Oh won't you just shut up!
Last week I had to take a long taxi ride home at the end of an especially prolonged and exhausting day. It was late at night and the journey was set to last an hour.
As the car pulled away, I slumped in the back seat and closed my eyes, enjoying the gentle rock and hum, drifting away to snug semi-consciousness almost immediately. The soft, welcoming arms of sleep began to embrace me. Ahhhhh, I thought, sighing so deeply inside my own mind I felt a warm breeze on the inside of my forehead. Ahhhhh.
But the driver had other plans. He was eyeing me in the mirror. ‘Long day?” he asked.
‘Yes,” I replied, half-yawning, snuggling down in my seat.
‘I was thinking of taking Western Avenue. What do you think of Western Avenue?” he said.
‘Sounds fine to me,” I replied snoozily, all heavy lips and closed lids.
‘Course the satnav’s suggesting another route, but then that’s satnav for you, isn’t it?” said he, chucking a gentle ‘ha ha” on the end for good measure. In the world of pointless small talk, ‘ha ha” is short for ‘Cuh, life, eh? We’re all in it together aren’t we, eh?”
‘Yes, ha ha,” said I, in a half-whisper, allowing my ‘ha ha” to slide into breathy silence so it sounded like I’d nodded off halfway through saying it. Then I pointedly lolled my head as though I was already in deep REM sleep, in case he was still watching me in the mirror and required some kind of visual cue before he’d shut the hell up. It seemed to work. A whole 40 seconds passed by in silence, long enough for my mock dozing to start turning into the real thing. And then we passed a roadworks sign.
‘Roadworks, that’s all you need isn’t it? Ha ha.” Clearly time to switch tactics. This time I didn’t reply. I kept my eyes shut and emitted silence. A minute went by. And then he switched tactics too.
‘So what line of work are you in?”
The bastard had gone on the offensive. Now he was asking direct questions, impossible to ignore without appearing rude. Furthermore, his inquiry was an almost unassailable conversation-opener: no matter what reply you give, an entire flowchart of punishingly monotonous discourse is guaranteed to follow. Even if you try to be mind-blowingly mundane on purpose.
Claim you measure the thickness of cardboard boxes for a living and he can counter by asking if there’s much money in it, or how long you’ve done it, and he’ll take it from there until there’s no escape. He’ll be on and on with his endless questions, tormenting you with his nauseating thirst for basic social interaction until you feel like quietly raising a leg and kicking him square in the bald spot, even if it makes him swerve into the path of an oncoming juggernaut, all headlights and thunder and foghorning blare; shattering glass and shearing metal and the sudden mad sound of your own trapped animal screams—anything to close down him and his voice, his awful bloody probing bloody human bloody voice.
So I told him I was a child pornographer.
OK, I didn’t. But that’s the only reply I can think of that would have killed any further conversation stone dead, if only because he’d probably make me get out and walk.
But I didn’t have the balls. Instead, I resignedly mumbled a response, and together we worked our way along a particularly tedious dialogue tree I’ve endured many times before, one which lasted the entire duration of the journey and was punctuated by about 1 500 piss-weak ‘ha has”.
Most of the time boring people are either a) unnoticeable or b) inoffensive; or c) newspaper columnists. In any case they’re usually easy to avoid. It’s only when you’re stuck in close proximity to them for an extended period that they truly cross the line from dreary to irksome. Taxis are a classic hot spot, as are long-haul flights. In the misery stakes few things beat being stranded beside a determined-but-dull conversationalist on a 10-hour transatlantic crossing. Unless you find some polite way of shutting them up early on, you’ll be teetering on the verge of assault later.
The sensible method is to politely say ‘Sorry, I’m a bit tired—do you mind if I just have a nap?” the minute they start talking, at the start of the journey.
But that might seem snooty. Plus it’s vanilla and dull.
Instead, the best and most entertaining option is one I read about in a Penn & Teller book several years ago. It goes like this. Turn to your unwanted companion at the first opportunity and explain to him or her that you have a condition that makes you sleep with your eyes open. It’s harmless, you say, but it can be quite creepy—so you’re taking the opportunity to warn him or her in advance so he or she doesn’t freak out later.
Then you sit back in your chair and silently wait a while. After about 10 minutes, slowly loll your head sideways towards them, keeping your eyes wide open the whole time, and stay there, staring at the side of their face, for as long as possible. They’ll be far too weirded out to utter a word. Brilliant.
Probably doesn’t work on cab drivers though, unless perhaps you’re sitting in the front passenger seat. And even then it might make them crash.
Worth trying though.
I’ll let you know.—