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Well-Worn Grooves

Published by marco on

We all do it. We all commit certain behaviors to habit so that we don’t have to think about them anymore. We don’t think about how we get to work in the morning or home again in the evening. We just take the right exit, the right stairway or get on the right train without a second thought, our bodies taking us where we need to go without any intervention from the brain.

So we all have these well-worn grooves along which we coast, using the energy we spare for other things—perhaps thinking about a problem at work, at home or just daydreaming or fantasizing. Once the environment changes significantly enough, though, our brains should re-engage and start to process the situation in real-time again, making decisions to handle the changes until we get to another environment where we can get lazy again and just slide into another groove.

In the commuting example above, the environmental change might be a detour on the way home or a train delay. Basically any situation that is not so common that we can’t just do it on auto-pilot requires a lot more processing power and attention. That’s why travel is so tiring, in general. You have to constantly be alert for changes in pretty much everything, from schedule to language to geography. Nothing is familiar.

Where things get quite interesting is when people use their auto-pilot because their environmental-change–detector is broken or functioning inadequately. Instead of noticing that something has changed and adjusting behavior accordingly, these people just plow on, oblivious to the complete inappropriateness of that behavior. You can sometimes see people getting way too comfortable in restaurants, acting as if they are at home instead of in public.

Often people accustomed to being in a position of power are blissfully unaware when that power-balance has shifted to their disadvantage. If you’ve lived in a larger city, you’ve seen the high-powered businessperson screaming themselves blue trying to get what they consider to be a flunky to serve them in some capacity or other. Said flunky is often aware that the power dynamics are such that the businessperson is actually in the subordinate role and usually enjoys the situation immensely.

Coming back to travelers, there are also those people who don’t take into account that things may work very differently in the country to which they’ve traveled. For example, Americans are often stunned to find that stores are not open 24 hours per day or that there are entire days during which hardly any stores open at all. Fussy eaters are also a delight to observe in these situations as they are so accustomed to their own peccadilloes vis-à-vis food that they are stunned when wait-staff in other countries seem less than willing to accommodate dressing on the side or fries extra-crispy or whatever the foible of the hour may be.

Such misinterpretations of environment and power dynamics and an obstinate refusal to leave one’s groove often lead to anger and frustration for the groover and either disgust or amusement—or a little bit of both—for everyone else.

Which brings us to the story of a person who embodies many of the archetypes detailed above, found on Volcanoes and Fried Foods by Eric Lippert (Fabulous Adventures in Coding). It is cited in its entirety below:

“The most amusing encounter was on the Hana Highway. There are numerous little stops along the way, where someone has erected a hut or parked a trailer and is selling coconuts, smoothies, banana bread, and so on. Hand-lettered signs, stunning natural beauty, middle of nowhere, you get the picture I’m sure. At one of the larger such stops there was a young fellow, probably in his late twenties, serving a variety of fried foods. It was mostly traditional American-style Chinese food, but also he had french fries, fish-’n’-chips, and so on. He was clearly not a native speaker of English, but spoke understandably with a strong accent. We were waiting behind a middled-aged woman with a typically Midwestern American accent. Their conversation went something like this:

Her: I’m not very hungry, can I just get the fish without the chips?

Him, not quite following her: Half order?

Her, louder: How much without the fries?

“This went back and forth for some time, both sides becoming increasingly frustrated by the communication breakdown, until:

Her, even louder: Can I speak to your manager?”

This lady was in the middle of a jungle at a roadside stand on an island thousands of miles from home, talking to someone in the same language, but with a vastly different accent and she still hadn’t left her groove. If this lady encountered a detour on her commute home, she would probably plow right through dozens of DPW workers before finally grinding to a halt in fresh tar or driving right off the end of an unfinished overpass.