Archive for category: Barely Socially Acceptable

I Talk to Strangers in Elevators

21 Aug 2014
August 21, 2014
People in elevator

I talk to strangers in elevators. But not just to any stranger. I pick and choose, depending on the elevator, the mix of people, and, of course, if I have anything to say. Our time together is short and there must be some connection to our shared experience riding up or down. Not quite an elevator pitch, but a close relative. Timing is everything.

It might be Monday morning. No eager beavers on Monday morning. “Thank God it’s Friday,” I might say. I’m often the warm up act for the week. And, if I’m lucky, I’ll get a chuckle. Out of complete strangers. Friday afternoons, it’s a virtual party as office after office empties out for the weekend. Everyone is jovial, anticipating two days off, and talk is cheap.

Yesterday, after getting my morning coffee, I was standing in our office lobby waiting to be whisked upstairs. Another woman and I waited as the elevator door opened. Out walked a coworker of mine. As she walked passed me she smiled and asked, in that perfunctory fashion, “Hi, how’s it going?” Of course, my answer was preordained, no matter how I felt. I replied, “Great.”

The two of us, the stranger and I, got on the elevator: me to the 3rd floor and she to the 5th. As we began our assent, I turned to her and said, “I’m really not great. But this is the ‘Truth Elevator.’ You must tell the truth in this, and only this elevator.”

She laughed, but had nothing to say.

The Theatre of the Barely Socially Acceptable, Act 14

07 May 2013
May 7, 2013

Private space, like the telephone booth, has become extinct. People now carry on their private lives as if they were on a public stage. And, most interestingly, they don’t care who hears their phone conversations. This was the genesis of The Theatre of the Barely Socially Acceptable. You might enjoy past acts of drama, culled from Washington, DC’s Metro and other street level amphitheaters.

A hard day at the office, I had a half hour ride home on the Metro before I began my hard night at home (two teenagers, need I say more?). As the train went above ground, the woman to my left immediately dialed her friend.

Yeah, I’m coming for a visit. My grandfather died last week and they’re having a “Celebration of Life” on Saturday. I’m going to buy my ticket as soon as I get home. Yeah, really.

That was sad. I felt sympathetic. My day wasn’t as hard as I thought. She continued.

Oh, guess what? Remember my dad had three strikes? Well, after nineteen years he got out of prison last Thursday. Yeah, he missed his dad’s death by three days.

That’s when I noticed she was talking really loud, like she was in her own house. Most people who exhibit barely socially acceptable tendencies do. That’s when I pulled out my iPhone to begin writing this all down. Despite my proximity to the perpetrator in these cases, they never notice I am hanging on their every word. Usually, I look around to see if I’m the only passenger who’s noticing. Sometimes I make eye contact with others and shrug. Sometimes I say to my fellow observers “She probably doesn’t realize she’s in a public space.” When I do, the person in question never takes note, they are so focused on broadcasting their own lives. She continued.

My family doesn’t understand. They want me to hang out with them after granddad’s funeral. But I wanna go see my dad.

What’s to understand? It’s my dad and he’s been in jail.

Okay, as soon as I buy my ticket I’ll call you. Yeah, bye.

I wonder what my daughters say about me. How many strikes do you think I have? Whatever they say, I hope they say it quietly.

Anatomy of an Encounter: I Could Be Wrong

15 May 2011
May 15, 2011
No Smoking

I thought the facts made me right. Image by spelio

As I stood in a long line at the ATM outside my bank I smelled smoke. It came and went and, after a while I started to look around for the smoker. At first, I couldn’t spot him but finally noticed the man right in front of me was holding a cigarette behind his back as he conversed with the woman in front of him. When I was young I had a severe form of asthma with no help, I’m sure, from my parents’ 1950s smoking habits. Luckily, I grew out of the disease. But to this day, I relive those years whenever as much as a simple chest cold impedes my breathing. So you can see why I don’t like inhaling secondhand smoke. Rather than passively accepting my fate, I’ve started to be a little more proactive when it comes to this part of my health. I watched him for a while, assessing his approachability, but decided not to pursue it.

Yet, I really didn’t want that smoke wafting in my face. I felt I was being held hostage in line. The next nearest bank branch was a few miles away and my lunchtime was almost up. And, yes, he was shorter than me and dressed in a business suit with no visible tattoos but you never know with smokers (okay, to be fair, you never know with anybody). I took a few steps back to catch my breath and consider my options. “Please don’t say anything,” I told myself. “Remember when you nicely asked a woman smoking just inches from a restaurant door to please move away? Don’t do it.” Suddenly I heard myself saying, “Excuse me, would you mind not smoking in line?” And with that I stepped over to the other side.

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Flattery Will Get You Everywhere

12 Dec 2009
December 12, 2009

For the last year I’ve been getting email newsletters from the dealership where I bought my car. Although my Volkswagen is over nine years old the dealer wants to keep in touch with me. Naturally, they want to keep me loyal to their service department and, when it’s time, entice me to buy a new car. I understand and appreciate this as part of good customer service.

I like hearing about the new VWs and car safety. But the newsletter also clearly includes fluff pieces about new recipes, pushing one to try new experiences like skydiving and trapeze school, and must-see movies for 2010. None of these have anything to do with my car or any automobile. This had been bothering me for a while and a few days ago I finally wrote to give them some feedback.

“Dear Newsletter people,” I wrote. “I enjoy reading about updates to the VW line of cars. Keep sending those. However, I would like to give you some constructive feedback on other non-VW related pieces in your newsletter: I’m really not interested in them and, quite honestly, they dilute the value of your newsletter. Articles about the kitchen seem to be “filler.” Are you getting these from some newsletter story repository? Anyway, keep the germane articles but ditch the unrelated ones. Thanks.”

I subscribe to the PNP Sandwich School of Constructive Criticism: positive-negative-positive. I enjoy; I’m not interested in; keep the good. Wrapping criticism around some positives helps the other person hear what you’re saying. And that’s how I constructed my email to them.

A few days later I received this response from Mike:

Thank you for your thoughts, Jeff. Your instinct is absolutely correct… an outside company who works with Volkswagen creates the basic newsletter. From that template, we add our own content and try to customize it for our customers. We do this by writing articles and adding… specific coupons / savings programs. But you’re very observant to conclude that this came from an outside source. In fact, I will forward your message to the newsletter company. We always appreciate customer comments and recommendations. Thanks again, Jeff.

Unfortunately, Mike forgot to delete the comment his boss made in response to me:


It was nice that he wrote to tell us his thoughts. I’d write him back and tell him that his instinct was correct—that an outside company who works with Volkswagen creates the basic newsletter, and that we try to add our own content to it to customize it for our customers. That way, he’ll realize that it’s not just us—and that he was extremely smart and intelligent [emphasis theirs] in knowing that the newsletter was from an outside source. To make him feel even better, you could tell him that you’ll forward his comments on to the newsletter company.


I am observant. Most of the time. And, yes, I like being told I’m extremely smart and intelligent on a weekly basis. But flattery, Mike and Bill, will only get you so far. You didn’t get my point. Passing my comments on to the newsletter company won’t make me feel any better. Don’t blame them. But telling me you’ll include only auto-related articles from now on will. And that’s what I wrote them, using my patented PNP sandwich of course.

Oh, and re-read your emails before you send them to me, Mike. Yes, that will make me feel a lot better [emphasis mine].

The Theatre of the Barely Socially Acceptable, Act 13

14 Jul 2007
July 14, 2007

As she boarded the Orange Line train for the burbs she sat down and immediately opened her David’s Bridal catalogue. Ever on the lookout for my next episode of The Theatre of the Barely Socially Acceptable, I surreptitiously observed her behind my iPod-induced playlist (always good camouflage). She quietly thumbed through the pages and I returned to India.Arie’s I Am Not My Hair. Suddenly, above the beat:

Hi, it’s me.
I’m looking at the bridal catalogue. Do you have it in front of you?
Oh, I’m sorry. Do you want to talk about it? Men.

Well, ok. Now are you still set on brown for the bridesmaids?
Oh, and do you want the necklines to all be the same?
The V-Neck I tried on at the bridal shop wouldn’t work for me –too low cut–
It would show my cleavage.

I turned my volume down just a bit.

But you want Stacie to look good, right?
Yeah, even though we hate her we don’t want her to look bad.
You don’t want everyone saying
“Yikes, she looks really bad!”
and draw attention away from you.
Right, all eyes should be on you.

Scoop neck? That’s perfect for me.
And just about perfect for Stacie.

The Theatre of the Barely Socially Acceptable, Act 12

23 Apr 2007
April 23, 2007

Monday morning commutes, by almost unanimous vote, are reserved for quiet transitions from the weekend to the work week ahead. So when riding the subway this morning I and those around me were jarred by a gentleman bellowing into his mobile:

Jim, we need to re-key the locks today. But I don’t know if we should have one lock or two on the front door. And, if two, should they use the same key?

He went on to discuss the merits of both with what must have been his contractor while the man next to me turned and said “It’s always so disturbing when someone talks that loud. I can’t concentrate on my newspaper.” Of course, I commiserated for you know how I feel.

He finally hung up and we thought that peace had been restored only to, once again, be awakened by his second broadcast, this time to his wife:

Honey, we need to re-key the doors today. Should be have two locks on the front door and should they use the same key?” What about the back door?

He noted his wife’s instructions and hung up. And, of course, he immediately made his third call back to his contractor while all of his fellow commuters nearby groaned. I tried to make eye contact but, naturally, he would not look my way. I turned to the man next to me and told him I had found a set of business size cards online that said in an elegant typeface: STOP TALKING. These would have been perfect in this situation. He laughed.

Jim, just talked with the wife. Let’s go with the two locks for the front door and one for the back. Yeah, that’s right. Different keys. Ok.

As he ended his final call he finally looked up and noticed he had acquired an audience. “Oh, was I talking too loud?” I said.

“Let’s put it this way,” I replied, “we all agree that you should go with two locks in the front, one in the back and they should all be keyed with the same key.”

He quickly made his fourth call of the morning.

© 2001-2015 Jeff Gates ISSN 1544-4074