When I think of awkward situations I usually think of silence. You know how it is. You're at a dinner party and the subject of conversation strays into uncomfortable waters. We all know we're not supposed to talk about politics and religion in polite company, but somehow we can't help ourselves and before you know it someone has inserted their foot firmly in their mouth. Pained silence ensues.
I've been in a few situations like that. I've been the source of a few situations like that-- though thankfully not too often.
But what do you do when something really weird happens?
Public outbursts are really awkward in my opinion. I've seen a couple of strange ones at the grocery store. Usually it's a customer that has decided they've been slighted in some way. One time I saw a woman go ballistic because she thought someone cut in line. I stay away from those people.
But sometimes there are situations that you can't gracefully exit from. Here's my personal example. I was at the bookstore last week. I like to wander around the big corporate ones because when I'm done I like to get a chai tea and then sit in the coffee shop area and read a magazine. When I get a laptop I'm sure I'll hang out there even more-- just for the silence. But, let me tell you, it wasn't silent last week.
I did my usual wandering bit and that often involves walking down the aisle toward the coffee shop a couple of times. I noticed a guy sitting right on the aisle-- not because he was remarkable, he was just sort of in my line-of-sight. He was a normal looking guy, wearing a polo shirt and slacks; basic business casual. He had a pile of books and a laptop on his table and seemed to be studying something. No big deal.
So I go over to get my tea and I hear the guy start talking. At this point I assumed he was on the phone. It sounded like he was having a conversation with someone about work and a job interview he'd had recently. Normal, loud-voiced bad cell phone manners. I get my tea and go sit down. He's still talking pretty loudly and I look up to see what's-up; you know, maybe give him a little eye contact and let him know he's talking a little loudly. Then I notice I don't see a cell phone. That's odd. I look to see if he has an ear bud. Nope. Speaker phone? Uh uh.
Apparently he's carrying on a conversation, loudly, with an imaginary companion.
Then he gets up and heads over to the counter. He orders something and then starts telling the cashier his story-- loudly. Something about a job interview. He tells the room that he was the best qualified but that the interviewer didn't see it that way.
I can't imagine why.
As this is going on, another customer makes eye contact with me. A college-age guy was sitting behind our loud talker and starts mouthing to me I thought he was on the phone... I quietly laugh and nod, telling him I thought the same thing. My new acquaintance then picks up his stuff and comes over to sit by me before the bookstore whack-job comes back.
We kind of look at each other uncomfortably and confer over the other guy's behavior. Our conversation mostly consists of do you know what he's talking about? and he's not actually talking to anyone is he? I find out that my new companion isn't from the States and doesn't speak English with total fluency--so he's really baffled. I try to let him know that not all Americans are crazy.
The guy then comes back to his seat. He's facing me and my new friend, so we can't really continue our conversation. Mr. loud talker then resumes his conversation with his imaginary companion-- even louder than before. Everyone in the place is pretty uncomfortable by now.
This is when my danger signals start lighting up. This guy might be totally harmless- but then he might not. We may be seeing this guy unravel before our eyes. I don't know if the guy is schizophrenic or something like that-- though his well-put-together appearance makes mental illness seem less likely. He just seems like someone who has lost his grip and I don't really want to wait around and see what exactly that means.
I feel a slight obligation to the young man who has come to sit by me, but not enough to put myself in personal danger. We kind of trade a few looks, but we can't really talk. I can't concentrate on my magazine, and I'm pretty sure no one else can either. So I decide to bail. I take out my keys and show them to my buddy and he nods. He gets it. He even says, very quietly, good idea. So I take that as my cue and leave.
But I still felt like I should have done something more to make my new foreign acquaintance feel at ease. I'm not sure what I could have done, but I hated the feeling that I was leaving him in a lurch. Maybe he left right after me. I certainly hope so.
I can say for sure that nothing came of that whole bit of awkwardness. There was no news story that day about a rampage in a book store. Thank goodness. But I still think it was good thing that I left. I don't think wanting to be polite is a good enough reason not to heed your instincts in a strange situation. And odd incidents like that remind me that for all of our beliefs in a civilized society, there isn't much more than good manners keeping people from doing bodily harm to each other every day. I mean, think of how often you'd like to smack that rude co-worker, but you don't.
Oh sure, we make snarky comments about people we don't like, but not to their face. Because we're polite like that. And we usually don't carry on loud, one-side conversations in public because that's just weird and it really makes people uncomfortable.
But every now and then someone forgets the rules and the rest of us are left shuffling our feet and wondering what we should do. My rule of thumb? Run.