Our Own Personal Clichés

This is pseudo-psychology based on nothing more than life observations then applied to your (and my) favourite subject; Nirvana. With that proviso, what I’ve noted is that an average day can be divided down into a relatively limited range of human interactions. Firstly, there’s functional communication — the generic greeting of those in service functions designed to set a positive context for the transaction required and rarely extending further than “good morning/hi/how are you? Have a nice day, thank you.” The next level up is the associate/colleague category in which, whether in a personal or professional situation, one is talking to an individual with whom one shares only a limited range of subject reference points. The result is conversations that stick to a socially approved set of topics; “how’s work?” “How’s has the week been?” “How is *insert name of family member/location of property/holiday reference, etc.*?” Then, beyond that, there are the higher level interactions that can be anchored either by a deeper awareness of someone else, their awareness of you, or simply by a liking or interest related to a specific topic.

OK, so far, so good, so what? Well, moving from simply reiterating that the majority of conversation is taken up with social pleasantries most people will develop a series of pre-fabricated conversational elements, the things they use by default. Lengthier and more varied divergences can evolve from any of these points but both an introductory and core component of any individual’s conversations across an average week will have a surprising quantity of repetition and redundancy built in — uniqueness is rare. It’s a natural consequence of reporting our experience and interests that a certain solidity occurs — no different from a band’s set-list:

Dilbert_Social Pleasantries

Kurt Cobain used and recognised at least two of his own regular short-hand responses. Firstly, he claimed he used “here we are now entertain us”, the famous line from Smells Like Teen Spirit, as a way to introduce himself at parties in the late Eighties. It’s a neat, goofy, context-specific reaction to get over the initial discomfort and force a response from the target audience. Secondly, in 1992 he grew used to answering inquiries with the line “I hate myself and I want to die.” In each case there’s a deliberate short-circuiting of social niceties. The intriguing point is that these conversational strategies were matched by his desire within certain songs to wed socially acceptable scenarios or points to unacceptable or unsavoury elements whether scatological, violent, medical, emotional. Floyd the Barber remains the perfect example of this kind of juxtaposition — Kurt’s lyrics were so pure an expression of his life and gut feelings that the same approaches are present in each. The whole requirement to issue social niceties was something he acknowledged, and resented, so deeply that two songs, Blew and Come as you Are, were written wholly around it.

As an aside, Kurt extended this distain for social pleasantry into other realms. The work of artist Gerhard Richter was based around a belief that photographs and artworks contain a fundamental lie — the model doesn’t feel anything, they simply portray, forever more, the emotion the artist chooses to draw for them. The same thing happens in photos, people smile as a reflex or because they’re told to — it doesn’t necessarily link to what they’re thinking or feeling. Kurt Cobain made a point of the unsmiling photo, in official photo sessions the occasions on which he smiles are rare, and often (frankly) they look deliberately faked — he wanted the viewer to know the smile was meaningless. The difficulty was that the unsmiling image reinforced the idea that he was a sad individual when in fact it wasn’t so much that he didn’t smile because he was sad; his usual expression is blank, expressionless, there’s no particular emotion present. The photographic record of Kurt Cobain simply shows that a camera in his face made him indifferent, that he wasn’t willing to cooperate just to please a photographer — it doesn’t visually record him being sad at all, that’s a projection made by onlookers not something inherent in the image. The ‘model’ in this case isn’t showing us anything — his war on social pleasantry extended from words into his image. His unwillingness to show anything of what he felt inside in photographs was part of his desire to defend his privacy to a fanatical degree.

There’s nothing unhealthy or unreasonable about the move to rote responses and reactions — it saves energy, it fills people in as rapidly as possible on your most important matters, it sets up the successful fulfillment of a request. The element of disquiet, in my opinion, is when one no longer notices repetition and no longer fits the selected ‘short-hand’ to an appropriate situation. The result is that one’s joke reaction, one’s standard script, becomes an expectation or imposition; essentially you use it so often it’s who/what people think of when they think of you.

As personal examples, I once trained myself out of answering “how are you?” with “fine” — I began to think about my answer in each case and be honest and/or diverting. I’d also think about repetition — avoiding it. Yet there are always short-hands creeping in; I now receive joke comments about Starbucks on a regular basis. What’s happened is I’ve used my addiction to Starbucks (*deep breath* “tall mocha frappuccino with peppermint syrup and no cream, skinny milk, an extra shot of chocolate, less milk — domed lid if it’s alright”) as a self-parody so often I probably can’t protest that it’s part of people’s image of me. The reality of whether I am going to Starbucks every day (I’m not, swear to God!) is irrelevant because the verbal strategy has, through my own fault, become substituted for the reality. Similarly, I need to be more careful about mentioning I’m in control of my workload because increasingly people really do think I do no work and just sort Nirvana stuff all day…

Jokes are lethal in that respect; a joke used too often becomes simply what one is. Two examples from my friendship group — used with love and respect in each case — are that one friend used to joke about being a Star Trek fan but eventually wrapped himself in so many components of the ‘Trekkie’ identity that he had to admit openly after a number of years that it simply was ‘what he was’. Another friend spent so long playing the role of the bluff, right-wing traditional conservative that after a few years it was hard to tell the space between the joke and the reality — it had become the default reaction to any conversation or situation which might match that reaction and any humour contained therein had dried up completely.

In the case of Kurt Cobain, “I hate myself and I want to die” became a particular bugbear. The quotation apparently started as a sarcastic response to the negative media coverage regarding his state of mind and apparent nihilism. Having been quoted over and over again being dour, self-critical, unhappy with success — that’s what people expected of him. Kurt’s response was to parody what people seemed to expect of him. The problem was that while ostensibly a joke, the chosen line was bathed in precisely the negative qualities associated with him — sarcasm, verbal passive-aggression — so it failed in its intent, it was too close to reality. Kurt’s conversational defensive approach, wrapping himself in dissatisfaction so that people would try to buoy him up and tell him his work was good or at least so they couldn’t say he hadn’t said it first, simply was who he was — unless there was some magic difference between his feelings as expressed versus his feelings as contained somewhere inside.

Anyways, if you want some fun, in your interactions tomorrow, try to see if you can tell where you’ve responded by rote and when/where/how often you’re reacting with something fresh. It’s kinda fun trying to break free of it, or to at least establish control over the words one uses in the world to represent who and what one is.


2 thoughts on “Our Own Personal Clichés”

  1. “Kurt Cobain made a point of the unsmiling photo, in official photo sessions the occasions on which he smiles are rare”

    There’s a series of photographs taken of Nirvana on, I think, 42nd Street in New York by Stephen Sweet. These are the ones in front of Jenny Holzer’s installation on cinema canopies. It was only long after Cobain was dead that I saw in one of these images he’s actually smiling. It’s not just that Kurt didn’t smile for the camera, though I don’t doubt there’s truth there; it’s that a smiling, happy, Kurt Cobain did not fit in with the Gen X prophet of doom the media wanted us to believe he was, and often, even though there might be any number of smiling images from any given photo session, the editors will almost certainly have been sifting through the contact sheets to “find the one where he looks the most grumpy”.


  2. fun isn’t it? That’s where we end up back on the Gerhard Richter point; are we seeing the subject’s emotion, or the emotions selected by the person capturing the subject’s image?

    My other thought, courtesy of my friend Emily, is the proviso and conclusion that, of course, the cliche of what each of us is partially rests on what we are, on some aspect that we portray to those making the judgement. As a controversial example, slaves in the American South used to engage in ‘go slows’ as a protest against harsh treatment, they would simply do the work as clumsily and poorly as possible. The result, as the slavers didn’t recognise that what they were seeing was resistance to subjugation, was that the slave-owners claimed that the slaves were dumb, slow-witted, inferior. The stereotype wasn’t true, but it was the way they portrayed themselves. The blowback was, of course, that if the stereotype is set by the dominant power in an environment then the powerless lose the ability to draw their own portraits…

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