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.

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