Thursday, April 29, 2010

A Violation of Unspoken Rules

In certain cultures, games, sports, and situations, there exist unspoken rules. Though unspoken, most folks tend to be aware of these rules and follow them. Granted, it does take newcomers a period of adjustment and assimilation during which they learn the unspoken rules, but after a while, they too tend to fit right in. At least, most of them do...

Take, for example, personal space bubbles (NOT a euphemism for farts). For Americans and other western cultures, the personal space bubble is loosely defined as an average of 24.5 inches (60 centimeters) on either side, 27.5 inches (70 centimeters) in front and 15.75 inches (40 centimeters) behind ( This is the space westerners like to keep between them and an every day conversation partner. It means we feel weird and slightly violated when the person we're talking with is inside that bubble.

Other cultures, however, have smaller personal space bubbles and feel dissed if they're not closer than that. So the close talker in Seinfeld could have been from a close talking culture, or they could have just been violating the unspoken rule for westerner's personal space bubbles. If I remember correctly, it was pretty clear the close talker was just a local oddball, but I like to give people the benefit of the doubt.

Now for a more personal, real life example of unspoken rules.

I play lead trumpet in the Brookline Community Band (a.k.a the First Corps of Cadets Band...long story). BCB rehearsals have unspoken rules that are common to every band I have personally been a member of in my lifetime. These rules generally address when it's ok to talk between playing, how to enter when you're late, and even music-related rules (but I won't drop the music nerd bomb on you because I still want you to like me). There is one member of the band, however, who hasn't picked up on one of our more subtle rules: 1. Don't turn around to stare at someone while they're playing a solo. This person seems like a nice enough guy and a good player, so I don't want to get down on him, but man, is it distracting!

The first time it happened, I was playing a solo and our then new band member turns around, I thought simply to identify who was playing, make some sort of mental note (perhaps "trumpet soloist has large eyeballs"), and turn back around to listen. Because after all, that is what music is all about: how it sounds, not how the person playing it looks. I mean, I'm not performing interpretive dance back here while I play my solo, just breathing and buzzing my lips. It's actually a little unattractive. So I took it in stride the first time, thinking, "oh he's just new," but it kept happening. And not just to me, to other soloists also. It wasn't stealth either, as each time he blatantly swiveled around in his seat, craned his neck, and adjusted his glasses as necessary to stare at the soloist for the solo in its entirety.

Because I like to give people the benefit of the doubt, however, for the next couple of months I reasoned away the weight of his eyeballs on me at solo time. Maybe he was just studying my embouchure or wanted to see how I breathed to prepare for a phrase. Maybe he's a visual person and looking at the soloist really enhances the experience. Maybe he thinks I'm pretty. (I later ruled out "maybe he thinks I'm pretty" based on the fact that playing the trumpet makes you visibly less attractive.) Maybe he used to sit in a place where you could see the soloists at all times in a previous band (and was therefore stealthier and less noticeable in his soloist staring) and, as a result, is used to being able to see the soloist easily. Now, at a bad angle, he has to swivel around in order to see and doesn't know there's an unspoken rule against that.

I stopped on the last part of that sentence and thought back to the close talker. The close talker didn't know they were a close talker. Maybe my band mate doesn't know they're a soloist starer and that gives people the "no" feeling?

In truth, I can only speak for myself when I say it gives ME the "no" feeling, but even so, how can I let him know? With a close talker, it's a little easier. Moving back a step, averting eye contact to show discomfort, turning to the side to avoid facing them, and other nonverbal signals and body language corrections might just send that desired signal, "please, you're in my bubble." But what can I do to gently signal my discomfort while reading music and playing a solo? I can't meet his gaze and make him feel awkward by holding it as long as possible because I have to read my music. I can't say anything (like, "I'm sorry, did you say something?" or "can I help you?" or "did you need something?") because I'm playing a wind instrument.

So, now four months into this, I find myself in an ongoing, not-quite fixable predicament. I mean, sure, I could address him directly after rehearsal, but I’m not quite sure what to lead with. "Please stop staring at me" seems too direct, and “would you mind facing front while others are playing?” sounds like a teacher’s reprimand. I suppose I should let it lie and get used to it. Maybe it’s character-building or something, despite the “no” feeling and the violation of unspoken rules.

Wait a minute. Do you think he might be trying to change the unspoken rules? Wouldn’t that be just crazy?! Picture it: Everyone in the band turns around to stare at you while you’re playing. Brrr, creepy! That’s a lot of eyeball pressure! I hope that doesn’t happen! I'm going to have nightmares now.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Memory Monday (except that it's Saturday): Random Childhood Flashback

I recently watched the Marriage Ref because, let's face it, I was curious. It was one of the earlier episodes, and highlighted in it was a fight over whether the wife should be allowed to keep her deceased first husband's urn and prosthetic leg in the house. Immediately, I was transported back in time to age 6...

As you may know by now, I grew up in CT as a part of a large, close-knit family. Our agreed-upon family policy on birthdays was to celebrate (with parties) the birthdays of my generation through age 16. Whenever we had birthday parties at my house (for me, obviously), all of my cousins would come over and we'd all play together. Usually, we were told to "go down in the basement" because there were so many of us that I'm sure the calm to chaos ratio was far from manageable. Down in the basement, the chaos was allowed to build on itself as we all ran around in the unfinished land of sporting equipment, canned goods, a furnace, antique farming tools, old furniture, and various home and yard products.

One of the games we would play (you know, when running around ceased to satisfy and our innate need for rules in play became apparent) was haunted house. There would be two teams. After the long and drawn out process of choosing sides and then finding the most perfect names for these teams, we were ready to play. Playing entailed one team (let's call them the Avengers, as that was a popular choice) waiting at the top of the stairs as the other (let's call them Wayne Power- inspired by Dwayne Wayne or Wayne Gretsky, I'm not sure, but both are equally likely) set up their haunted house. When team Wayne Power was ready, the Avengers would have to walk through the haunted house. After every member of the Avengers had been through it, the teams would switch. At the end, we'd loosely discuss whose haunted house was scarier.

Team Wayne Power usually won, as their scare tactics included not only the use of antique farm equipment and the old rocking chair with the hole in the seat, but also the use of my grandfather's first prosthetic leg. Avenger after Avenger would walk by the bag where we kept Poppy's leg and scream as it appeared to creep closer and closer. At the time, my grandfather, Poppy, was still alive and partying upstairs with the rest of the adults. Looking back on this event after his passing, however, makes it seem all the more ridiculous. Especially since we kept all of his prosthetics after he updated to newer, better models. I can't imagine the fear we would have felt for three legs creeping our way.

Flashing back to the episode of the Marriage Ref, I can understand why that woman would want to keep her deceased husband's legs; we did, after all, keep Poppy's for quite a while. That being said, it's still inherently creepy. What if her kids are playing haunted house with it?