Had three appointments with service providers this week, and they went something like this:
The hairdresser parted my wet hair into sections, picked up the scissors and said, “And what are your plans for this afternoon?”
“Got any plans for the afternoon?” the chiropractor wanted to know, preparing to twist my head off my neck.
“Got anything fun planned for later on today?” said the dental hygienist, adjusting the chair.
And the dentist: “Open wide? Awesome! Ummm…do you have any nice plans for the rest of the day?”
When I mumbled something noncommittal they all, with the exception of the hygienist, asked if I had any exciting travel plans or have been anywhere exciting recently.
I find these questions embarrassing. Don’t these people know that I know how boring they must find their clients’ responses? Do they really think that I am so naïve as to assume they will be fascinated when I tell them that I expect to take a nap the minute I get home, then maybe read a book? Do they think that I have no theory of mind?
But if there is one thing I have in spades, it’s theory of mind. I have so much of it, in fact, that I am often silenced by a too-vivid image of how trivial what I’m about to say will seem to my listener.
Is there anything more soul-killing than someone nattering on about their schedule? The only being on the planet on whom I inflict the details of my afternoon plans is my spouse of fifty-two years. Ditto for travel plans and stories. Who, aside perhaps from one’s own mother, wants to hear about the bistro in Bogota or the flight to Madagascar?
So when people assume that I do not possess the ability to put myself in their place (something that the normal child learns to do by about age four) I feel patronized and embarrassed.
I wonder why these otherwise capable professionals persist in these inquiries. I’ve been going to the same hairdresser for five years, and for five years he’s asked about my plans for the afternoon, never noticing that every time I deftly shift the conversation to his Labradoodle, who is in fragile health.
This tiresome practice is probably the fault of some business guru, who came up with the idea that asking clients questions about their schedules and travels would improve their satisfaction and lead to financial success. But that only works if the clients have a strong narcissistic streak, or lack theory of mind.
My hairdresser, my chiropractor, my dentist and hygienist are professionals. I am their client. I don’t need to feel that we are buddies. Why can’t we rest peacefully in our respective roles and dispense with these attempts at formulaic chitchat?
Of course the trouble with theory of mind is that it is just that: a theory. Which means that when I imagine that my dentist would be bored if I told him about a trip I took in 1984, I may be wrong. He might in fact be deeply interested in my story, and feel gratified that I am willing to share it with him. Perhaps he gets lonely, endlessly digging around in people’s mouths while they cringe in anticipated pain, and is starved for conversation.
So what should I do–answer the questions and be found boring, or dissemble and be thought unfriendly? The horns of this dilemma are sharper than a dentist’s drill. The only solution I can think of is to let my hair grow to my waist, do hours of yoga every morning, and commend my teeth to the Universe.