I used to delight in being mean.
The focus of my anger didn’t really matter – a bag boy at the supermarket, a friend in conversation, a bus driver – as long as I vented my spleen at just the right moment. It was infamous and much-lamentedtrait of mine for many years; even Gina would roll her eyes when she saw that i was headed for a blowout.
Over the past few years my capacity for nastiness has been on a steady decline. Even when I summon up a decent fit of rage I usually swallow it, or at least soften the blow. And, not just for the benefit of my friends.
Over the summer I went to see The Descent, and in the fairly packed theatre I sat next to a friendly, cow-eyed middle-aged woman and her companion. She seemed like a decent enough neighbor, though during the previews she occasionally talked back to the screen. But, so do I.
As the movie progressed the talking-back morphed into a non-stop commentary track punctuated with pleas to her companion, like “I don’t know why you brought me to see this,” and “oh my god, you can’t leave me alone to go to the bathroom, I can’t take it. I just can’t take it.” I threw a few sideways glances her way, but she was oblivious in rapt, babbling horror.
Finally, during the first truly grisly scene in the movie her babbling transformed into incoherent gibbering screams, either at the characters on screen or just for her own benefit. Either way, she was significantly louder than the theatre’s surround sound, and I was not missing part of the movie just to get an usher.
Calm and collected, i turned to face the incoherent beast.
“Could you be quieter than the fucking characters in the movie?”
I immediately regreted venting at this creature of an obviously lower personal fortitude than my own. She turned to face me with her horrified, watery cow-eyes, mouth working open and closed like a guppy. She had no verbal reaction, just the “blurp, blurp, blurp” of her jowls working.
Over time my peers have developed an immunity to my scathing remarks, but clearly I had destroyed this creature’s will to live. I had to do something to bring her back from the brink.
“I’m sorry, you’re just really loud.”
She kept guppying at me, accompanying the guppying with her watery wide-eyed stare. I tried to go back to watching the (excellent) movie, but her stare kept nudging me in the side of the head.
I had become more horrifically transfixing than the golum-monsters on screen. I had ruined her movie experience with my meanness. She just wanted to go out to the movies and yammer like a mental patient because she has no coping mechanism to deal with horror but would be the oldest kid in the theatre for The Ant Bully. Who was I to impose society’s artificial standards about being quiet at the movies on her
As the on-screen violence continued I calmly, sweetly, turned back to my (still-staring) neighbor. One of my professors was a fan of a communications theory where other people would agree with you more strongly if you aligned your bodily reactions (like rates of breathing and blinking) with theirs. It was time for a field test.
I carefully matched her cow-stare and her guppy-breathing until I felt that we had reached a state of true simpatico. Gulping down some air and willing my eyes into giant, mooning saucers, I whispered, “I know, it’s really scary.”
Borderline cow-woman bit her lip and nodded at me. I bit my own lip and nodded along. I had established a connection. Slowly, still maintaining eye contact, still in-character as a cow/guppy with borderline personality disorder, I turned back towards the screen.
As if by magic, or a complex system of gears and pulleys, she also turned back towards the screen. I completed my turn in slow motion, finally breaking eye contact when it felt as if my pupil was going to slide back into my head.
She didn’t make another noise or even remotely glance at me for the remainder of the movie, or afterwards when we filed out. Yet, it was a pyrrhic victory, because I felt the need to temper a successful flare-up at a stranger who was screaming incoherently at a movie screen with an apology. You know, so her feelings wouldn’t be too hurt.
Old-school me would have pressed my attack until she ran sobbing from the theatre.
Of course, I wouldn’t have accumulated any good karma that way.
I like to think that present-day me strives to at least break even on karma, which means i only get to be unapolgetically nasty to someone who really deserves it. And, much to my chagrin, talkers at the movies, along with litterers and people who smoke next to you at the bus stop, are just innocent bystanders minding their own lives.