Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Oh The Ironcy

The year is 1993. I am making a whopping $6.25 an hour as a delivery driver for a local pizza chain, a then unheard of amount for a driver, but it was a small perk of stepping down from being an assistant manager. So what was I doing at 22 years old dropping out of a (mediocre) career path and not replacing it with something cooler, such as, say, college? Making $30,000 per year, that's what I was doing. How so? Delivery reimbursements at $0.75 each, the $1.25 average suburban tip, and about 35 deliveries per night. It works like this:

$6.25 x 40 = $250 in taxable pay per week, plus
($0.75 + $1.25) x 35 x 5 = $350 in cash, making
($250 + $350) x 50 = $30,000 per year, assuming 2 weeks of unpaid vacation.

So I averaged the same pay that I was getting as a manager, with a significant reduction in stress. Basically, I did so well for myself driving my car around town and listening to books on tape that I had no motivation to give up my lifestyle and live like a pauper, whether from working fewer hours and attending school, or from the giant pay cut I would take in an entry level position at a "real" company. I did the latter a couple years later, but all of this detracts from the anecdote. The point is, there I am, flipping pizza and observing the antics of my fellow man.

The head manager of the store I worked in, John, had a sycophant assistant manager, Debby, that was taken with him in a mad, unrequited love, and hung on his every word. One of my fellow manager-come-drivers, Dave, worked in the store with the three of us. Dave was sarcastic and aloof, and rarely had an honest conversation that wasn't full of double meaning or disparaging undercurrents. He was our local Stephen Colbert, the brilliance of his antics being lost on the people around him, who thought him simply ignorant and grouchy. Naturally, I liked him.

One day Dave had a conversation with John and Debby that they recounted to me, to illustrate that Dave wasn't as smart as he pretended to be. I don't remember the details of the conversation, but the punchline was Dave turning to Debby and saying "That's ironcy for ya'", pronouncing irony as "eye-ron-see". Debby gave him a puzzled look, and he shrugged and bobbed his head in a mock self-deprecating gesture and said "OK, Debby, ironcky", pronouncing irony as "eye-ronk-ee". Not exactly high comedy, but for something spur of the moment, it was still pretty good.

I insisted to them that Dave knew very well how to pronounce "irony", and this was an elaborate case of playing country-dumb, that John and Debby were both supposed to understand was an act. They would have none of it. No, Dave went around using words incorrectly because, despite his indications otherwise, he isn't any smarter than we regular folk.

I didn't understand then why they couldn't see the encounter as a gag, how Dave correcting himself with another incorrect word was typical of him being silly to pass the time. Were John and Debby incapable of that type of abstraction? I didn't think so. Were they threatened by Dave and latched onto every opportunity to vindicate themselves by making him out to be stupid? I swayed between those two beliefs until recently, but now I think something else was going on.

I think there is a class of people who can't read minutiae -- subtle gestures, inflection, pauses, facial tics, and some more intangible cues. Some of us can see them, others can't. Most people read each other just fine in normal social interaction; for example, people can tell right away which smiles from members of the opposite sex are cheerful, and which are amorous. Most people can tell when a toddler wants to be picked up, whether an upset person is angry or only sad, and dozens of other normal human things. However, some people can't read the subtleties, or the meaning someone is trying to broadcast if it falls outside of the basics, unless they broadcast very strongly and unambiguously.

Put simply, some people can't "feel" that the other guy is being sarcastic unless it is grossly overdone. If I'm right about this, then I have my explanation of why the world is so loud to me and my ilk. If I'm right, that explains why most popular stand-up comics are the ones with the wildest mannerisms or atypical voices. Think about it: Sam Kinison. Mork. Rodney Dangerfield. Carrot Top. Buddy Hacket. All people with broad appeal, and all a little over the top in their own way. But not Dave. No, he had to stick with pizza until he put himself through school.

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