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The better part of valor is sometimes shutting up I Chuck's World


Last updated 11/1/2017 at Noon

If given the option, I’ll always choose to ring up my own groceries. This has less to do with affection for those self-checkout kiosks, which aren’t all that exciting, than just a general desire to be antisocial. I’m not a fan of shopping, so I try to make it quick and painless. Spare me the small talk, then.

But some of my behavior is preventative medicine. I’m trying to avoid Old Guy Syndrome, an affliction that strikes most men above the age of, say, 50. You’ve seen it, experienced it, and maybe are living with it right now.

This is the tendency of men who‘ve reached a certain age to share their life experience, their wisdom, and occasionally their surgical scars with random strangers, particularly those who are trapped in service industries and can’t escape.

And if it’s a younger woman, or sometimes just a woman, this gets embarrassing. To a man suffering from Old Guy Syndrome, a polite “How are you today?” from a checker is an invitation to intimacy. I’ve seen it a million times, an older man stretching a brief encounter with a store employee into a one-sided conversation about the details of his day, or much worse.

Delusions are strong with these men, so this is what I try to avoid. A woman younger than my daughter is not the least bit interested in anything I have to say. My actual daughter is not all that interested. My wife pretends to be, mostly because I sometimes make her food. This is not a hard call.

So I aim for the least interaction, which, as it turns out, doesn’t prevent my judgment from being called into question anyway.

If you’re standing in line in front of me, for example, you don’t deserve to have me silently critiquing your hairstyle. You certainly don’t deserve to have me writing about it in a newspaper.

But this guy in front of me had made some seriously wrong choices, in my opinion. I was idly speculating on this the other day, wondering how someone ends up thinking this particular haircut was ever a good idea. I wonder if similar decisions have been made with relationships, jobs, tattoos, etc.

None of this would have been anything other than a temporary distraction, though, a little recreational judging of strangers, if he hadn’t opened his mouth.

The young woman ahead of him in line was trying to buy some beer. The scanner had obviously triggered an alert, needing an actual human to verify that she was of a legal age to buy alcohol. She rolled her eyes a little at the delay, in a good-natured way, and that’s when Mr. Haircut offered an opinion.

“Oh, you knew that was going to happen,” he said. “You look about 16!”

She smiled at this. It probably wasn’t the first time; she was on the small side, short and petite, although even someone my age could tell she was probably at least 30 years old, as was this guy. If he’d stopped talking at this point, it just would have been a mildly amusing thing to say.

Men never stop talking at this point.

“It was a compliment,” he added, and then proceeded to explain why, and so on. It wasn’t offensive, just remarkable. This poor guy had a shovel and somehow missed the memo about when to stop digging. The woman seemed to be trying to stifle a laugh. He was flirting, awkwardly, hopelessly, horribly. He wasn’t being rude, just inept. It wasn’t harassment.

So, listen: I don’t get to decide that.

You know what I’m talking about. Everyone who’s been conscious for the past month knows what I’m talking about.

I’m not drawing a line between Harvey Weinstein and this close encounter of the clumsy kind. I’m saying I don’t know how to draw in the first place.

Over the years, I’ve heard many stories from the women in my life, stories of boorish men and uncomfortable situations. I’m not sure I understood that for every one of those stories, there were dozens more, momentary experiences with men behaving badly. The recent news has made me think about this a lot.

And when the #metoo phenomenon on social media exploded, I saw other men thinking. I read thoughtful, respectful articles by men. One of the initial stories in the Weinstein saga was written by Ronan Farrow, a man, in the New Yorker. Men are trying.

I think men should stop talking at this point. I think men should stop digging.

I came home from the store and told this story about the incompetent socialization to my wife. I told her about this clueless guy. I told her I imagined that men released from prison after decades probably had smoother moves than this man. It was funny. She laughed. I laughed.

It was a benign interaction, and of course it never occurred to me to wonder if this woman was uneasy. It never occurred to me to wonder if this guy followed her out to the parking lot. I assume everything was fine, and I have no business assuming.

We can try to understand. We can aim for empathy, compassion, support. We can try.

But I think, for the most part, we should shut up and listen. We should stop excusing, or rationalizing, or dismissing Old Guy Syndrome as cute. We should stop digging and listen.

Some of us should seek out a new stylist, too, although that’s really none of my business.


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