The Politics Of Public Brush-Offs

Have you ever experienced an EMBARRASSING PUBLIC BRUSH-OFF by someone who knows you fine well? It’s called BURNING, says MAGGIE ARMSTRONG, and we all do it 

OUCH_GUCCIWhen you burn someone, you are pretending they do not exist. You are consigning them to a social black hole.

Picture the pathetic little scene. You are walking down the street, which is busy and cheerful. It’s your lunchtime, and you are thinking about your sandwich, or a pair of shoes on sale. Through the crowd you see a face you know. Adrenaline pumps; you
haven’t seen them for a while. They draw nearer, their eyes meet yours; you begin to smile. Memories flood in, dilemmas over where to pick up again. As your paths converge, their gaze slips away into some compelling distance. You halt. They pass on. It stings. They’re gone. You lurch around, mouth open, your bright eyes turned to flames. You’ve been burned.

We’ve all been burned and we all burn all the time. Blanking, some call it rather generously, as if it were a mistake, a name blank, a touch of poor eyesight. Burning is how we get along in a tight-knit capital such as Dublin. But there is something especially duplicitous, especially shorn of humanity about it in this virtual friendscape, this planet of public displays of affection they call the digital age.

As our social lives are relocated to flashing pieces of metal in our hands, our WhatsApp groups proliferate, our number of “friends” climbs and we do ever more desperate things to gain “followers”, actual friendliness would seem to have a much higher value. Funny that it doesn’t. Funny that, as the popularity contest rages online and we work up those Twitter, or Facebook, or whatever silly new thing they’re calling it, stats, we are so busy maintaining these avatars we couldn’t be bothered with real life.

When you burn someone, you are pretending they do not exist. You are consigning them to a social black hole.

It’s nothing sinister. You just couldn’t be bothered saying hello, at that particular moment, okay? Sure. And yet, when you burn someone, you are pretending they do not exist. You are consigning that person to a blind spot – a black social hole. It is a sleight of hand so craftily manoeuvred, so easily passed off as an oversight that people who make it their habit to burn other people can get through their whole lives without ever being held to account. Eye contact is never in writing – who can prove it happened?

Parents have another term for burn – “cut dead” – as used by one solicitor I knew whose client lost in the High Court to an extremely egotistical barrister. That barrister cuts that solicitor dead regularly, even in the streets and shops of their small and lifeless town. But it’s different. “Cutting dead” implies cruelty, it has a confrontational moxy to it, an empowerment. There is boycott, and sweet revenge implied. Burning is cowardice. It is stamping on the republican principle of fraternity, ducking out of your most basic citizen duty, and into a Wild West of dishonesty. A burn is a lie, it’s just not printed or spoken.

Of course, there are many reasons to commit such a sly and despicable snub. Particularly when the odds of meeting someone on your lunch break whose sister you once did a Grease solo with, or who you once insulted at 3am, are never in your favour. The older you get, the faster these unwanted acquaintances multiply and swarm all around you.

They are everywhere. A school friend, now a barrister (Consigliere, learn manners!) recently gave me the old social heave-ho outside the Four Courts. In his defence, he was wearing a fine navy suit under his starched winged collar, and I was on a broken bicycle. As my wheels screeched up to his circle of attractive young jurisprudents he looked fairly smartly away. History shrank and disappeared in the polluted air between us. All those teenage dance moves, all those Senior Cup matches we supported together. O shame, where was thy blush? Shame didn’t have to blush, because it had got away with it.

Burning is cowardice. It is stamping on the republican principle of fraternity, ducking out of your most basic citizen duty, and into a Wild West of dishonesty.

There are traitors in all kinds of ravishing disguises. That of an intelligent and admired woman I have shared not one but two long and intimate conversations with. Last time we met, at a packed and jolly gathering, our eyes locked just as she was embracing someone else. I grinned, went to wave, as she planted a kiss on that woman’s cheek. Her gaze slid down, her smile warm and her eyes bleary with Judas kissing. It makes you want to have a good cat fight. But it seems the cat fight, and even the dirty look, have gone out of fashion. Burning’s easier.

Coming from a place proud of its marvellously wonderful tradition of storytelling does not help. Unless we have something brilliant to say, a fresh chunk of banter to bring to the table, we prefer to flee than fight through this nasty little surprise. You do have to respect those Continentals, who can plant two mechanical kisses on each other’s cheeks and bash onwards, barely smiling. They don’t feel they have to give a PowerPoint presentation on their lives to someone who really couldn’t care less.

What we can learn from our more sophisticated neighbours is speed of delivery. Upon my safe arrival at moral superiority on this matter I have discovered it’s better to land the greeting then disappear: no idle chit-chat. So follow these steps, kind reader: meet eyes, say hi, bash on. If you had small talk with every blighter you met, your talk, and your already contracting intellect, would grow very small indeed.

Sometimes, a person who burns other persons claims to be doing the right thing by all. Once I met my psychotherapist on a speedboat to Sherkin Island off West Cork. She was in the arms of a lover. I was on a hen party. She gently disowned me. I took care to remind her at our next session that we had been on a tiny vessel together. She told me it was out of consideration for me, not saying hello. I paid her the €60 she was getting to boost my confidence in human beings with a very shaky hand that week, very shaky.

So follow these steps, kind reader: meet eyes, say hi, bash on. If you had small talk with every blighter you met, your talk, and your already contracting intellect, would grow very small indeed.

There are ways of pre-empting the social outrage. Stare people out. When, through sheer eyeballing, you manage to wrench someone out of their pretendy-trance, they are invariably alarmed and delighted and overwhelmed with happiness to see you – “Oh X, wow, my god, I didn’t see you there, X” they whinge, your New Best Friend. It’s really enjoyable to be part of that interchange. Because they burned you, so you aren’t glad to see them, and you don’t have to hide it.

It’s not ideal, but it’s better than burning or being burned. Woman up – meet eyes and land the greeting, then get on with thinking about that sandwich. Otherwise we will have a society of zombie stares, chafed ex-friends, and bounders everywhere gazing at imaginary birds in the sky. It was Norman Mailer who said that when two people meet each other on the street and say good morning, there’s a winner and a loser. Imagine no one says anything. Imagine there are only losers. Imagine you didn’t have to imagine any more. Can you feel the burn? 

This article appeared in a previous issue, for more features like this, don’t miss our July/August issue, out Thursday July 7.

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