Last week I noticed someone’s mannerism. I can only write about it now, after the passage of several days has dulled the most viscerally horrifying aspects of it. Thing is, I didn’t realize it was a mannerism, and called the person on it. “Oh, that’s good,” I said, admiring their unusual facial behavior. The person looked at me quizzically, and that’s when I realized the wrong I had just done. In a movie I would be the one with the tall black hat and pointed moustache, and the audience would root against me. Refusing to allow an awkward moment to balloon up between us I quickly returned to the topic at hand, paving over my social disgrace with an equal measure of obliviousness.
But it wasn’t entirely my fault, because I believe that one must be clear when a mannerism is a mannerism, and not merely manner. That is, at least part of the burden for eccentric behavior must lie upon the twitching, spittle-stippled shoulders of the afflicted.
My elementary school librarian suffered from a symmetrical facial twinge that produced, on the order of every 30 seconds, a beastly grin. The laws of social etiquette as far as I understood them dictated that when someone smiled at you, it was polite to smile back. But though this was an ingrained behavior, after falling prey to the librarian’s mannerism one time too many–smiling in response to her facial tic, then quickly turning away as she frowned–I found myself avoiding her altogether. In fact I think that was the year that I finally stopped smiling at people.
Even worse, I worked for a time with a man who stood on his toes whenever he engaged with someone taller than he was. And he wasn’t very tall. It was an obvious enough behavior because you had to adjust your gaze as he rose up before you like a porpoise, and not back away instinctively or allow for a conversational lull. In that way it put the social burden on everyone around him, which is clearly not good form. Maybe it was through subconscious retaliation then that I eventually came to find myself participating in the same behavior.
What must he have thought on that fateful day as he approached me and, calves flexing in an attempt to compensate for childhood issues of stature inadequacy, achieved his brief and triumphant zenith… only to have me destroy his advantage by rearing up in turn. And my feet were bigger than his, so I could actually see his bald spot from my newly superior vantage point. Touché! Of course I realized what I’d done just as the look of shock and disappointment bloomed across his face, and I was so embarrassed that I actually knelt down to tie my shoes. While I was down there avoiding his face I thought of the danger I might be in, a level of taboo akin to waking a sleepwalker. I was tampering here with a short man’s deeply-seated issues of inferiority, and there was simply no telling what kind of barely-restrained madness I might unleash if I weren’t more careful. He might just launch into me as I regained my feet, sinking his incisors into my face as his eyes rolled back in his head.
I have to be extra careful, because I’m a mocker at heart, and I always have been.
In grade 7 I got in trouble for repeating what the teacher had just said using their own unique vocal inflection–a notably accurate depiction I might add–and before I knew what I had done the entire class was called in for interviews, one by one, to catch the culprit. I was so mortified that I convinced myself that I hadn’t committed the act, and the earnestness with which I lied to my teacher-cum-inquisitor was my own special brand of mannerism.
So the other day it dawned at me that I may never be over my propensity to point at things and hoot like a monkey. That’s a harsh reality, and it’s something that I’ll have to manage day by day. But if there’s a social balance to be struck then it’s surely a responsibility that is not mine alone. If you’re going to have a mannerism, it should be something that’s off-putting, and taxing enough to discourage any sympathetic tendencies toward social mirroring. It may even be vaguely sinister for good measure.
My stepfather used to snap his hands spastically as he walked, which was the subject of any number of derisive comments between my brother and myself. Yet I’ll always respect the fact that my stepfather looked just enough like a complete moron doing his rat-tat-tatty white man hand snap to discourage sympathy on any level.