The Alternative Explanation

Jerry Martin tried too hard to make friends with far too many people. Was he obnoxiously superficial and a phony, yes, but we now see that there was a enviable, simplistic quality to Jerry Martin that we didn’t appreciate at the time. He just wanted to have fun.  

The prime directive is fun when co-workers gather. The work they do can be stressful, tedious, and pressure-packed. They need an outlet, and for 90% of those who worked with us that outlet involved a bar and massive amounts of alcohol. If nothing else, alcohol lubricates the mind, unlocks inhibitions, and makes a fun night even more fun. At some point in the evening, and no one knows when or where it will happen, someone gets serious. Did Jerry up and leave the table, every time someone turned the tide of the evening? No, but when it became apparent that no one was going to change the topic back to something fun, Jerry was no longer there.

We complained about that, but we also complained about Jerry being too much like David when David was around. It made us a little ill, until we saw him change a little too much when he was around Shannon. We didn’t really see him for who he was, until he sat down with us, and he tried to be like us. Someone mentioned that Jerry was something of a shape-shifter, and another said he was a chameleon. I agreed with both of those characterizations, because I know what I saw. I considered Jerry too easily influenced, naïve, and a little too eager, but no one ever offered me an alternative explanation for why someone might do this before.

“If you ask me, he’s a bit of a brown noser, a kiss up, and a little too eager,” Rick Becker said, in a conspiratorial whisper, “and eager doesn’t work well when you’re trying make new friends.” Everyone smiled and nodded at Rick’s assessment. Rick didn’t add that we want cool, detached, and ambivalent, because that probably would’ve been too on the nose. He also didn’t allude to the idea that we want to befriend someone who is not there, or that we want someone who forces us to try to gain their attention and their approval.

Jerry was always there when we went to the bar after work, and he was always laughing too hard and hanging on our every word. He always appeared to be having a great time with us, but he was also on the lookout for a better time. At some point, and no one knew when it happened, Jerry would float away to some other table in the bar, and he appeared to be having such a great time over there with a group of complete strangers that some of our people were a little insulted by it. Yet, his trips to other tables never appeared to be a purposeful migration, as if to suggest we were boring and someone else appeared more interesting. He just developed a loose connection with some complete stranger at another table, and he attempted to strengthen it by moving to their table.  

When he moved to another table talk to a girl that made more sense to us. We thought we knew his motive, and some of the times we were right. When he moved to talk to a guy, it threw those readings off, but when he eventually established the fact that there were no patterns to his migrations, we were confused and a little hurt by it.

“Are we just not interesting enough for him?” Angie asked.

“Why does he always do that?” Tiffany asked. “Why does he even come out with us if he’s always going to do that?”

“I think he just gets bored easily,” I said.

“Yep,” Angie added. “He’s probably a little ADD.”

“I’ll tell you what he is,” Derek said. Derek was an outspoken type who loved to think he said what everyone was afraid to say. “He’s a damned phony.”

“He’s not phony,” I said.

Derek argued with fingers. He pointed to one finger and listed one element of his argument, then another, and another. “One plus one, plus one, equals phony,” he said with his three fingers up.

“I don’t know what he is, or what he’s doing,” I said, “but he’s not a phony.”

“My guess is he didn’t come to us fully formed,” Shannon said, referring to the fact that he was relatively new to our team. We looked to her with confusion, awaiting further explanation. “Did you guys see that shirt he wore last week? That shirt had a huge emblem on it? It was so busy. I asked him about it, and he answered in a very insecure way, and he hasn’t worn that shirt since. He also has about twenty pairs of shoes. I don’t know a guy who has more than three pairs of shoes. He seems to have a different pair of shoes on every day.”

“It’s to go with his socks,” Tiffany said and everyone started pointing at her, laughing, and adding comments. “I thought they were Christmas socks at first, until he walked in with brown and pink striped socks on in February. Did you guys see those? I had to ask him where he got them, and I said, and I quote, ‘You’re a brave man Jerry Martin. A grown man, wearing pink and brown striped socks, brave, and who makes them? Because I can’t imagine a manufacturer brave enough to put those out for sale, in a store, in the men’s section.’”

“Was he insecure when you teased him about it?” Shannon asked.

“He was,” Tiffany said. “I expected him to be bold, or as bold as anyone who would wear pink and brown striped socks should be, but he was the opposite.” 

“Exactly, I think Jerry is an empty vessel,” Shannon said, “and I don’t mean that in a hugely offensive way either. I just think he’s the type of person who tries people on, the way we would try a pair of brown and pink socks on. He probably thought he was making a fashion statement wearing such a busy shirt and wild socks, and when we told him he wasn’t, he never wore them again. I think he tries to talk like David and laugh like Angie, because he’s trying them on. It’s as if he’s in a fitting room with our personalities, trying us on to see if he likes us on him. I think he takes little nuggets from each of us to try to complete a picture. I don’t know his history, but I’m guessing he probably has a hole in his soul that he spends his life trying to fill. I’m guessing he doesn’t like himself very much, who he is, where he’s from, or where he’s going, so he looks to everyone else to find something different. He tries us on for a bit to see if he likes that, and if he doesn’t, he puts someone else on. Or, maybe, like I said, he’s looking for a bit of each of us to form some kind of final formation of a personality, because he feels like his is not complete.”

That silenced us. We knew we weren’t fully formed, and we knew the she who-smelt-it-dealt-it principle of making charges about another person’s character. Our guess suggested that when someone spots a flaw in another, they spot it because they suffer from it more than most, and it makes it easier for them to spot it in others. 

Shannon soaked in that silence for a spell and added the following with a cringe/smile, “All right, that might be a bit much, but I agree with you. He’s not a phony.”

No one wants to hear such a serious, alternative explanation at a bar with drinks in hand without a joke to punctuate it. Participants in bar conversations are to incite the mob by narratives to jokes or add jokes to narratives. We view deep, insightful comments with disdain and fatigue. They’re thought-provoking and serious buzzkills, in an unserious climate.

We thought we knew this new guy named Jerry Martin. We thought he was a phony, a brown-noser, who was a little too eager. What else could explain a man who does such things? Was there an alternative explanation? Some of us eagerly seek alternative explanations to tweak our frame of reference, but most reject them just as quickly, especially when we have a beer in hand.

We didn’t think Shannon’s alternative explanation nailed Jerry in the short-term, and it wasn’t a theory to leap on, ask a million questions about, and chew on and sleep on, until we had it all figured out. We dismissed it as beer talk. We might have laughed about it at the time, but we laugh about just about everything when we have a few beers in us. Then, when we wake with our punishments from the night before, we try to wipe everything said from our night before from our database. 

The next time I met a Jerry Martin type, however, Shannon’s theory came back at me. I tried to apply it to that person, but the circumstances were so different that it didn’t snap in. By about the fourth or fifth Jerry Martin I met, I became obsessed with her alternative explanation. One of the reasons I was a better at stupid and superficial bar conversations was because I hung around a guy named Ben. Ben was one of the most superficial conversationalists that I’ve ever met. He could talk to anyone about just about anything. If a girl had some frayed yarn on her sweater, he could do a half an hour on it. He had a knack for making trivial conversation topics interesting, and I still consider that trait enviable. I realized that I had been using a bit of Ben’s recipe for years combined with a bit of Nolan’s sauce. Nolan had an air about him that suggested he knew more about you than you ever could. Was he right? It didn’t matter to either party. The women we guessed about were more interested in correcting him than they were deriving insult from his bad guess. Nolan taught me, more than anyone else, how interested people were in talking about themselves. As opposed to Ben, Nolan listened and observed. He was genuinely curious, and he approached us in the most objective manner possible. It was just some intangible element of his nature that he wore well. Angie had a sense of authority about her that affected her walk. She looked to be the type who always had a destination, and Gil Burkett always tilted his head and pointed a finger outward, as he waited for you to finish a point so he could talk. It was a tiny, insignificant gesture that I picked up.

The primary reason I absorbed their traits into mine was that I was not fully formed, and I was subconsciously looking for characteristics, large and small, into mine. The more parking slots we have to fill, the more they will be filled as the event time nears. How many characteristics of our personality do we develop organically, and how many do we pick up from others? Jerry Martin’s ability to absorb the characters around him might have appeared obnoxious to us at the time, but was he an exaggerated example of all of us?  

We’re all empty vessels at one point, soaking in tiny blocs of inspiration, no bigger than the smallest Lego. If we now view our makeup as 100% complete, what percentage of our routines, reactions, and other such minutiae are composed of the 1% influences we gather like a snowball rolling downhill? 

As we mature and gain greater confidence in ourselves, we might not be empty vessels anymore, but we are still open to suggestion that we could be doing the things a little different. Even the most fully formed have missing elements that they look to others to complete.

Is Shannon’s little theory about such people always right? Of course not, but I found it so interesting that I thought the best way to prove it was to attempt to disprove it. To do so, we must first admit that people like Jerry aren’t fully formed, and they’re looking to others to help him fill their missing characteristics. If that is the case, how would a more fully formed individual approach us? Would he seek any influence on any matter? If he were extremely well formed, would he even speak to us? “He’s a real snob,” we might say.

“No, he’s not,” they might reply. “He just doesn’t need us, and he doesn’t seek to influence his personality any more. He’s fully formed.”

What does that mean? If you’re full formed what would be the point of interacting with anyone? My projection of a fully formed person would involve them knowing what they want to do at a very young age and never altering from that path. It involves an individual knowing who they are so completely that they never allow personalities to alter their core, or the formation they developed before they met us. They know where they were, who they are, and who they’re going to be. The only challenge left in life for them is getting there. It might also mean never trying anything new, because if you’re going to try something new, you’ll want to know how to do it by watching others and learning their approach. 

I tried to think of one fully formed personality from which to solidify this need to disprove Shannon’s little aside, but every time I thought I had one, I kept coming up with their frailties and vulnerabilities. I don’t think I’ve ever met someone so secure in their own identity that they exhibited some sort of imperviousness to influence, but I’m sure they’re out there.

When we meet a Jerry Martin it’s so obvious to us why they are the way they are. We all have our go-tos to explain why someone acts in a particular way, but does that explain why they act that way, or why we don’t? Are we so intimately familiar with the characterizations we make of others, based on our he-who-smelt-it-dealt-it familiarity with those characterizations. Are we so familiar with those characteristics, because we’ve spent our whole lives trying to avoid them, so no one will ever call us a phony, a brown-noser, or the eager, easily influenced? When others don’t properly avoid such characteristics, our intimate familiarity spots that failure immediately and pinpoints it for what it is.

Another unpopular element of the alternative explanation is that it might upend our feel-good go-to explanations. Our explanations often involve insults to the other person, and insulting another person often makes us feel better about ourselves. “They’re doing it wrong, right?” “Right.” “Right!” The alternative explanation is not always right, of course, but it seeks to understand the moment and the motive from a perspective we never considered before. We prefer the one plus one, plus one, equals phony answer, because it’s so obvious to us what he’s doing. It’s so obvious to us that we don’t need an alternative explanation, because our world makes more sense to us when it has fixed parameters. We immediately dismiss alternative explanations as thinking too much about an issue, until we hear it. It might take one night, or a couple months for we slow learners, but we might eventually see that there is something there to explore about them, us, and human nature in general.


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