Monday, October 18, 2010

On Being Asked One Particular Unkind Question, and How to Respond to It

I live close to the college I recently graduated from, and for a lot of good reasons. My brother and sister still go to school there and I have a number of friends still in attendance, so I have been on campus frequently in the last couple months. The problem is seeing the people at the school whom I don't anticipate seeing, and the probing questions that come with these chance meetings. I can tell at a distance whether or not I am in for trouble. Initially, if a person I know (but not well) recognizes me while I'm around, their face will do a few things sequentially:

  1. Eyebrow raise of surprise
  2. Smile of recognition as they begin approach
  3. Smirk of deviousness as they formulate invasive query
It is best to remain staring at them for the duration of this process, so as to be sure about intentions. Sometimes people only want to say "hi, how are you?" but typically it does not end there, and it's the smirk that can tip you off to less-benign purposes if you're aware of the common tactics of the misanthropic.

So, the tractor-beam has been activated and you have been pulled into the orbit of an acquaintance who decides en route to you that they want to remind you of as many of your insecurities as is possible in a forty-second window. Any impulse that would propel you towards physical violence at this stage must be put down. The problem ought to be taken care of in a more creative and diplomatic way.

They approach and enthusiastically greet you: "HEY how's it GOINNNNN?" but the one incongruous element of their expression corroborates your developing theory on their intentions - the single raised eyebrow, the corner of the mouth upturned in a way that escapes the dictates of normal friendliness, the total lack of color in their irises.

You exchange the usual niceties. Yes I am well, are you well? Good. Yes. Classes? Great, oh those sound so interesting, I wish I would have been smarter with my schedule when I went here as an undergraduate student ha! And you are doing several wonderful extracurricular activities that is so good!

This is the kiss-or-kill moment, as it were. If your life has a face, your interlocutor has two options for what to do with it:

  1. Kiss your life's face: confirm your value as a human being, allow the conversation to end on a pleasant note, ask what kind of work you are doing, how your brother and sister are, etc.
  2. Kill your life's face: "so what are ya doin around here (*sweeping arm gesture*)? Just hangin' around? Hangin' on?" 
God confirms his love for you just the slightest bit more if your acquaintance goes the first route. Something else happens if they go the second.

Assuming the worst, you may choose between a number of possible responses to your acquaintance's decision to make themselves temporarily your enemy.

  1. "My brother and sister go here still and I'm working part-time for a professor who's working on a book, actually." (Low Strength Response, Not Deceptive)
  2. "Haha, no, actually; I'm candidating for an adjunct professorial position for which I'm inexplicably well qualified." (Medium Strength Response, Moderately Deceptive)
  3. "I'm actually interviewing students for a fascinating project being done by Notre Dame sociologists on social and emotional immaturity in 18-24 year olds; would you like to be interviewed? You will be able to take one free book home from the library if you sign this consent form and talk to me for a half hour about the most uncomfortable aspects of your romantic life!" (Medium Strength Response, Moderately Deceptive) 
  4. Ignore question, pose embarrassing counter-question - "so what was it like to find out that you were on academic probation after getting busted for cheating on all those tests?" (High Strength Response, Not Deceptive)
  5. Punch acquaintance and leave. (Prohibitively High Strength Response, Not Deceptive)

After it goes down, it will be important for your friends to cover for your having acted out, if you chose a higher-strength response - for them to offer something to the tune of "he's having a really hard time right now," or "I know how easy it is to interpret that in a specific way, but in light of his ... condition, it's actually the wrong way," or "here's five bucks if you promise not to talk about this to anyone."

The more justified you feel in being around campus after graduating, or in being around anywhere generally, the easier it will be to field unkind questions as to why you're "hangin' around." In this case the higher-strength responses will become less and less attractive as well. So next time you recognize the pattern in the approach, remind yourself of a job opportunity and run out to go pursue it. Or, if you have a job - well, then, just stand there squarely and let the condescension break over you like the waves of the sea on an ancient weathered stone.

And you know, there is the possibility that your acquaintance didn't intend any harm, anyway - in which case, I owe a lot of apologies...


  1. "Oh, I was hoping to run into you! See, as part of my spiritual journey, I chose to 'hang around' in order to cultivate forbearance. I knew you'd be around here somewhere. Go ahead, ask me another one!"

  2. Low Strength Response: "I'm going to punch you in the head."

    Medium Strength Response: "I'm going to punch you in the kneecap."

    High Strength Response: "Somebody gonna die."

  3. I have a job as a staff member and I still feel weird and vulnerable on campus even if the current students are okay with it. It doesn't matter how justified you are objectively in settling in an alma mater's area; there will always be lingering doubt as to motives if you're an alumnus (or alumna).

    Why is it unacceptable to stay in the area because that's where your social network is anyway? I can be friends with fellows and ladies younger than me if I want! Whoever has decided otherwise is/was dumb.