[Welcome to Center Stage. We created this feature to highlight our favorite article of the week. This Center Stage feature gives readers a taste of our show-don’t-tell method. A theoretical treatise on philosophy might illuminate some and educate others, but the rest of us think, and learn, better from stories. We want to apply their reason to our dilemma, but we’re not educated enough to understand what they’re writing. We still need our dilemmas resolved, however, and we still want to understand our neighbors better. In the course of trying to understand them better, we unavoidably learn more about ourselves.
Are You Superior takes center stage to illustrate certain nuances of casual conversation. As with every other art form, the art of conversation involves what we don’t say as much as what we do. Most of the conversations we have are meaningless, and no one remembers them soon after they end, but some of these conversations are more These polite, mundane conversations can involve a subtext of one person trying to feel the other out. Am I superior to this person, and are they inferior? Some of us exude confidence, others less confident are more intelligent. The confident have their presentations down. They know how to drill a person down and win in the arena of perception, but others are well-informed and more intelligent. They just don’t do well in toe-to-toe debates. Who wins in these conversations, who loses, and who cares? Are these casual conversations important? Do they present a clear winner and a clear loser, and what happens in the aftermath of these water cooler conversations? After experiencing so many of these conversations over the years, I had one illustrative encounter that modified my thinking on a subject I didn’t think about enough. This brief encounter informed me that it just doesn’t matter.]
Working as an ice cream truck driver one day –a ding ding man, a good humor man, or whatever you’d call me in your locale– I was pulled over by a couple of bandannas, beneath hats that were turned backwards, and sunglasses. I braced for the worst. I imagined this encounter the modern-day equivalent of bandits pulling over a stagecoach. When those initial suspicions subsided, I flirted with the notion that the only reason they stopped me “just to talk” was to allow their stickup man enough time to sneak around the back of my ice cream truck to complete the heist. I divided my attention between them and my mirrors as a result, watching for any movement behind my truck. When that didn’t happen, I began to wonder if they were feeling me out, to gauge if I was an easy roll for a future heist. All of that may have been unfair, but I have always been a nerdy guy, and these guys appeared to be so cool. I could find no reason why they would want to stop their truck in the middle of a neighborhood street “just to talk” to someone like me.
I don’t understand the subtle differences and wide divides between being cool and being nerdy, and as many tell me, “You probably never will.” I did know that these guys were cool, however, or cooler than me anyway. They had this aura about them I call cool, but others, far smarter than me, call radiating self-possession. They spoke in an ethereal tone that suggested they were probably potheads, and as one attuned to pop culture references, and pop culture characterizations, I knew that meant that they were way cooler than me. If all of this was true, and they were thieves, and I was the modern day equivalent to the aproned shopkeeper of the ice cream truck, their comparative cool points were through the roof.
In a world of what I considered proper metrics, I should’ve been superior. I wore better clothes, and I figured I had a better education, but these guys had intangibles that I couldn’t even imagine attaining. They had a look about them, a strong sense of cool, and an aura that suggested that they were fun loving, party-going types. Such characteristics threw my metrics right out the window. They weren’t stupid, however, and that fact was evident minutes into our conversation, but there was no way their education was as expensive as mine was. If they were potheads, they probably spent a lot of time equivocating moral issues, and those who equivocate –my Catholic school educators informed me– have a fundamental flaw about them that they spend an inordinate amount of time trying to hide. In this world of proper metrics, I thought I was, check, check, check, superior.
Except for one tiny, little nugget, I conveniently neglected to input into the equation: on this particular day I was also wearing sunglasses and a bandanna beneath my backwards facing hat. The only difference between the three of us was that I didn’t wear this gear on a day-to-day basis. I wore this getup for the sole purpose of concealing my true identity. I was so embarrassed to be a ding ding man that short of wearing a fake beard and a Groucho Marx nose and eyeglasses, I had every inch of my identity concealed from the public.
They didn’t know any of that of course. They probably thought I was a bandanna, beneath a backwards facing hat, and sunglasses brutha, and that may have been the primary reason they decided to stop and chat with me in the first place. It may have been the reason they were so relaxed about their status, and my status, and the superior versus inferior dynamic influencing our approach to one another. Within the internal struggle I experienced in this interaction, was a ray of sunshine. I felt superior, because this was a get up for me. This was not my every day apparel. That moment was fleeting even while I basked in it, for I realized that if I was superior I wasn’t doing anything with it, and that fact led me to be embarrassed that I was now wearing a bandanna, beneath a backwards facing hat, and sunglasses. I wondered if I input that variable into the equation if it might actually make me inferior to them.
Those who tally superiority points in interactions, often fail to award points to those who are comfortable in their own skin. We see these characteristics as limitations. We don’t factor in how comfortable they may be with them. We’ve been led to believe that achieving vast amounts of power, prestige, and money are the endgame, and the ultimate goal, and anyone who says otherwise is lying. Very few would deny wanting such things, of course, but some don’t need them in the way others do. Most people just want enough disposable income to do something on weekends, and what they do on weekends can be as fulfilling, if not more so, than that which the most successful man achieves during the week.
These two were older than me, but they were still young, and as such, the opportunities for them in the future were as wide open for them as for me, but they were still much more comfortable in their current situation than I was. They learned to live with their limitations, until they were so comfortable with who they were that they were radiating self-possession. I realized that in my bandanna, beneath a backwards facing hat, and sunglasses disguise, I lost points in this category.
The bandanas, with hats on backwards, and sunglasses did not wear shirts, and they were riding in a beat up, old International truck, that rattled in idle. They were construction guys with deep, dark tans that made their teeth appear whiter when they smiled and laughed. My guess, watching these two twentysomethings speak, was that even though they appeared inferior, they had no trouble landing women. My guess was that among those women who knew them well, there was a whole lot of adulation going on. I didn’t know that to be a fact, of course, but guys like me –who were always on the lookout for what I missed in life– were always looking to guys like these for ideas.
They laughed a genuine laugh at some of the things I said. The matters I discussed had something to do with the business side of being a ding ding man, and how I loathed my current station in life, but I can’t remember specifics. I remember their laughter, however, and I remember wondering if they were laughing with me or at me. At this point in my life, I just escaped a high school that contained a large swath of people who were often laughing at me. This casual conversation reminded me of those kids I just escaped, and it revealed the shield that I erected whenever I thought one of them neared.
That takeaway didn’t strike me as a profundity in the moment. The thought crossed my mind, but I didn’t grasp the totality of what happened between us until they told me they had to leave. This intangible something that I wouldn’t fully grasp until later, caused me to miss them before they drove away. I enjoyed speaking with them, and I realized that all of the preconceived notions I had about them were based on my experiences in high school, and I thought about all of the hang-ups and insecurities I had a result. I realized that these two were just a couple of good guys, and they thought I was a pretty good guy too. I didn’t expect them to want to talk to me, but when they did, I expected them to lose interest quickly. When they didn’t, I realized I liked being the guy they thought I was. I wasn’t sure what it was they thought they saw when they sidled up next to me to chat, but I liked it, and while I watched them drive away, I realized I wanted a retake of the scene. The next time I saw them, I decided, I would enjoy our conversation from beginning to end, without any hang-ups or preconceived notions, but I never saw them again.
The idea that most people speak in superlatives was not lost on me, but most people who knew me well said that I might have been one of the most uptight, frustrated, and angst-ridden individuals they’ve ever met and the costume I currently wore supported that characterization more than I cared to admit. Very few of these people have ever accused me of being too relaxed.
It wasn’t until these two were long gone that I realized that my inability to put high school behind me prevented me from enjoying a simple, casual conversation with some decent fellas who just happened to drive up on me. In my cynical mind, I was and always would be, playing a proverbial king of the mountain game, a game I often lost in high school, and I was still so locked into that defensive position that it ruined my life for years.
Is it true that we’re all searching for a point of superiority, or inferiority, in even the most casual conversations? I don’t know, and some would say no, and others would say hell no! “I’m just asking you what you think about the latest wheat and grain prices on the commodity markets.” So, why do we loathe speaking to some people? What makes us so uncomfortable that we leave some of the most casual conversations feeling incomplete and inferior, and why do we enjoy casual conversations with others we deem inferior so much more? The tricky, sticky element of this argument is that most who propose that in some way, shape, or form these elements manipulate just about every conversation we have, wish we never discovered it. Now that our mind’s eye is open to this idea, we wish we could turn it off, and enjoy the fruits of casual conversations again.
If it is true that every single conversation has these elements in some form, where was I in this casual conversation with two guys who wore a bandanna, beneath a backwards facing hat and sunglasses? That was never established in a substantial manner, but my takeaway from this particular encounter was that for a very brief moment in my life, I didn’t care, and that might have been what I liked, what I missed, and what caused me to watch them drive away.