On the spectrum of sharing personal matters with others there are those who wear their hearts on their sleeves, for all to see, and those prefer to keep their hearts’ desires contained well within the confines of their rib-cages (the latter being the position that seems, to my admittedly undertrained eye, like the anatomically appropriate location). By nature I am of the more restrained category, preferring privacy over effusive sharing, but with age, regular therapy and many rebukes from past girlfriends, I’ve tried to become a more open and forthcoming person.
For better or worse I often seem to attract those who, from my perspective, like to over-share personal information. I’m not talking about close friends, for whom I like to think I will always have an open ear, but am instead referring to more distant relations: acquaintances I run into at a party, customers in the restaurant where I work, fellow riders on the city bus, someone I stand in line next to while purchasing a burrito. In short: virtual strangers.
I’m not sure why this is—it’d be nice to attribute it to something positive about my personality: I’m a really great listener! People feel very comfortable around me!—but as affirmations of such statements would be more aspirational than reality-based, for now the roots of this will remain a mystery. Suffice it to note that it’s not uncommon for me to extend a common pleasantry, such as, How are you today?, and receive in response a deluge of overly-intimate information. I don’t simply mean a response that is disproportionally long to my inquiry; I mean one that is substantively incommensurate with the question.
To wit, I offer the following story, which, like many good stories, as well as large swaths of my life, is simultaneously sad, funny and plenty awkward.
One night last week I worked with Tom, who’s new to our restaurant. I’ve worked with Tom only once before and talked with him briefly at a staff party. Based on the little I know of him Tom seems like a rather quirky guy: he’s rather oafish, with a lumbering gait, a goofy smile, and eyes that are at once cocaine-wide and Droopy-Dogged. He’s not especially great at his job—he once ran a plate of raw scallops to a table and proudly announced to them that their dessert of panna cotta had arrived—and as such doesn’t fit in well with the rest of our staff.
Tom’s also the sort of person who, in my mental typology, I think of as a Jim. A Jim is one of those people whose conversations always involve banal statements of the obvious—Sure is sunny today; That bicycle was black; Those police sirens are loud—the issuance of which permit only the most limited of responses. All you can usually say in reply to their commentary—If it rains we’ll all get wet out here—is a pithy Yep, a sighing Mh-hmmh, or a wordless nodding of your head.
I was polishing some glassware when Tom walked in, set his keys down and mumbled something that I didn’t catch. I turned to him and said, and t’s important to note, in what perhaps will serve as a warning for the attentive and morally inclined reader, that this is exactly where I made my fatal flaw: I’m sorry, I didn’t hear what you said. Please let me remind the reader that up to this point in my life I’d perhaps spoken with Tom for a total of six-minutes and twelve-seconds, which only complicated matters when he looked at me and said,
Ryan, I don’t want to be married any more.
I would like to pause and, in a spirit of wanting to assist Tom and others like him who might think that this is an appropriate thing to share with someone who is, for all intents and purposes, a complete and total stranger, suggest a list of other conversational openings that are in the same vein of “I don’t want to do x- any more,” any of which would have been more appropriate to hear from Tom in that moment:
The Mariners suck so bad this year I don’t think I can cheer for them any longer;
My car keeps breaking down and maybe it’s time to get rid of it;
I’m really disappointed in the new Metallica album and I don’t think I’m going to listen to their music any more.
Now, back to the story.
To remind the reader of the situation: I am at work, where I am working; in walks a new co-worker with whom I’ve spoken the fewest of words; as an opening statement to our night together he proceeds to tell me that he no longer wants to be married to his wife, and then he calls me “Ryan.” This is the behavior of one of two types of people: a mad genius or an inappropriate sharer. Sadly, Tom is most definitely not the former, and in response to his statement all I could think was, But my name’s not Ryan.
I mumbled a long Ummmhh… Its duration was such that entire species of animal-life went extinct and ocean levels rose several feet before it was completed. During this time I thought about correcting his misnomer (for those of you first-time visitors who didn’t notice the address of this website, it does not involve a Ryan), but when I weighed being called by the wrong name against the solemnity of ending one’s marital relationship, I decided to bite my tongue. Eventually, having found nothing else to say, I muttered, I’m sorry
I’ve not provided a grammatical ending to the above statement because when I loosed it I purposefully sent it into syntactical lingo. It was both a consolatory acknowledgement, a plea to end all future communication between us and a wrinkle-eyed question asked to determine if he’d really just said that to me. Sadly, Tom only heard the latter part, though he failed to catch any implications that his over-sharing may have been unsuitable, and instead took my comment as an invitation to detail the recent fights he’d been having with his wife.
I won’t trouble you with the particulars: where Tom lacked the tact to contain the shortcomings of his personal life I shall not, though let me assure you that his stories were copious and full of minute detail (an attention to which, I couldn’t help but think, might have been useful during the whole scallop/panna cotta snafu, as well as our current conundrum in which he had called me by the wrong name).
I sighed. My exhalation was of nearly equal length as my previous Ummh. In the restaurant new customers had been seated. Food needed to be run to tables. Somewhere glaciers were melting.
Eventually I muttered something aimed at changing the subject while also providing some fragile sense of hope, something feeble along the lines of, Maybe this will be a good opportunity take a break from your home problems by focusing on work.
Enthusiastically, as if I’d just provided him with some great and wise insight, Tom nodded, slapped his paw on my shoulder and said, “You’re right. Thanks for listening, Ryan.”
I didn’t have it in me to correct him. All I could think was, Sure thing, Tommy. Sure thing.