Wednesday, November 30, 2011


Once upon a time, Sally and I used to talk about something we called "being demonstrative," by which we meant not excessive displays of affection, but rather statements like, "Oh, isn't Paris lovely this time of year?" or the way that someone we knew once took out chopsticks to eat a burrito, claiming that the year she had just spent in Japan had made it difficult for her to eat with a fork. In other words, we were talking about statements calculated to demonstrate something - a practice akin to name-dropping.

I've recently been thinking about another type of obnoxious behavior. It's one in which many people sometimes engage, and I find myself tempted by it often. It's also something I have learned to recognize as an immediate warning sign about a person's personality. It is an almost universally obnoxious trait: self-description.

Some (hypothetical) examples:
  • I'm not the kind of person who watches TV.
  • I guess I'm just more cynical than that.
  • I'm just a big ole country girl.
  • Most people either love me or hate me.
  • I'm one of those people who can't stand pedantry.
It's interesting - it's hard to write examples of this, because some of it comes down to intent. If your intent is (honestly) humble or self-denigrating ("I'm kind of an asshole before I have my coffee"), then that's not what I'm takling about. Likewise if you're being ironic. But often these types of statements come from a demonstrative type of intent - a strong desire to demonstrate your characteristics to others, especially people you have just met. And in that context it somehow becomes really obnoxious. It is like you have this obsession to present yourself. I guess an obsession with oneself is never attractive in a social context.

A few months ago, a friend and I had a conversation via IM. Afterwards, I thought, jesus, we just had a fight - I hope she didn't notice. I could feel myself being obnoxious during it and I thought she was a little obnoxious too. Later she texted me to apologize for being that way, and I apologized too.

I'm pasting in the transcript of this because the whole thing drips with self-description of exactly the kind I'm talking about...on both sides:

: Hmm. That [story about cheating] does sound bad. I don't know.
It just makes me so upset that cheating is a thing here... cheating wasn't an issue where I went to high school or where I went to college and I hate that it's prevalent in this environment.
me: I know what you mean. I think it's pretty common here.
Friend: I just don't think I'll ever be able to teach somewhere like that ultimately, I think it would bother me too much.
me: I am cynical so it doesn't bother me, I guess. So far anyway.
Friend: I'm cynical about some things, but education isn't one of them, probably because of where I went to school.
me: I don't think that's really why. I mean, I have a lot of similar school experiences to yours.
Friend: maybe i'm just an idealist then
me: I mean, I want cheaters nailed to the wall, but it doesn't bother me that they exist, if that makes sense.


Sally said...

Of your examples, I find "I guess I'm just more cynical than that" (stated in this context-free way) pretty normal-sounding. Several of the others sound much weirder and more obnoxious than their adjective-based (as opposed to person-centric) counterparts - e.g., "I don't watch TV" (which is a hard thing for a person to say without it sounding obnoxious because people hear it as a criticism) or "I can't stand pedantry." Characterizing yourself as a country girl (or whatever) or announcing how other people react to you are super-annoying. But I'm the kind of person who finds making fine distinctions important.

Sally said...

But clearly I'm not a person who can be relied upon to get subject-verb agreement right on the first go ;)

Sally said...

Noticed the use of this to establish that a character we were just meeting is obnoxious on two TV programs in the last few days. I don't remember the other one, but one was a woman who announced at the beginning of a date with Leonard on Big Bang Theory something like, "The first thing you need to know about me is that I'm hilarious."

Tam said...

Awesome! We should collect these.

That one is particularly good in its implication of an entire list of important facts others should know about oneself.