Archive for August 2017

Ghastly-Brewer and the rudeness of rejected bids

August 15, 2017

A couple of days ago, “journalist” and all-round ghastly person Julia Hartley-Brewer tweeted:

My Uber driver just proudly told me that his car has “zero emissions”. I replied “I couldn’t care less.” Now he’s looking sad. #fromAtoB

People asked her why she had to be so rude. She responded:

“I was perfectly polite and friendly.”

I’m a bit concerned that some people might be doubting themselves at this point. “Maybe the posh lady knows more about etiquette than I do? Maybe what she said really is acceptable?” Nope. I can’t speak about other cultures but I can say with absolute authority that responding to a piece of information with the words “I couldn’t care less” is fucking rude.

Why? Because when the driver offered her that piece of information, it was a conversation-opener. It was an invitation to respond.

Drs John and Julie Gottman came up with the concept of “bids” to describe when someone in a relationship reaches out to their partner for affection/attention/approval/whatever. They claim (and I believe them) that how you respond to bids is the strongest predictor of whether or not your relationship will go the distance.

Of course, people make “bids” in other contexts too, not just romantic relationships. I’ve written in the past about social initiative, about the difficulty and importance and underratedness of making the first move.

“I’m no Oscar Wilde myself with my conversation-openers; it’s usually something along the lines of “Great to see you here,” or “What are you drinking?” or “God, it’s a bit cold today, isn’t it?”

And nine times out of ten, the other person will recognise the lifeline you’re throwing them. They don’t care if you’re pointing out the obvious about weather or traffic or the décor. They just see the smile and the intent to welcome and they appreciate it. They will grab that lifeline and before you know it, you’ve got a conversation going. And, again before you know it, other people are joining in, people who were terrified to make a move before.”

But no first move will work, no “bid” can be successful, if you’re in a one-to-one conversation and the other person chooses to reject it. And – make absolutely no mistake about it – saying “I couldn’t care less” is a rejection. It shuts the conversation down before it’s begun.

Obviously the really polite thing would be to show some interest, however mild. (Last time I got a taxi, the driver started out with some boring story about cricket and my feigned mild interest meant that he got on to some interesting local history stuff.) It’s not like you’ve got anything else to do while you’re trapped in a metal box with this person. But sometimes your social barrel is empty and you really can’t summon up a proper response. As dozens of people pointed out in Julia’s mentions, in that scenario you just say “Oh” or “Right” or “That’s nice.”

I know some people prefer the “absolute silence” gambit, because you get a bit of plausible deniability. Maybe you didn’t hear! Maybe you replied appropriately and they didn’t hear! Maybe you’ve gone into a psychic trance and any minute now you’ll have ectoplasm coming out of your mouth followed by this week’s winning lottery numbers. But I personally find the silence thing kind of cowardly and annoying – you’re forcing the other speaker to second-guess you. So I go for the standard British nothingy response.

“This widget looks like a 23-B, but it’s actually a 22!”

“I managed to get 10 packets of mince nearly half price. It’s not the mince I normally buy, but I expect it’ll be similar.”
“That’s nice.”

“Looks like Crystal Villa are going for a six-way transfer in the mid-season boilerplate.”

I’ve already written a whole blog post on ways to respond politely when people talk about sport and you literally can’t understand what they’re saying, but they all require a bit more energy and imagination – I’m talking today about when you’re completely tapped out.

So what do you do when you really can’t bear to hear any more about the widget? When you’re afraid that even the most half-hearted “Oh” will open the floodgates and send forth a stream of thoughts on mince?

I’d say: go with the bland nothingy response and then change the subject immediately. The only way to reject a bid or kill an existing conversation without looking rude as fuck is to immediately do some work of your own. Show interest. Ask a question. Make a bid.

“The thing with cheap mince is it has a high water content, so you have to be careful when you’re cooking it…”
“Yeah. So have the kids started their holidays yet?”

“You get all these 22s that look like 23-As and 23-Bs and would you believe, the lads in the shop can’t tell the difference. I say to them, ‘A 22 is oblate and not spheroid!’ but you’d think they had jam for brains.”
“Oh dear. Has the Queen ever come in to buy anything?”

I mean, bonus points if your new opener has any relevance to what’s been said already, but don’t sweat it. The key thing is that you do the work. Saying “I don’t care” or “I’m not interested” is a refusal to do the work. It is an asshole power move based on the assumption that the other person is not as important as you.

Someone as well-brought-up as Julia Hartley-Brewer almost certainly knows all this. She knows when she’s being rude and she’s choosing to be rude.