If a crazy person were to ask me for advice on how to get along in the world, I would tell them to be nice. This advice may appear to be so obvious that it’s not worth giving, but it’s been my experience that people will rush to the defense of a person they consider nice, regardless what that person does or says. Being nice, courteous, gracious, and conscientious also allows most people to float under the radar of a congregation of people. People will talk, and they do talk about a crazy person, but if they consider that person nice, that will lead them to qualify their intro 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 a foundation, and it will serve the crazy person well in their attempts to conceal their eccentricities. The crazy person may even want to consider saying nice things, and doing nice things for people, but if this is not a central part of their makeup, they may be surprised to learn just how disarming a simple, warm smile can be.
Observers have bullet points that they look for when we’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 a person that might go crazy on us. One of the most prominent bullet points we look for is nastiness.
Being nasty, for some people, is a preemptive strategy they develop to attack before an attack can occur. Most crazy people become so accustomed to attacks on their nature that being nasty is the first arrow they reach for in their quiver. This will lead to most people avoiding an attacker, and that will be the goal of the preemptive attack. If a crazy person continues to believe that preemptive attacks are the preferred method of manipulating the opinions of others around them, they might find some 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 one that 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 made 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 it’s true. It’s not true that all women that own cats are crazy, for I’ve met a number of sane women that have an insane number of cats. Some women do scream at these cats, 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 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 initial impressions, had been so wrong, so often, at this point in my life, however, that I decided to give Abbie Reinhold a chance. My precedent sat right next to Abbie Reinhold. A Mary something or other. I had been 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 I could be about people.
As that first day wore on, I did notice that Abbie talked to herself a lot, and while I do judge people that talk to themselves a lot as crazy, I cut her some slack for being a new employee. Some of the cases that we worked on, at this company were 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 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 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 some sort of ultimate progression occurred.
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, at an online company, spends most of their time staring at a computer screen, and those that 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 that gained attention that stuck in the memory.
If her displays had been limited to silent screams at the computer, I may 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 became a focus of my attention.
I would never go so far as to say that I’m a macho man that fears nothing, but I can say without fear of rebuttal, that I’ve never known fear watching another eat a cookie before that third day. Abbie pulled that cookie out and went at it. She was ravenous. I assumed she was diabetic, as I have known many diabetics that were calmed by a cookie. 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 had 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 had established the fact, through confrontational exchanges, that I was not to look at her. I trained myself to pay attention to her, without looking at her. 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 further incident.
In the days that followed, I would see her laugh. The mind drifts when you’re sitting behind a computer for ten hours a day. That day that that the rude checker at the supermarket said something rude comes to mind when a person is sitting behind a computer for long stretches of time, and the somethings that should’ve been said to her come to mind when all one has to stare at are inanimate objects all day. Hilarious jokes come to mind, when a person is staring at their computer, and the nasty replies that could’ve, and should’ve been added fall into place. Some of the times, a person finds themselves so wrapped up in these memories that they might let a smile, or grimace, slip. When this happens, we drop that expression as quickly as possible, and a quick search for witnesses follows to see if the slip will result in embarrassment. This woman didn’t seem to 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 such 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 would 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 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 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 unlikely alternative to all that would be that she would see my display and identify with it 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 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?”
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 that have 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 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 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 that has witnessed the best and worst of humanity through experience, and she chooses to view humanity from the magnanimous position of believing that her waste matter stinks too. Sheila is one of those rare individuals that genuinely attempts to see the best in everyone, and those that know her well would probably say that Sheila is the prototype for those individuals we laud by saying, ‘they never had anything but kind words to say about their peers.’ Not only was Sheila an audience to those stories we would tell of Abbie Reinhold, she was one of those that 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 that contributed more than a few of her own stories. I make no claim to being as nice and understanding as Sheila was, is, and forever shall be. She was one of those almost naïve types that are nice, understanding, and empathetic to the plight of the ninety-nine, point nine percent of the population that are somewhat civil to her. 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 now have, now that I have achieved enough distance from this story to have some objectivity on it, is would anyone have wanted 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 was a sweet person that just happened to have been afflicted with some eccentricities? The males may have, for males are predisposed to enjoying stories that pertain to the weaknesses and frailties of another, a trait that we can trace back to their king of the hill mentalities. I can only guess that if Abbie had been ambivalent-to-nice to those women that surrounded us, they would have shut down any discussions about the Crazy Lady’s eccentricities. If Abbie was a nice person that just happened to do odd things, those women may have even shamed the rest of us that engaged in such discussions. “She’s a nice person,” is something they might have said, and they would’ve been able to dismiss 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 that may end up defending them, is by being nice to them.