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Burnett's Urban Etiquette

Monday, May 07, 2007

Mysteries of Life

Every now and then I encounter a few of these. And even though none of them involve trying to split the atom, they always leave me genuinely baffled.

Why, for example, do I continue to try to offer explanations with apologies when I have annoyed Mrs. B? No, seriously. I have learned from great men, much older, presumably wiser, and longer married than me that anything beyond "sorry" will be construed as arguing from your wife. And arguing is always a losing proposition for a husband, even if it's usually over how many ice cubes one of you requested or which turn to make during a road trip in which you have no paper map. If you're wrong and admit as much you are inadvertently fueling the I-knew-he-was-an-idiot fire. If you're right and you say as much, you are lording it over her in a nah-nah-nah-nah-nah sort of way. If you had no clue that you did anything wrong and you try to explain as much, you "doth protest too much." And if you had no clue and are silent about it, then you're pouting. I should listen to you old guys. I think there might really be something to the concept of always conceding guilt when the issue is minor, swallowing whatever pride acccompanies that grudging admission, and moving on.

Speaking of moving on, I was watching a TV newscast earlier and the reporter was in a predominantly black urban neighborhood, a neighborhood I happen to be familiar with in a city I happen to be familiar with. It's funny, 'cause this is something Mrs. B and I were discussing casually over the weekend in relation to another story. Anyway, at one point in her brief report the TV reporter found a local to interview. The guy she found? That dude. That dude with the Afro pick sticking out of his hair and the peanut butter and jelly stains on his t-shirt. That dude with a crucial tooth or two missing, and one hand planted firmly on his twig'n'berries. That dude who finished every sentence with "nahmean?" Standing next to that dude? Another black man in pressed trousers, pressed shirt, combed hair, most of his teeth, etc. How do TV news reporters always find that dude when they need a neighborhood resident to talk? What, the guy who looked together didn't fit the preplanned direction you needed your story to take? It's not a race thing. I've seen it in rural, predominantly white towns too- 20 houses on a block, 19 of them firmly rooted to the ground and occupied by people who don't fit appearance stereotypes, and the resident the reporter seeks out is the one whose house could be stolen by someone driving a strong enough truck with a chain and a tow bar, whose Afro pick is a Confederate bandanna, whose "nahmean" is "boy howdy," and whose t-shirt bears the very same PBJ stains. It's like there's a "bad representative magnet" on those TV cameras.

And finally there's the gossip. I have a friendly acquaintance - and that's all I'll say about this person, so as not to give away how/where I know them from, keeping in mind that I play and work in a lot of different places around a lot of different people - who has what I believe to be a genetic disorder: this person cannot help but repeat everything they're told, no matter how inconsequential or how serious. New information eats a hole in this person's jaw. If we were still fighting the Cold War, the CIA could make great inroads in the former U.S.S.R. by whispering a false state secret to this person and giving them a one-way plane ticket to Moscow. And yet, knowing all of this, on those rare occasions when I find myself alone with this person I still say things to them. I don't know why. I should say hello and keep moving. But I don't. I make conversation or at least respond to the conversation they make. It's like feeling obligated after a while to try to make small talk with the security guard you see coming into work every morning. You know that, like you, he just wants to do his job and go home. He probably doesn't give two craps about your take on last night's game. He probably doesn't care how many times your kid made it on base during the weekend's little league game. And he definitely doesn't care what your wife is making for dinner tonight. And yet you talk to him, 'cause it's the nice thing to do. And he smiles back at you and nods patiently at your stories, 'cause it's the nice thing to do. In a twisted sort of way I feel like I have to say something, anything to the gossip when I bump into that person. I really need to learn the art of small talk. I can carry on a great lengthy conversation, I think. I'm bad at small, throw-away talk though. If I was better at it I could talk about the weather or water temperature at the beach with the gossiper and they would never get any ammo from me. I'm a gossip enabler. I'm seeking help.

OK, I'm outta here like Don Cornelius. I have work-for-money to do.

Till tomorrow, my friends.

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  • For simple screw ups you simply need to smack your forehead with your right palm and acknowledge that you are an undeserving clod.

    For major screw ups you need to work up to the fervor of a right wing, holy roller preacher apologizing in front of his congregation after being caught in the company of a soiled dove.

    Face it - we men are always wrong. Even when we're not, we are.

    By Blogger Buffalo, at 10:31 PM  

  • It's a rare thing to watch any news program (even the National Morning news) and see a guest-person be able to put two complete sentences together.

    Maybe its the camera - you know, it adds ten pounds AND jelly stains on shirts AND makes the hair stick out at funny angles.

    By Anonymous Karmyn R, at 11:49 PM  

  • dude, while you should try very hard not to cross that line with the Mrs. understand that all she wants is a heartfelt apology, some sincere effort and the occassional acknowledgement of her status as the Alpha Male in the household.

    Once that has been accomplished she can then tell you what you think and when you can say it with nothing but peace and harmony ruling the household!


    Good luck and remember common sense and a little sensitivity will work wonders.

    By Blogger dennis, at 12:28 AM  

  • I am not a lawyer but I play one in blogland. As such I must suggest you remove the first part of this post. I don't wanna be seeing you on any milk cartons when I wake up in the morning.


    By Blogger briliantdonkey, at 1:55 AM  

  • only the dimwits are stupid enough to talk to the reporters with camera.

    Sorry.. I know you are a reporter... but, some of those people in front of the camera are not anyone I would want to have asking me questions in front of the world (or a small portion of it.)

    They cut and paste and erase and make normal people appear to be dumb. so, instead of wasting time doing all that.. they just head for the dumbells

    By Blogger Pamela, at 3:00 AM  

  • In an ideal world, here's how it would work for men:

    1) If they're wrong and admit as much, they are looked upon as a gentleman.
    2) If they're right and they say as much, they are allowed to gloat for a bit, as long as it works both ways next time.
    3) If they had no clue that they did anything wrong and they try to explain as much, they're forgiven. After all, everybody's human.
    4) If they had no clue and are silent about it, perhaps they are pondering the error of their ways, and are considering areas of improvement.

    Here's how it works in my home:

    1) If I'm wrong and admit as much, I'm USUALLY forgiven.
    2) If I'm right and I say as much, I USUALLY get the eye-roll. (By the way, this is the most common scenario.)
    3) If I had no clue that I did anything wrong and I try to explain as much, the subject is USUALLY dropped.
    4) If I had no clue and am silent about it, it's just assumed I didn't hear it and it's probably not worth repeating.

    By Blogger The Sarcasticynic, at 8:17 AM  

  • I'm a gossip enabler too. I know gossips when I see them, but I just can't seem to stop myself. Like you said, I think this is a function at being horrible at small talk. I suppose I feel that if I'm bored in a conversation (Sure is sunny today! Isn't it though?) then the other person is too...but maybe they're just in gossip enabler recovery.

    By Blogger sognatrice, at 10:18 AM  

  • Gossip enabler? Never thought of it like that till you wrote this and I realized how some folks I know always manage to find a way to get me to say the wrong thing. The stuff that as soon as the words are leaving your mouth, you want to reach out, grab 'em and stuff 'em back inside!
    For the "how to deal" with the other half, if you think it's bad now, wait till you have kids and they are teens! You'll also get the same basic reaction from them over EVERYTHING you do and say.
    And as to the Local "interviewee" at first I was in total agreement until I remembered that I HAVE been an interviewee on the TV news on three different occasions - as well as being interviewed once too by a reporter for the Pittsburgh Trib and now I'm wondering if I looked that way then or sounded that way too! Probably did, especially since one interview was a street passerby interview and the wind was really strong so I was having a doubly bad hair day.

    By Blogger Jeni, at 11:32 AM  

  • I too am an enabler - not gossipers but liars. One of my co-workers comes over to my desk every day and spouts what are clearly lies. Everyday! Sometimes she tells the same lies over agian. But do I say, "I know that's not true. Please stop lying to me every freaking day!" Nope. I just sit there and take it day after day. Can you help me? And on't lie James. : )

    By Blogger Angie, at 12:27 PM  

  • "If you are ever in an argument with your wife and discover that you are in the right, apologize immediately." --Robert Heinlein

    By Blogger BobG, at 1:16 PM  

  • I love it when the stereotypical people defy stereotypes and throw the interviewer for a loop--sort of like when NBC tried, and failed, to find racist people to interview at a NASCAR race.

    By Blogger Matt, at 2:21 PM  

  • As to the missus:

    Many American women are accultured into believing that constant ass-smooching and vetting is what a man must do to keep them happy. Swallowing pride repeatedly in this manner only works as a strategy if you truly love your wife and are convinced you can't do any better than your wife. Otherwise the resentment you will harbor will lead to an eruption or intense feelings of inadequacy that will make your life a small hole. No man should have to take being henpecked unless it's his sex fetish. Let minor things lie, but never go against your core principles. That's what attracted her to you in the first place. She'll lose respect for you if you waver and that's especially if she demanded it.

    As to gossip: the only way to deal with it is use it. You must create a Matrix for your gossip. Tell the gossip ONLY what you want everyone to know about you, good or bad, and stick to that story only. Write it down if you have to to keep the story straight. And then never reveal anything else you may believe or plan to do to this person. Keep their circle of knowledge about you very small and you will always know exactly what they've said.

    Media creation of a story--this should be where you actually have a passion--to make sure that facts as they occur end up accurately in both the story told and the story received. Manipulation of images, words, sounds and occurences to sell for profit is squarely in your millieu. Acceptable limitations on the method of acheiving the goal of selling a story is answered by the ethical standards held by the storyteller. It is an awesome power and you, as a professional storyteller, above all others, should be most indignant when the power to inform is abused to sell an incomplete or misleading image. Bottom line--they sell the story with the toothless bum because reporters and other fact collectors who sell information never ostracize their peers for being cheesy and misleading. In fact, they seem to elevate them to heroic status. I, as a consumer, can choose to turn off or tune out the crudola that passes for news most days. However, the method of telling the story can only be addressed by the likes of you or Rupert Murdoch, Mac McClatchy, the Sulzburger Family, the Graham Family, GE, or any of the other whorishly wealthy people who own the means of disseminating a message to the masses.

    Surely there is a collegial body of some sort where professional storytellers discuss their preferred methods and ethics in conveying facts. Get up, get into it, get involved and maybe Jeeter will get replaced by someone whose family tree forks and Poke Chop gets some dentures.

    By Anonymous Big Daddy, at 2:38 PM  

  • Buffalo, you are so right about being wrong.

    Karmyn R, there is something to the camera altering one's image. I did a little bit of TV back in the day and I always looked like crap in the recording. And I'm not being self deprecating, really. The camera hated me.

    Dennis, sensitivity is my middle name. Actually, Harold is my middle name. But I try to be sensitive.

    Briliant, I'm too big to fit on a milk carton. Seriously, I'm in no danger. Of course, there is a funny white powder on the edge of my dinner plate. Hmmm, powdered sugar, maybe?

    Pamela, no apologies necessary. But your theory of efficiency is interesting. I'll give the TVers one.

    Sarc, I like your apology routine. I might try to follow it for a bit.

    Sognatrice, we should start a support group.

    Oh Jeni, I'm sure you didn't look like a street person to the TV camera. I'll bet just the opposite. We all get a mulligan when we're windblown and disheveled from the weather.

    Angie, I can help you ;-) One day casually call that person out by innocently asking "I thought you said (so and so) was this way, not that way?" Puts the burden on them to either explain themselves, fess up, or slink away in embarassment.

    BobG, I'm gonna print that out and tape it over my desk.

    Matt, I missed that NBC report. But yeah, it is funny to see a TV person try to guide a story only to have the subject behave differently than they wanted.

    BD, no worries. My fellas are still firmly attached. That is a good idea - limiting the "intelligence" I feed to the gossiper. And no worries about engineering the stories. Me and my folks at the Herald don't do that. We find the news and tell it like it is. There are a bunch of collegial bodies. I belong to a couple and am active.

    By Blogger James Burnett, at 8:28 PM  

  • When I have upset/annoyed/befuddled/angered/crossed (just pick one) the wife, I usually just go upstairs quietly or head out back to spend a little extra time with the dog. Generally, i try to say nothing at all...

    By Blogger Michael C, at 8:38 PM  

  • Now that I've regained composure after laughing at the "namean" and "boy howdy" remarks, I can help. Actually, family and friends call my husband Poor Bill, so maybe I can't help. Good luck.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 8:44 PM  

  • What are you talking about with the arguing with the wife thing? We are perfectly reasonable, rational, human beings who are always more than willing to admit when we are wrong.


    By Blogger Queen of Dysfunction, at 10:01 PM  

  • Oh I so agree with Jeni, you just wait til you have teens to handle. One of ours was fine, with the other I always felt, "a mother's place is in the WRONG!"

    Fortunately we all survived.

    By Anonymous bronchitikat, at 6:51 AM  

  • james:

    You have taken the first step down the correct path. Assuming your wife isn't a psychopath and a latent axe-murderor, the "yes Dear" approach is usually the best.

    Now, this can mean many things:
    "Yes, Dear" I will do exatly what you want,
    "Yes dear" I will do what you need done, but i will do it in a way and time of my choosing
    "yes Dear" I will do exactly what I want because what you ask is unreasonable but you will never know any different.

    Any of those circumstances would, among men, be cause for a brief discussion. Between a husband and wife, they could be cause for weeks of the "silent treatment" (good thing they haven't figured out yet that the silent treatment is NOT a punishment)

    So the "Yes Dear" approach in all it's iterations is the path to Domestic Harmony. Believe me when I tell you that Domestic Harmony is the most valuable substance in the universe, bar none.

    By Anonymous og, at 9:56 AM  

  • Whenever I apologize, the gf always goes, you don't "mean that!" And when I don't say I'm sorry right away, I still get in trouble.

    Ugh, I hate fighting.

    By Blogger Evil Spock, at 10:23 AM  

  • Gossip's bad? Since when? *bats eyes*

    By Blogger Christina_the_wench, at 12:16 PM  

  • Wouldn't it be great if there was a conflict resolution class that men and women could take before marriage? It could be a requirement to getting a marriage license. But you, dear James, are getting your relationship education through marriage's School of Hard Knocks. As long as you are a diligent student (and by all accounts you seem to be), you should be fine.

    Yeah, and we women do need to get over ourselves and not sweat our men over the small stuff.

    By Blogger GrizzBabe, at 8:52 PM  

  • "one hand planted firmly on his twig'n'berries"

    Absolutely priceless.

    By Blogger Lee, at 11:49 PM  

  • My first husband used to end an argument with, "You're absolutely correct." It pissed me off to no end.

    What it meant was that I was wrong but too stupid to admit it and he was tired of arguing - and when someone agrees with you, it's hard to continue the argument.

    grrrrr....I still can't hear that without bristling.

    By Blogger SWF41, at 11:13 AM  

  • I simply refuse to apologize when I am right about something. Maybe it's a character flaw?

    The reason the media ALWAYS finds THOSE people is because that who they want. The pass on all the normal and regular people who don't follow the stereotypes.

    By Blogger Jay, at 4:47 PM  

  • I know I'm coming in on this late, but my husband has the perfect solution. He agrees with anything I say and does what ever the hell he wants. I know it, he knows it, the kids know it. It doesn't pay to fight. I learned his trick and now I do the same. We have the perfect marriage. Oh, I hate gossip but I can small talk from now to doomsday. It's a gift like a singing voice.

    By Blogger wordsonwater, at 9:55 PM  

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