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The Human Turtle

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I feel like there are certain universal social cues that everybody understands. I think everyone would agree, for example, that people wearing earphones are generally not looking for a conversation.

Despite this, somehow, for some reason, people break this seemingly simple rule with me all the time.

I can’t tell what it is about me that invites this kind of behaviour. Is it my tiny stature? Is it something about my face? Do I have an invisible ink tattoo that reads ‘TALK TO ME’ under strip lighting? It happens a lot. A man once motioned for me to take my headphones off in Tesco while I was looking at packets of rice, and when I did so, he said, “I just wanted to tell you, you have really lovely hair.” And then he sat back on his heels and stared at me expectantly.

I’m not really sure what he was waiting for. I cast a surreptitious glance either side of me to make sure there were no hidden cameras. I hadn’t even brushed my hair that day. There was nothing worth complimenting there. I thought about the food I still needed to buy for dinner. I thought about the awkwardness of the moment and how it would only increase if I got stuck in front of him in the checkout line. I thought about the fact that he probably thought he was being nice by interrupting my day to pay me a wholly inexplicable (and unnecessary) compliment, and I thought about the fact that by doing so he was making me deeply uncomfortable. Then I slowly placed the packet of basmati rice back on the shelf, said, “Thanks,” turned around, and left the shop without a backwards glance.

I beat a hasty retreat in all awkward situations. I am basically a human turtle.

Of course, sometimes I’m not given the option of being a turtle. Sometimes I am trapped by wretched misfortune. Sometimes I am on a 6am flight next to somebody who insists on a conversation.

The last time this happened was relatively recently. I’d had to wake up at 4am (which I’m sure you’ll agree is not at all conducive to a pleasant demeanor), and I was looking forward to listening to a podcast and napping on my two-and-a-half hour flight. I decided earbuds wouldn’t cut it, and brought my heavy duty Sennheisers to completely block out ambient noise.

Unfortunately I hadn’t counted on the persistence of my fellow passenger. Before we had even taken off, I felt a tap tap tap on my shoulder. I removed my earphones, expecting the flight attendant, and instead twisted in my seat to meet the smiling face of the man sitting next to me.

“Are you off on holidays?” He asked.

I nodded. “Yeah, just for a week. You?”

“Oh no, I live there now.”

“Oh, nice.” I put my headphones back on. I lay back and closed my eyes.

tap tap tap

I took my headphones back off.

“Do you know anyone over there?”

“Yeah, I have family there.”

I put my headphones back on, feeling a little guilty for being so rude. Still, if I’m honest, there are very few people I would want to have a conversation with at 6am; a stranger sitting next to me on a plane is definitely not one of them.

tap tap tap

FOR THE LOVE OF GOD.

I ripped off my headphones and turned my body to face his. I stared daggers of pure, undiluted hatred straight into his soul. He stared back at me with a bland expression of irritating, energetic cheerfulness. I crumpled back into my chair in defeat.

He talked to me without pause for the next two and a half hours.

It would be more accurate, in fact, to say that he talked at me, as he didn’t seem to require any actual participation on my part. At first I thought he might just be a nervous flyer, and this softened my attitude towards him. I felt a lot better about him tapping me on the shoulder three times when I thought it stemmed from nervousness rather than an obnoxious disregard for my personal space.

“Do you not like flying?” I asked, sympathetically.

“What? Are you kidding? I love flying!” He replied, before launching into an exhaustive list of the many places he had visited.

My juicy grape of sympathy shrivelled instantly, and hardened into a sour raisin of resentment that can only truly be understood by people who are too polite to extricate themselves from these sort of situations.

He told me about everything he had received for Christmas. He told me about his grandmother, his niece, his woollen jumpers, his hobbies. He told me about where he lived, and why. He told me about his parents, his siblings, his holidays. At one point he paused in the middle of a story to point over at a man who was similarly talking the ear off a woman a few rows ahead of us.

“God, look at him. You can tell she’s not at all interested and he’s just chewing her ear off! Poor woman.”

I stared at him. “Yes,” I said dryly. “Can you imagine?”

He shook his head in an agonizingly oblivious show of pity and then continued with his extremely detailed story about his family pets.

By the time we landed, I think I knew almost everything there was to know about him.

I collected my suitcase feeling dazed and wondering once again what it is about me that invites people to ignore the sacred social cue of the headphones. Does this happen to other people with as much regularity? If you’ve had this happen to you, how did you handle it? If you’re someone who has interrupted a stranger wearing headphones… why?

I’m off for a walk now. I’ll be wearing my headphones.

I hope I haven’t jinxed myself.

 

0 thoughts on “The Human Turtle

  1. I feel your pain – I eschew all conversations and interactions but apparently I have a friendly face that invites unsolicited conversation. No-one ever complements my hair though. Which I personally feel is a missed opportunity on their part…

  2. I have this happen to me alllllll the time. With women, it’s usually about my red hair. ‘Is that your natural color?’ Uh-huh. ‘I love that hair style on you. Very chic!’ Uh-huh. The men usually pester me when I’m out at a restaurant by myself, which is usually during my lunch hour at work. The most recent one I posted about on facebook.

    “To the guy who’s never seen a professionally clad young woman: why does it matter if I’m on my lunch break or that you’re never seen me before? It doesn’t, and your attempt at flirting with such intrusive questions is quite unpleasant. Oh, and thanks for the offer to invade my table with your undesired attention (not). I’m perfectly fine dining by my lonesome. In fact, given my options, it’d ideal.”

    Oh… and I <3 turtles (it's almost embarrassing, really), so when I read your title, I got a little more excited than I should have. Thanks for that! πŸ™‚

    1. Oh God. The lunchbreak encounters. I’ve blocked them from my mind. I feel so anti-social typing it out, but I absolutely hate when people break into my time off and then ignore the (very subtle, to be fair) signs that I’m not enjoying the interaction. Your lunch is YOUR time! Why should you have to spend it being polite to someone you don’t know when all you really want to do is stuff your face and daydream?

      Also, turtles are pretty damn awesome so I can’t blame you.

  3. This is too funny! And the fact that he tapped you on the shoulder, not once, not twice, but THREE times makes it that much better! Although, I am sorry…. I’m the awkward one who talks to people in elevators. One time I asked someone if the pizza they were carrying was for me (and I am gluten-free so I wouldn’t have even eaten it if it was!)…. Who does that?! So I have to apologize on behalf of all those like me who like to talk to perfect strangers.. πŸ™‚

    1. Haha but that’s kind of cute! Not slightly threatening…. unless you looked like you might fight then for the pizza? Then it might have been slightly threatening.

  4. LOL. I loved the way you worded this. You must be blessed with one of the inviting faces where people feel comfortable talking to you. Try scowling next time (practice in the mirror before your fligh)t, or you could get yourself an “I Love Trump” shirt; most people will stay away from you then. πŸ™‚

  5. I feel your pain!!! I don’t understand why people find me so approachable, I’m generally making my best effort to not make eye contact as I get flustered when I’m put on the spot and usually say something really stupid.

  6. Some of those guys sounded like they had a crush. πŸ˜‚ I’ve never had this problem because, when I’m in public, I put on a very stony demeanor and I tend to wear black so I think I scare people away. But I’m not scary I swear! πŸ˜‚ I’m just shy and don’t like to talk to people too much so that’s why I do that.

    Anyway, you could have told the man politely that you didn’t want to talk to him. Or impolitely if you’re more like me. πŸ˜‚

    1. I think I need to take some lessons from you! I can’t make myself look scary to save my life. I think part of it is that I’m so short I’m the ultimate in unthreatening. I could have told him I didn’t want to talk to him, but then I would have burned alive from the guilt.

      It’s a no-win scenario!

  7. HEY! I’m not trying to be rude, but I did NOT want to read this blog so please STOP putting it in front of my face! Thank you so much.” πŸ˜‰

    See. That’s how you set boundaries if someone invades obvious private space. For me, the earphones are always a dead giveaway one does not wish to be interrupted. But alas, people are less respectful and polite, I guess. Thus, it takes being firm/firmer to make them understand.

    If this doesn’t work, carry a plastic toy hammer… then pull it out like you are Jane Henry, wife of John Henry! πŸ˜›

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