XXV: Rhonda Gunderson

{Disclaimer: The name Rhonda Gunderson is arbitrary.  I do not know an adult named Rhonda Gunderson, and any similarities to anyone named Rhonda Gunderson are coincidental. This story is a work of creative nonfiction.}

“Rhonda Gunderson is beautiful, but she’s dumb as a board,” my newfound friends on the overnight staff informed me. They told me this soon after I met her, they told me this when I suggested she might be date-worthy, and they reminded me of this any time she left the room.  

“She’s a sweet person, kind, generous, empathetic, all that, but I don’t think she could spell cat if you spotted her the ‘C’ and the ‘T’.” Comments like these flew out the mouths of women who wanted to be her and men who wanted to be with her. The realization that neither would happen for either occurred long before they met Rhonda Gunderson, but she became the focus of their ire.

Most men don’t know their limitations, until they realize them. The men on our overnight team climbed all over each other to be nice to Rhonda in the beginning, but they reached a point where they turned on her. It’s not a fact that they turned on her soon after they realized she wouldn’t date them, but they did turn on her.

“Yes, she is beautiful, but I’ll let you in on a secret … she’s dumb as a board.” Men and women told this joke as if it was the first time anyone ever had. They loved it. They had scoop for me. They laughed. Even the nicest, sweetest people on the team, who normally wouldn’t say an unkind word about anyone, joined in. When others would say it, these nice, sweet people would laugh uproariously. Rhonda Gunderson was fair game, as a target, because she was beautiful. We could say the meanest things we could think up, we could ridicule, mock, hate and envy her without ramification. We had immunity from recriminations, because we all know the beautiful, the successful, and the confident can take it, and if they can’t … Oh well, they’ll just have to toughen up.  

To my amazement, Rhonda not only joined in on some of those jokes, she initiated some of them.

“You’re going for self-deprecating humor aren’t you?” I asked Rhonda Gunderson when we were alone one day. “Do you realize that when you characterize yourself in such a manner, that’s what people are going to think of you?” I did not mention the specific jokes people told about her. “How many times have people called you dumb, even in a harmless, joking manner? It’s because you started it. You give them that by joking that you may be dumb. You have to stop doing that.”

We all do this to varying degrees. We drop keen observations and witty comments, and we backtrack away from their content with a qualifier similar to, “But, I’m an airhead though, so what do I know.” The problem with this however is when we do it often enough, it almost becomes punctuation to everything we say. Those who do it often enough can find the effect by leaving that punctuation off at the end. They’ll find their audience finishes the sentence for them with one of the self-effacing comments they’re accustomed to us dropping at the end of each sentence. People enjoy self-effacing humor, as it displays a level of humility, but they also enjoy when a person puts themselves down, particularly when they’re beautiful.

If Rhonda joining in on some of these jokes, and initiating others, was a defense mechanism she used to thwart attacks on her intelligence. If you’re able to laugh at yourself, says this logic, other people will be less inclined to laugh at you. There are no psychological terms to describe an offense mechanism to harm or damage someone, probably because most of these tactics could be called defensive.    

Prior to plotting a mind-altering game to enhance Rhonda’s stock, I established a tradition of asking trivia questions of my fellow co-workers, after we reached something of a lull in our conversations. I asked brain teasers, as opposed to some of the more difficult questions one could ask. With this tradition firmly established, I decided to use it to enhance Rhonda’s stock.

“Before we go out with this group tonight,” I told her, “I am going to ask the group a number of trivia questions, and here are the answers to these questions …” 

Even if my goal of dating Rhonda Gunderson failed to materialize, I enjoyed messing with perceptions. I enjoyed messing with the primary characterizations people have of others. Even though Rhonda Gunderson was excessively beautiful, she disarmed their innate jealousy by being a goofy, dumb blonde. They liked her because she was a genuinely nice person, but they also enjoyed her ‘dumb girl’ character. They enjoyed how it made them feel to have their own Chrissy Snow and the Phoebe Cates, and she made those of us who envied her beauty a little more comfortable with our physical failures, because at least we weren’t as dumb as she was. She didn’t help matters any when she made it a habit of concluding her additions to our conversations with: “But I’m a bit of an airhead, so what do I know,” or she would say, “but I’m just a ditzy blonde.”

I set this joke up to increase this girl’s perception, but I didn’t care for the elevated perceptions these people gained of themselves while laughing at her “dumb girl” antics. I felt a need to mess with the dynamics of those relationships, so I began feeding her answers to some of my trivia questions.

“When do we tell them?” she asked me in the planning stage. “When do we let them in on the joke?”

“We don’t,” I said. “We never tell them. There is no punchline, unless you consider their elevated perception of you a joke.” 

“Of the denominations of the U.S. dollar currently being created, there are only two that do not have U.S. presidents on them,” I told the group. “Which bills do not have presidents on them?”

Rhonda was quick to respond, “The ten dollar bill and the one hundred dollar bill. The ten has former treasury secretary Alexander Hamilton on it, and the one hundred dollar bill has Founding Father Benjamin Franklin on it.”

“Wow,” I said, feigning surprise. “Were you ready for that one, or did you know it?”

“I knew it,” she said.

“Well, I didn’t know it,” Ed said, and the rest of the group mumbled much of the same. They were shocked that they never knew that answer, but they were more surprised that Rhonda did.

“Okay, Ms. Smartypants,” I said, “let’s see if you know the answer to this question.” I can’t remember the next question I asked the group, but I’ll be darned if Rhonda didn’t know the answer to that question too. She added her own bit of spunk after the second correct answer saying:

“I’m a bit of a trivia master.” I led the laughter on that one, but others followed. Mixed within their laughter was some confusion, as they began to look at Rhonda in a new light.

We waited about a week and a half to throw another group of questions out, and I instructed her to try with everything she could to avoid playing this as if we playing them. To her credit, she performed admirably. In the first question, she popped off another answer, and she followed that with, “That was too easy.” It wasn’t, and everyone around us knew it.

“Okay, Ms. Trivia Master,” I said with feigned competitiveness, “let’s see if you know this one.” She didn’t know that one. I got her on that one, and I basked a little in my victory. I asked her one final trivia question, and she struggled with it, but to our surprise she eventually got it. She answered it with a question mark at the end, as if she was pretty sure, but she wasn’t positive. Needless to say, all of these questions and answers, and struggles and tones, were planned for effect. We even planned for her to miss that second question to prevent our audience from seeing any bread crumbs back to the joke, but she still would’ve achieved a surprisingly good grade if anyone had bothered to chart her answers. We did this often enough to change their perception of her, in my opinion, but not so often that it became obvious what we were doing.

We did this on three separate occasions, and all of the occasions were spread out strategically. Then we forgot about the joke, as other matters of consequence distracted us. We didn’t plan to forget about it, but if we had that might have, incidentally, added the cherry atop the pie of the perception of this girl. Had we continued to do it, we may have overdone it, and told them about the joke, it would’ve destroyed everything we built.

Rhonda reverted back to her ‘dumb girl’ jokes over time, for it was where she felt most comfortable, but I have to think that our strategic jokes left the impression that Rhonda Gunderson was a lot smarter than she let on. This leads me to wonder if our strategic jokes had an unintended effect of damaging some of the friendships she made on our overnight team.

The reason I write that latter, somewhat confusing line is that in many ways, the friendships she built with these people were conditional. All friendships are conditional, of course, and many of those conditions are intended to provide both parties comfort with one another. If Rhonda was not only beautiful but surprisingly intelligent, would that affect her relationships with various people on our staff going forward?

Most of the people on our overnight staff enjoyed being around Rhonda Gunderson, because she was beautiful. Men and women enjoy being around beautiful people, but they also hate how much attention the beautiful receive. If, however, they can play the role of a mentor to those less worldly, naïve, or simply less intelligent than most then that nullifies the envy they feel for that person. Knowledge of her lack of intelligence also gives them a joke to repeat to others. “I see you’ve been hanging around Rhonda Gunderson,” a friend says to them. “Yes, she is a sweet person, but my gosh is she dumb. Yeah, it’s true, she’s dumb as a board.”

Did Rhonda have to maintain her beauty to remain popular? I honestly don’t think so. She was so nice, generous, and caring that I suspect people would’ve gravitated to her regardless. I also think that her general lack of knowledge made her vulnerable, and people found that endearing. Were those mutually beneficial elements so vital to her friendships, however, that if we successfully removed one of them it could damage some of those friendships?

Everyone on the overnight staff enjoyed hearing her tell some of her dumb girl stories for all the reasons stipulated above, but truth be told, she enjoyed them too. Even if they were, in my estimation, laughing at her, they were laughing, and she enjoyed making people laugh. Even if they liked her for reasons I found self-serving, they liked her, and she enjoyed being popular among her peers. For whatever reason, she enjoyed playing the role of the dumb girl in our sitcom and they enjoyed bouncing off her comments to appear more intelligent. The only person who appeared to have a problem with this dynamic was me.