things that crazy people do? Would she view my foolish display as an opportunity in which she could define herself to others, thus lifting herself above those who engage in such activities for the purpose of either changing the minds of those around her, or vindicating her beliefs in her own sanity? The unlikely alternative, I suspect, is that she would see what I was doing and identify with in a manner that might establish some sort of solidarity between us. Even if I mimicked her without any form of mockery, I doubt that she would defend me against anyone who ridiculed me for talking to myself. I doubt she would say anything along the lines of, “Hey, I talk to myself, how dare you crack on my people.” I doubt that she was that objective.
On one of the days that followed, Abbie Reinhold stood. She was not looking at a fellow employee named Natalie, but she wasn’t looking away either. She was just standing. She did stand near enough to Natalie that Natalie thought the Crazy Lady had a work-related question that she couldn’t articulate. Natalie was a senior agent on the team, assigned to answering agent questions.
“What’s up?” Natalie asked her.
“Just stretching,” the crazy lady said.
“What’s wrong with that?” I asked when Natalie informed me of these details.
“She was standing still,” Natalie informed me. “I don’t think she moved a muscle.”
“Did you ask her what muscles she was stretching?”
This Crazy Lady also eats her earwax. She pulls it out, examines it, and she eats it on occasion. Some of the times, Abbie Reinhold looks at it and discards it. I often wonder what her selection process involves. What’s the difference between a good pull, and a bad one?
I wondered if I cracked a joke about people who eat their own earwax, what Abbie’s reaction would be. Would she laugh from a distance at such foolish people, or would she defend her fellow earwax eaters? “Hey, I eat my ear wax, how dare you crack on my people.”
Some readers might find this piece mean-spirited, as we should never discuss (much less laugh at) those who have vulnerabilities. To those charges, I submit to the court of public opinion, exhibit A: Abbie Reinhold.
Abbie Reinhold was not a sympathetic figure, and witnesses to Abbie Reinhold’s demeanor would testify to the fact that Abbie Reinhold could often be witnessed laughing as hard, if not harder, at the idiosyncrasies of those around her as anyone else. (I think this raucous laughter might have been born of the relief of being on the other side of that laughter for once.) We understood that she was defensive by nature when we met, but she began leveling attacks against us before we knew her last name. We have no knowledge of the incidents that drove her to attack us, and we empathize with anyone who has been attacked for their characteristics, for we have all experienced such attacks throughout our lives.
When it comes to using past grievances to fuel nastiness, anything can provide an impetus. Perhaps she made unfair associations that led her to unfair conclusions about us, but we were ambivalent to her presence, until she attacked us with her shield. Abbie Reinhold brought her past grievances to the table not us. We did not seek to chastise, or ostracize, Abbie Reinhold. We viewed her as nothing more than another employee in a large company, until she made her presence known.
For those in the court of public opinion who are not willing to take some anonymous author’s word for it, we submit exhibit B: Sheila Jones. Sheila Jones was what many might consider the prototype for a nice, sweet, woman who has lived long enough, and experienced just enough, to know the best and worst of humanity. Sheila is the type of person who chooses to view humanity from the magnanimous position of believing that her waste matter stinks too. Sheila is one of those rare individuals who genuinely seeks to find the best in everyone, and those who know her well would probably say that Sheila is the prototype for those individuals we laud by saying, ‘she never had an unkind word to say about anyone.’ Not only was Sheila an audience to the stories we told about Abbie Reinhold, she would break that mold by contributing to them.
I make no claim to being as nice and understanding as Sheila was, is, and always will be. She is one of those rare individuals who are nice, understanding, and empathetic to the plight of the 99.9 percent of the population. When the subject of Abbie Reinhold arose, not only did Sheila join the pack of hyenas, ripping at the carcass, she laughed as hard as any of us did, even if it was behind a hand.
The question I have, now that I have achieved enough distance from this story to have some objectivity on it, is would anyone like Sheila want to trade such stories if Abbie Reinhold was a nice person? Would anyone as nice as Sheila laugh as hard as she did, if Abbie Reinhold was a sweet person who just happened to have been afflicted with some noteworthy eccentricities? The males might have, for males are predisposed to enjoying stories that pertain to the weaknesses and frailties of another, a trait that we can trace to their king of the hill mentalities. Mean girls might have too, for many of the same reasons. We’ve all heard of people raised with Midwest values and southern hospitality. Sheila had all that, plus a personal level of sympathy for others that those of us who knew her considered unmatched. Thus, we can only guess that if Abbie was anything from ambivalent-to-nice to someone like Sheila Jones, she would have shut down any discussions about the woman’s eccentricities with a simple word about decorum and niceties. If Abbie was a nice person who just happened to do odd things, the women in our group like Sheila might have even shamed the rest of us who engaged in such discussions. “She’s a nice person,” is something they might have said, and they would’ve dismissed every characterization of Abbie Reinhold on that basis. The fact that these women not only laughed uproariously at the stories of Abbie Reinhold’s idiosyncrasies, but shared their own experiences with her, and drove the discussion in many cases, should suggest to any crazy people seeking to proactively diffuse any attempts at characterizing them in an unfair and exaggerated manner, that the best way to ingratiate themselves to those who might end up defending them, is by being nice.