If a crazy person were to ask me for advice on how to get along with people, I would tell them to be nice. That advice might seem so obvious that it’s not worth giving, but we all know those who rush to the defense of a person they consider nice, regardless what the other party does or says. Being nice, courteous, gracious, and conscientious also allows crazy people to float under the radar. People will talk, and they do talk about crazy people, but if they consider that person nice, they will qualify their characterizations and provide an escape hatch of most discussions on the matter.
One of the key components to selling a nice façade is to walk around with a warm smile. A warm smile disarms observers searching for cracks in the foundation, and it will serve the crazy person well in their attempts to conceal their eccentricities. The crazy person might want to consider saying nice things, and doing nice things for people, even if this is not a central part of their makeup. They might be surprised to learn just how disarming a simple, warm smile and a couple of nice words can be.
Observers have bullet points they look for when we’re trying to spot crazy. Are these bullet points fair? It doesn’t matter. We have created them to help us avoid saying, or doing, the wrong thing to a person who might go crazy on us. One of the most prominent bullet points we look for is nastiness.
Being nasty is a preemptive strategy we develop to attack before being attacked. Most crazy people become so accustomed to attacks on their nature that being nasty is the first arrow they reach for in their quiver. They know that most people avoid an attacker, and that becomes their goal. If a crazy person continues to believe that preemptive attacks are the preferred method of squelching or manipulating the opinions of others around them, they might find otherwise sympathetic souls joining in on the discussions of her unpredictability, until the crazy person’s peers reach an agreed upon characterization that the attacker will not expect. The solution is so simple that most crazy people have never considered it as a productive strategy before, be nice.
I used to work for an online company. This 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 woman named Abbie Reinhold. One of the first things Abbie did, to introduce herself to the group, was defeat any impressions we may have had about her. This preemptive attack was comprised of confrontation and nastiness that dared anyone to challenge the impression she made. This defense gained her a reputation, however unfair, of being a cat lady.
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 it’s true. It’s not true that all women who own cats are crazy, for I’ve met a number of sane women that have an insane number of cats. Yet, some women who own a number of cats, scream at them as if they’re human, and some women find that they get along a lot better with cats than they do humans for all of the psychological underpinnings that are indigenous to the cat lady.
When I arrived back at work, I found that those in charge of seating arrangements placed this crazy lady across from me, in the cubicle I faced. Did I know that Abbie Reinhold was a little off-kilter? The least observant person in the world would’ve crinkled their brow, and the most compassionate person in the world would’ve avoided examining her.
My attempts at building a psychological profile on those around me, based on initial impressions, had been so wrong, so often that I decided to give Abbie Reinhold a chance. My precedent sat right next to Abbie Reinhold. A Mary something or other. I was so wrong about Mary that I decided Abbie Reinhold might be another Mary something or other. 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 my premature psychological profiles could be.
As that first day wore on, I watched Abbie talk to herself a lot. I judge people who talk to themselves a lot as crazy, but I Abbie Reinhold was a new employee. I was the newbie in this department months prior, and I knew that some of the cases we worked could be challenging, and I had firsthand knowledge of how overwhelming the job could be for a new person. For this reason, I paid little attention to the woman named Abbie Reinhold on that first day.
The second day, she 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 woman is struggling. Abbie’s frustrations were on display for all to see, but I empathized. I went through those frustrations when I was the new guy, but everyone is the new guy at one point in our lives, and we all struggle with the art of getting up to speed. The coping mechanisms a person has for dealing with stress and pressure are varied and unique to the person, and some of us need to talk our way through it. 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 began screaming at her computer. There were no sounds coming out of her mouth, but she was going off. 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 tried to continue cutting her some slack, but the progression didn’t ebb and flow in the manner it had in the past days. Abbie’s frustrations 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 some sort of ultimate progression developed.
Depending on the size of the company, it is possible to work with thousands of anonymous people at an online company. It’s possible to meet a fellow employee at a grocery store and believe you’ve never seen them before. An employee of an online company, spends most of their time staring at a computer screen, and those who are not in their immediate vicinity can escape notice for years. It’s even possible for an employee in the immediate vicinity to escape notice, depending on their personality traits. Abbie Reinhold was an anomaly who gained attention throughout the aisles, and more than a few stopped by my desk, when she was not there, to ask me about her.
If her displays were limited to silent screams at the computer, we might have been able to overlook that too. I had been working in computer companies for near a decade at that point, and I saw so many anomalies of human behavior that her idiosyncratic behaviors were of note. Nothing more and nothing less. When I saw Abbie Reinhold eat a cookie, however, everything I thought about this crazy lady crystallized and she became a focus of my attention.
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 fear watching another eat a cookie before her third day. Abbie pulled that cookie out and she ate it. She was ravenous. I assumed she was diabetic, as I have known many diabetics for whom a cookie provides a calming influence. I still don’t have answers regarding the nature of this woman, but I’ve never witnessed a person eat a cookie with such vigor. She ate the cookie in a manner that suggested she starved herself 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. Abbie and I established the fact, through confrontational exchanges, that I was not to look at her. Thus, I learned how to pay attention to her without looking. I was looking at my computer, but I could not focus on the screen. I was not working. I was just staring at it. My focus was on her, until she finished that cookie. I did not sigh after she devoured the final bite, but I was relieved that I would be able to return to work without incident.
In the days that followed, she would laugh. There was nothing around her, but she was laughing. If you’ve never worked at an online company that punishes you in various ways for straying from the computer, then you don’t know how often the mind drifts. We would complain about it. No matter what the job is, employees complain. It’s what we do. For every ten complainers, there’s always a “could be worse” guy. “Hey, we could be working outside in all kinds of weather, or we could be working in a mine,” the could be worse guys say. Don’t be a “could be worse” guy. Nobody likes them, and they don’t change our perspective. We know it could be worse, but we still like to complain. It’s what we do. The primary complaint of online, office workers is the brain-killing monotony of staring at a computer screen ten hours a day, four days a week.
The brain, like all organs in the body has a built-in defense mechanism. It drifts. It reminds us of that rude cashier at the supermarket who said rude. As if to keep some elements of the creativity portion from dulling to atrophy, it sorts through crack backs that we only wish the brain would’ve thought of at the time. Some of the times, we accidentally whisper them to bring them to life. Some of the times, we laugh at the ingenuity the brain produced. Some of the times, we become so wrapped up in these exchanges that a passerby might see us accidentally slip into a grimace, or a smile. When this happens, we drop that expression as quickly as possible, and a run a quick search for witnesses who might have been looking over. Abbie Reinhold didn’t care about any of that. Her smiles turned into uproarious laughter. Her grimaces turned into silent, vehement screams.
One minute the sounds of typing, whispers, and people talking in inside voices lull the employee into concentrating on the work before them. The next minute, the employees in the surrounding area hear uproarious laughter. In the early days of Abbie Reinhold’s tenure, other employees would roll their chair to her computer to see what was so funny. After a number of these incidents, no one rolled over. These moments involved events she conjured up in her head. Many were the times, when she would turn to her left, or right, depending on the occasion, and she would laugh. On one 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 speaks 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 a Julie Andrews, “The Hills are Alive” manner when she appears immersed in a wonderful moment in her life, and she says things no one can hear.
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 one day, if I started talking to myself, followed by uproarious laughter and wild gesticulations, what Abbie Reinhold might think of me. Would she laugh from a distance at such foolish actions, to prove she was oblivious 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 crazy things crazy people sometimes do? Would she view my foolish display as an opportunity in which she could define herself to others, thus lifting herself above those that 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 least likely alternative would be her identifying with my display in a manner that formed some sort of solidarity between us. If I performed these actions in a manner that suggested there was no mimicry going on, and that I may have been a victim of many of the same maladies as her, would she see me as one of her people?
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 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?”
The Crazy Lady 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 on the carpet. 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?”
I’m guessing that some readers may find this piece a little mean-spirited, as we should never discuss (much less laugh at) those who suffer ailments. To those charges, I submit to the court of public opinion, exhibit A: Abbie Reinhold.
Abbie Reinhold was not a sympathetic figure, and eyewitnesses to Abbie Reinhold’s demeanor will testify to the fact that Abbie Reinhold could often be witnessed laughing as hard, if not harder, at the idiosyncrasies of those around her. (I think this raucous laughter might have been born of the relief of being on the other side of that laughter for once.) We submit this contention, corroborated by eyewitness testimony, with a concession that we have no knowledge of the psychological underpinnings that drove Abbie Reinhold to be nasty to us, but nasty she was. We think that past grievances resulted in this nasty disposition, and the nasty disposition was a preemptive measure she used to shield her against whatever she experienced prior to the day she sat across from me at this computer company, but she brought those past grievances to the table not us. We did not seek to chastise, or ostracize, Abbie Reinhold.
For those not willing to take the author’s word for it, we submit exhibit B: Sheila Jones. Sheila Jones was what many might consider a prototype for a nice, sweet, older woman who has witnessed the best and worst of humanity. Sheila chose to view humanity from the magnanimous position of believing that her waste matter stinks too. Sheila is one of those rare individuals who genuinely attempts to see the best in everyone, and those who know her well will testify to the fact that Sheila Jones is the prototype for those individuals we laud at funerals, saying, ‘they never had anything but kind words to say about anyone. There’s not a mean-spirited bone in her body, and she’d give the clothes off her back.’ Not only was Sheila an audience to the stories we told of Abbie Reinhold, she was one of those who would wait with bated breath for the next “Abbie Reinhold is crazy” installment that we would tell each day in the lunchroom cafeteria, and she was an active participant who contributed more than a few of her own. I make no claim to being as compassionate and sympathetic as Sheila was, is, and forever shall be. She was one of those almost naïve types who are nice, understanding, and empathetic to the plight of the 99.9% 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.
Now that I have achieved enough distance from this story to have some level of objectivity on it, I wonder if anyone would want to hear these stories if Abbie Reinhold was a nice person? Would anyone have laughed as hard as they did, or offered their own stories about her to our round table discussions, if Abbie Reinhold had a sweet disposition, and she just happened to be afflicted with some eccentricities? The males may have, for males are predisposed to enjoy stories that pertain to the weaknesses and frailties of another, a trait we can probably trace back to their king of the hill mentalities. I can only guess that if Abbie had been ambivalent-to-nice to those women who surrounded us, they would have shut down the discussions about the Crazy Lady’s eccentricities. If Abbie was a nice person who just happened to do odd things, those women would’ve shamed those of us who engaged in such discussions. “How dare you joke about someone’s vulnerabilities,” is something they might have said. “Abbie is a sweet person who means no harm. How about you take a good, long look in the mirror and remember you’re not as perfect as you think.” 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 attempts at characterizing them in an unfair and exaggerated manner, that the best way to ingratiate themselves to those that may end up defending them, is by being nice.