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What I Should Have Said
Fixing my goofs, gaffs, and faux pas by writing about them on my blog lol
I have a condition. When participating in perfectly ordinary human interactions I sometimes get an excruciating, overpowering, inexplicable impulse to defuse social tension that does not exist. I over-explain. I flog dead horses. I mispeak and generally implode under self-imposed pressure to say something incredible and charming and self-effacing and disarming and smart and likeable, especially during low stakes conversations with strangers.
This condition is debilitating. I’ll just be sitting on a train minding my own business when bam, some mortifying memory of a botched social encounter will thunder back into my conscious thoughts and make every muscle in my body cringe. It’s physically painful. And sometimes, as I stew in a shuddering ball of embarrassment, I’ll get struck with a divine bolt of lightning, with that most holy of epiphanies for the socially awkward, and think: ‘Well, shit, obviously What I Should Have Said was…’
There is currently no known cure for Chronic W.I.S.H.S.ing—some doctors don’t even acknowledge it as a “condition” per se—but I think it should at the very least qualify me for a support animal. A talking parrot, maybe. One that can interject with premeditated zingers whenever a perfectly ordinary human interaction starts to go sideways.
Here are just five quick examples from the literal infinitude of awkward encounters that are kicking around in my brain at any given time.
Love Thy Neighbour
The Scenario: I live in the second row of a block of stacked, identical townhouses. The back half of units enjoy a small communal grassy area that the landlord mows once a quarter. For the purposes of the story, and for no other reason, I also need to tell you that I get nipple chafing when I run. I’m only human. A few weeks ago, after pounding the pavement at a good clip in the Summer heat, the chafing was so excruciating that I took my shirt off on the street, a few minutes from home—this was a display of bodily self-confidence that I would never ever do under normal, chafe-free circumstances. When I entered the complex there was a young family playing with their dog at the far end of the lawn. I was disgustingly sweaty and red and breathless and weak-kneed from the run, and I had to walk a long way, totally shirtless, to get past them, becoming increasingly viscerally embarrassed with every step. When I got closer, the mum said to me, ‘Looks like you worked hard!’ as a bit of banter. Tongue in cheek. A throwaway line. I am not on comedic (or, for that matter, any kind of conversational) terms with any of my neighbours, and I see this moment as a golden opportunity to carve out a niche as the self-effacing, quick-witted funny guy in Unit 13. It is hard to be these things under fatigue. My pulse is pounding in my eyeballs. I can barely breathe. After quickly culling a whole bunch of joke ideas, my brain decides that the best options are ‘You don’t know the half of it,’ and ‘Anything to work off the Christmas kilos,’ which in late January was no longer an acceptable topical reference. My brain then proceeds to get confused and try to say both sentences at the same time without consulting me.
What was said to me: ‘Looked like you worked hard!’
What I said: ‘You don’t know anything.’
What I Should Have Said: ‘No, ha ha, I’m just unfit! Anyway, have a good one.’.
The Outcome: The blunder is not immediately obvious to me, since I am still dizzy from the run. When I realise, mortified, that I have just told my neighbour, with a sort of breathless desperation, that she doesn’t know anything, she is already busy talking to her dog in a cutesy baby voice. I cannot stomach interrupting this and go quietly inside.
The Scenario: I’m in the office. Monday morning. To my profound embarrassment a colleague has announced to the room that everyone should be especially nice to me as it was my birthday on the Sunday just gone. Everyone looks up from their computers and smiles and asks that most awful of office cliches, ‘What’d you get up to?’ I say, of course, ‘Trouble.’ Light corporate laughter ensues and I think I’m off the hook. Later in the day, in the kitchenette, a different colleague (who we will call Dale) seems to apparate out of nowhere with spirited well-wishes while I’m concentrating very hard on the three-day old pesto pasta I’d brought from home, trying to work out if it’s safe to eat because it doesn’t taste all that great.
What was said to me: ‘Happy birthday!’
What I said: ‘You too. Can you just give me a minute, please, Dale? I’m trying to work out if this pasta is going to kill me.’
What I Should Have Said: ‘Thank you.’
The Outcome: Though this ‘You too’ and subsequent aggressive rejoinder are small booboos that could be easily fixed, my head’s been so spun around by the horrors of the working day, not to mention the potentially toxic pasta, that I just stare at Dale, agog, mouth no doubt full of pesto, and say nothing for five seconds. He eats his lunch at his desk.
Get a (Better) Grip
The Scenario: In the gym, a man is bench pressing somewhere in the region of 80 kilograms, and is very focused and grunting a lot. It’s a narrow passage but I need to get past the guy and so, out of respect, I make a big over-the-top show of moving around the bar. I’m not sure if it was a gust of wind from the fan or some weird aspect of my flamboyant dodging technique, but my gym towel very lightly slaps against the edge of the bar as the man is mid-rep. Though I think he’s being a little dramatic by shaking and swaying and saying ‘Woah, woah woah!’ and grunting extra hard, given the weight of the towel relative to the weight of the bar, I appreciate that I’ve distracted him a little. Plus the towel slap made a funny sound. With yet more swearing and commotion he re-racks the weight and looks at me furiously. He does not, technically, say anything.
What was said to me: *Huffing and puffing like a rhinoceros about to charge*
What I said: ‘Whoopsy daisy.’
What I Should Have Said: ‘I am not responsible for the actions of my towel, sir. Need a spot?’
The Outcome: I go to a different gym now.
Does Garbage Taste Good?
The Scenario: The complex I live in has an underground car park where the bins are kept. It’s bin day. I’ve just spent two hours in an online zoom meeting where I said almost zero words, and I’m feeling very abstract and existential. I also feel like I must speak as much as possible in the next five minutes or I’ll explode. As I’ve said, I’m not very chatty with the neighbours. While I’m dragging the recycling up to the street as if it is Sisyphus’ stone, a geezer I’d never seen before peels out from the wall and interrogates me. I panic.
What was said to me: ‘Are you sure it’s yellow bin week? I can’t remember.’
What I said: ‘Do you think that bins enjoy being full of rubbish because it's, like, their ultimate purpose?’
What I Should Have Said: ‘Hello, sir, nice to meet you. I live in Unit 13, and I’m sort of the self-effacing quick-witted funny guy around here. I am not entirely sure but I think it might be the yellow bin week, yes. Why don’t I go up to the street and check what everyone else is doing? Then I'll run back down and let you know. Pleasure talking to you.’
The Outcome: I have no real memory of the reply the neighbour gave, but I am absolutely one hundred percent certain that he did not laugh. Pretty sure it was green bin week, too.
Anything From the Trolley, Dears?
The Scenario: I don’t normally use a trolley at the shops because I don’t have a car. I’m a basket guy. A one-bagger. My parents had graciously loaned me a vehicle for a short stint and so I thought the Grown Up thing to do would be a Big Shop late one Wednesday night, to get as many ingredients and rations as I possibly could and then cram them all into a single measly shelf in the sharehouse fridge. I love driving the trolley. Ever since I was a kid I’ve enjoyed getting a big run up and jumping up on the back of them to zoom down the aisles, drifting around the corners where safe to do so. As I was fanging down the pasta aisle I encountered a man who was being similarly reckless with his trolley, and our two wrongs made a really big wrong. Both of us tried to dodge the other and both of us overcorrected, and the result was a loud clanging head on collision. I thought saying something funny in a stern deadpan would bond us as brothers. It did not.
What was said to me: ‘Sorry mate, lost control.’
What I said: ‘Watch where you’re going!’
What I Should Have Said: ‘No problem, mate, me too. Hey, just so you know, there’s some great deals on toothpaste in aisle nine.’
The Outcome: The man walked past me without comment or eye contact. In a cruel twist of fate we find ourselves next to each other at the self-service checkout. To this day I have never made so many basic scanning errors with my fruit and veg, and I was so horrifically incompetent that eventually the Woolworths assistant just stood directly behind me, sighing loudly, saying ‘No,’ and swooping in every time I did something wrong.
That’s it for today but, believe me, there’s more. An interesting observation you may have made is that in almost every scenario, What I Should Have Said was nothing at all. A smile and a nod could have solved every social snafu listed above. Will I learn and apply this lesson? Probably not. Since writing this story a few weeks ago, I very loudly said “Haha, loser!” to my girlfriend in a busy restaurant when I beat her card to the Eftpos machine, and the restauranter and a few nearby tables looked at me in silent horror.
If you have committed any comparable social faux pas please email me about it so I feel less weird. Thank you.