Memoirs of an Extremely Eccentric Person
It’s Only Funny on TV
Psychology of Communication
Apprehension, Intra and Interpersonal
November 2, 2009
2nd Edition February 20, 2011
“We had the kind of relationship where we laughed and laughed and laughed all the time. Do you know what it’s like to laugh like that?” This quotation from Airplane II (Koch & Finkleman, 1982) perfectly describes the kind of relationship I always aim for with every person I come into contact with no matter what my perception of them is or whether it will be appropriate or appreciated. I view my world as though it were a live stage. Most of the time I behave as though I’m being filmed, and I receive a lot of satisfaction from reciting quotations from movies and television when they bear some relevance to the given scenario at the time. It’s like turning reality into an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000! Here are a couple of examples adapted to my own situation: “Roger doesn’t got what they call the social skills… They people don’t understand him. That’s why he never have any friends, ‘sept for his mamma!” Billy Madison (Simonds & Davis, 1995). “But the thing of it is when you go down that road; here’s Roger, an emotional being, cooped up since high school with no one to talk to, none of the socialization, the emotional growth that comes from contact with other emotional beings… What happens if Roger gets lonely?” Sphere (Crichton & Levinson, 1998).
This is one of my favorite eccentricities about myself. I’m a clown; an eccentric clown – which is pronounced caloon! My personality is permanently stuck on the overkill setting and I love that about myself. Anything, anywhere is an opportunity to make people laugh. I get a kick out of taking everything beyond it’s limit. For instance I have the urge to put huge tires on all my cars. I’m also rather large and loud which makes me pretty scary when I start to act up. (I scare people!) I’m always saying random things and aiming for the shock factor; like, *sniff* “I’m sorry I stink. I think I missed my arm pits when I put my deodorant on today.” Or, “I’m sorry I’m so stupid, but my mom dropped me on my head when she was giving me a bath . . . last week.” One time I went up to my boss and said, “I have a confession to make. Every customer that I’ve delivered to since you hired me here, I’ve asked if I could use their bathroom; even if I didn’t need to go! And if they said yes, I would say that I didn’t need to go right now, but I’d come back later. Was that wrong?”
Speech apprehension or general communication apprehension; obviously I don’t have any problems getting up in front of people and taking the chance that I might make a fool of myself. I’ve always been a class clown, so I’ve always been trying to be the center of attention. I quite honestly don’t care whether people or an audience is going to accept me or not, I’ve always got the urge to never hold back on something that comes to my mind. This tends to be a personality deficiency with me and it translates into a communication deficiency. To quote the text book Beyond the Psychology of Communication quoting Larry Steward, “speech and personality are related” (Johnson, Blomberg, Curran, 2007). This condition puts me on the opposite side of the spectrum from apprehension to “excessive utterance.” Like Ian Malcolm from Jurassic Park, I “suffer from a deplorable excessive personality.” (Kennedy & Spielberg, 1993). I think I could have been a character from 3rd Rock from the Sun.
The problem with being a class clown is not so much speech apprehension as it is the likelihood that the speaker would go too far for a laugh and do or say something that would either shame themselves or frighten or alienate their audience. Here’s my personal term from the text book in chapter 5: “excessive verbal output” which “indicates a disturbed personality" (Johnson et al., 2007). I don’t know why those words make me smile, but they do! However it’s not because I’m nervous trying to hide my insecurities behind my speech. It’s because I‘ve got so much to share and no one to share with. I want to make people laugh. The difficulty is that ever since high school, nobody seems to get me. I don’t think I’ve ever been as well received or appreciated since.
Sometimes I think if I had manly skin, black hair, and cheekbones people would be more receptive of me. But no. I have this red hair and freckles, fair skin and round face. Nobody calls me! Nobody writes! Nobody ends up on my door step asking to go out and party. It’s prejudice, I’m telling you! Nobody’s ever going to elect a red head for president because we're goofy looking and weird. “We bring it upon ourselves, but that doesn’t mean it’s O.K. We just, we kind of, you know, we’re just kind of like – nyaa.” Home Movies (Snyder & Bouchard, 1999). Did you know that red heads make up only 2 percent of the world population? Talk about minorities. You owe me restitution! (I scare people!) Even though my physical attributes qualify as a self esteem issue as identified by Stanley Coopersmith in his book The Antecedents of Self Esteem, it’s obviously a subject that I don’t use as an excuse and I actually use it as another joke!
Upon recognizing that I have had no friends since high school, though, an analysis of my behavior has revealed some interesting phenomena in the psychology of communication. I’ve discovered that the scenarios people laugh at on TV are only enjoyable because they’re within that unreal, safe context; therefore, people who mimic in real life the behavior they observe on television are less likely to create rewarding relationships or to find themselves excepted by society. For example, Dick Solomon from the sitcom 3rd Rock from the Sun (Burrows, 1996) often overreacts to minor inconveniences with loud, emotional outbursts which are designed to make an audience laugh. But I found out that whenever I pretend to flip out in public it in fact frightens people!
An instance of this occurred while I was at work delivering pizzas. The employees at my restaurant ordered from Subway. I’m not a usual Subway customer so I don’t know how to order from them. I typically end up receiving a half sandwich; a slab of meat between 2 pieces of bread. This time I looked for the best looking sandwich on the menu and ordered it. When my sandwich came and I saw that it was half a sandwich; a slab of meat between 2 pieces of bread, I said in my loud, male voice, “I ordered a foot long.” Then I shouted, “Why didn’t I get a foot long?!” This was an adaptation of “Why can’t you just give me a snack pack!?” from Billy Madison (Simonds & Davis, 1995). Although my coworkers were already familiar with my eccentric personality and knew that I was just being silly, they still were visibly shocked. Then my boss shouted back at me from the other side of the restaurant, “Roger this is a family restaurant, not a day care!”
There are several issues at work here. First, if my coworkers had never seen the movie Billy Madison they would have not been able to make the connection to my performance and the line from the film. Since we wouldn’t have shared this intrapersonal meaning, my words would have lost their purpose (Johnson et al., 2007, p. 233). Misinterpretation is the result. Second, the social context where my verbal outburst took place, that being at work, made it unnecessary and inappropriate (Goss, 1995). Leiter says “the setting gives meaning to the talk and the behavior within it” (1980, p. 139). Unfortunately this particular kind of social inappropriateness is one of the highest forms of comedy in my mind. This is a situation that I almost never would fail to take advantage of.
Here, we see the importance of social context and shared experiences on the success of communication and their result on relationships. People either see me as illogical because they lack the shared experiences that would help them give meaning to what I say, or they see me as socially tactless and want to have nothing to do with me. In order to understand that there is logic behind the things that I say and appreciate how people could misinterpret the things I do, it’s important to take a look at what inspires me to communicate. Littlejohn describes this process as schema (1996, p. 199). It’s how a person assembles information in their mind in order to understand and respond to the messages they encounter.
Being the middle child, I have a natural desire to be the center of attention. As a class clown in elementary school I was highly motivated to make everyone laugh. In fact I remember one of my teachers jokingly compared me to a laughing hyena once! The analogy was accurate. While I was growing up I enjoyed an awful lot of television; (but never too much that my grades were affected. I was an A, B student.) There were a lot of early and mid 20th century comedians who were significantly inspirational to me. I adored Buster Keaton for his pratfalls, the Marx Brothers for their unpredictable bizarreness, Red Skelton, Jerry Lewis, and Danny Kaye for their overall buffoonery and goofiness. Notice, though, that these comedians were from the early part of the century. No wonder I had a hard time identifying with people my age! More generation appropriate influences were Jim Henson, Jim Varney, Jim Carey, Adam Sandler, and Eddie Murphy. I didn’t just enjoy their acting; I assimilated their gags into my own personality. Eddie Murphy, for example, in Beverly Hills Cop (Bruckheimer & Brest, 1984) had this explosive, testosterone heavy laugh when he ran the red light and left the police stuck in the intersection. Upon adapting this trait I’ve found under the right circumstances that it produces an incredibly satisfying endorphin release!
The impact of these celebrities has resulted in what I define as a double take artist. I possessed the will to sacrifice my own wellbeing for unpredictable, spontaneous behavior. It’s thrilling to me to imagine what a person’s response will be when they hear or see me do something unexpected. Our text book calls this phenomenology; “the study of meaning from the perspective of the perceiver” (Johnson et al., 2007, p. 237). For instance, I was in the men’s bathroom at college one day and I noticed that there was a lot of traffic out in the hallway. So the next time the door opened I did a voice impersonation of Hank Hill and shouted in a frustrated, throaty tone, “I have a narrow urethra!” King of the Hill (Schultz, 1997) and the students outside laughed! In this scenario, the people listening obviously were familiar with what I said. It had meaning for all of us. The combination of this shared experience with the sound of the dialogue echoing out of the men’s bathroom in real life resulted in an unexpected “semantic overlap” that produced an instantaneous understanding and humorous result which was appreciated (Johnson et al. 2007, p. 239).
Someone described me once as an exhibitionist; not a flasher, but the type of personality that feeds off of the shocked responses of others. One time while visiting a school in South Carolina, I approached a random group of students and asked one of the girls there if she would go out with me until she saw me again. She said sure! I’m still going out with this stranger. Another case of spontaneity happened once after a Friday evening of delivering pizzas. My boss allowed me to take a pizza home that was made by mistake. On the way home I ended up driving next to a car load of crazy teenage girls. They saw that I was a delivery guy and yelled out of their windows that they wanted pizza! So I instantaneously rolled down my window and handed off my box full of pizza to a complete stranger at 35 miles an hour. I’m still deriving a lot of satisfaction from these events.
We can analyze the success of these examples using Thibault and Kelley’s (1952) approach to the Social Exchange Theory in which the concept of cost and reward are applied to interpersonal communication. The Social Exchange Theory states as long as the rewards outweigh the costs of contributing to the relationship, the people involved believe that the association is worth continuing. The cost to my pride in the given examples was considerable had there been any kind of failure of delivery. However, the rewards were definitely fulfilling for both me and my audiences. But interestingly enough, everyone in the examples were complete strangers and the efforts never produced any lasting relationships. Performing for strangers is exciting, but the opportunities to do so are rather seldom. And what happens when there are no beneficial rewards for anybody? What happens when people are no longer willing to accept the terms under which I want to communicate? According to the theory there would no longer be an incentive for dialogue and the two parties would cease to communicate.
In the social context of junior high and high school, students appreciated the things I said and did. The kids I grew up with had to learn to understand and get along with each other in order to be productive. Some of us even learned to reflect obnoxiousness off of each other. In fact one of my best friends enjoyed the same random, exhibitive traits that I had. Do you remember the cartoon series Tazmania? As scary as it would be to imagine one tazmanian devil in the room, in my class there were two of us! Most of our teachers learned to keep us separated. But when one of us would do something weird, probably without thinking about it, the other would observe it then respond with a similar action. Then the first of us would notice that and reply in kind. This would go back and forth subtly until we became so keyed up that something exploded interrupting the class and one or both of us would be sent from the room!
Unfortunately when one leaves a high school that they’ve attended for years and years, the friendship environment is never going to be the same. Since graduating I’ve found myself surrounded by people who don’t share the “same sign-symbol-code" system (Johnson et al. 2007, p. 241) that I developed while growing up which has made it impossible for me to recreate the kind of relationships that I use to have. It continues to be my goal to transform reality into a television comedy but it appears that most people are too mature any more for slapstick and laughing hyenas. Acting silly or talking about movies is beneath them. I use to go to social events and tried as best I could to reach out in my usual extroverted, exhibitive manner. But without going into too much detail I would always end up, to quote Reginald Barclay from Star Trek the Next Generation, "alone in the corner trying to look comfortable examining a potted plant” (Berman, 1987). I actually would often leave events feeling dejected, ostracized, unvalued, and honestly wanting to kill myself. I confronted one of my mentors about it once and they said I was just eccentric.
You can understand after a long, unbroken series of patterns like this after high school, a person would begin to withdraw from society. I actually don’t like to go to parties anymore. I ended up protecting myself by completely avoiding public meetings. I began to busy myself with my own talents and hobbies. This did cause me to become self motivated. But on the other hand I became really reclusive. I’m a completely different person alone. I only act up when I have people to perform for. When I’m alone I’m never very funny, and I’ve been alone for so long I’ve actually noticed that my spontaneity and instant recall have slowed dramatically. Now when I am around someone who initiates silly behavior, I blank out, never responding the way I use to. This is a self perpetuating problem! Isolation has caused inhibition to develop inside me. I’m afraid that if I ever come across someone potentially important to my future I would react too slow or not at all and miss an incredibly important opportunity! I use to think that the best part of going some where was getting kicked out. That sense has been dying a slow death for over a decade now.
Although there was this one time I took a chance and went to a barbeque. I ended up sitting across from this skinny blond girl who had an explosive personality. She pretended to talk with a Jamaican accent. That was inspiring! But my acting skills were so rusty that I wasn’t able to start in with my own accent the way I wanted to. Somehow, though, the conversation at the table ended up on lines from Disney cartoons. I looked up at the silly, skinny, blond girl and said, “Do you remember this one?” Then I pounded the table hard with my fist: BANG! BANG! BANG! And I shouted, “I thought I told you to come down to dinner!” This scared everybody at the barbecue and they all stopped eating. (I scared people!) But without hesitating she answered, “I'm not hungry!” “You come out or I’ll . . . I’ll break down the door! - It would give me great pleasure . . . if you would join me for dinner . . . please.” “No!” “You can’t stay in there forever.” “Yes I can!” “Fine! Then go ahead and starve!!” Beauty and the Beast (Trousdale & Wise, 1991). This is what I wish life was always like. If I had a family, there would be a lot of rage acting like this. I haven’t seen that girl since. . .
Now, since I no longer have friends who share the same hunger for silly or bizarre public behavior inspired by a heavy influence of comedy television, I’m more likely to spend that untapped energy around the only other people I’m ever in contact with which are my fellow employees. And since this behavior unnerves rather than attracts them, I’m less likely to create friendships. Although my coworkers eventually come to realize that I am harmless, they have to tolerate me due to the necessity of cooperation rather than show any real appreciation for me. And since I get rewarding endorphin releases from the acting out anyway, it doesn’t matter that people want to be my friends or not. Communication has largely been a one man show for me.
I am a free thinker; not the God defying type. I’m simply driven to stand out as noticeably distinct from everybody else. I absolutely refuse to ever use verbal clichés. Like Guinan said on Star Trek: The Next Generation, “The idea of fitting in just repels me“ (Berman, 1987). As most people do, I wondered why I was the way I was and tried to find the cause for what I was experiencing. My grandmother told me a story about my father when he was a young boy. One day all the kids in his class were each given a stuffed animal; a white sheep. When his teacher discovered that my dad had colored his sheep entirely black, he felt that grandma should be notified. Surprisingly, he asked her not to discourage this kind of behavior. He realized that my dad had been inspired to be creatively unique. Although I never had a close relationship with him, I found out that my father was a free thinker too!
Goss (1995) points out three perceptual tendencies people have: closure, familiarity, and expectations. I realize that my unique view and approach to the world makes these tendencies difficult for people. It’s so hard for people to make a link to my own intrapersonal meanings that it overloads listener’s ability to create closure. My behavior is so unfamiliar that they’re unable to identify with me. And I have made it my art to give people the exact opposite of what they expect to see and hear. Research has opened my eyes even further to the possibility that I’ve continued to act as if I were still in high school while others prefer to be more mature. Like Michael Scott from the sitcom The Office (Atalla, 2001) I’ve lived in my own world and tried to make interpersonal relationships in the work place which end up bordering on inappropriate.
The first step in healing is to recognize that there is a problem. I realize I have a problem with tactfulness. The next step is to adjust one’s self image to that of the person they are highly motivated to be. This is personality change. Don’t allow your reputation be defined by uncontrolled speech or actions. For instance, when I was younger I would impulsively, under some sort of bizarre inspiration, do or say things to make everybody laugh. But then I stopped and looked at myself like I was watching myself on TV. I realized I didn’t want to be known as a pervert or someone who would cause another person harm. I think this is a valuable exercise to watch yourself as though you were on TV. There use to be this series that I watched when I was a kid called Rescue 911. And I’d always get so frustrated watching the kids play with fire and the gas can. I would think if these kids could only see what they were doing they would have realized that they were about to have a catastrophe and could have avoided it. Stopping impulsive behavior is difficult. You can’t do it without having the motivation or inspiration to change.
After you poses that, it’s like trying to change the way you sneeze. One time I saw somebody on TV that had a funny sneeze and I wanted to incorporate that kind of gag into my personality. I said, “Ok. I want to sneeze like this. So next time I need to remember to sneeze like this.” The first time, I sneezed normally. Later I remembered, “Ooo! I wanted to sneeze like that.” The next time I sneezed I didn’t remember until just after I sneezed. I said, “Ooo darn! I forgot to sneeze like that!" The next time I sneezed I remembered right in the middle of my sneeze so it came out like achppppth. Finally the next time I was about to sneeze I remembered and said to myself, “Oh boy, I’m gonna sneeze like this! Here it comes! Breathe in – hp tp TP TP, and – ACHPB PB PB PB PB!” And that made everybody laugh!
From the steps I’ve described we’ve learned to recognize a problem by looking at ourselves. Get motivated by visualizing who you want to be and adjust your self image. Then stop impulsive behavior through practice. The end result is speech control and personality change. You will be one of the beautiful people!
I am able to see now that if I want to successfully relate to people I need to be willing at least to adjust my personality to the proper level for the given location (Trenholm & Jensen, 1992). This requires me to analyze what kind of people are around me and to be sensitive to how others see me. My personal principle still remains. I refuse to pretend to be a personality type that I’m not in order to fit in. I’ve tried it and it’s more painful than isolation. Even though I refuse to lose this blissful aspect of my personality, it may be necessary to reassess how I perceive myself (Kenny, 1994). “For who could ever learn to love a beast?” As Dr. Blomberg says, “This imagined view of oneself in a position incorporates standards of conduct and achievement within a particular context that are likely to be consistently attained” (Johnson et al., 2007, p. 232). I am a real life actor after all. I should be able to pretend to be normal. Until I discover a friend who has a similar background in television and the same passion for public horseplay, I’m going to have to acquiesce to the fact that for most people it’s only funny on TV.
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