Eric Bergeson: Vexing etiquette questions
A question of manners: What is the proper way to inform a friend that you have already heard the story they have started to tell for the fifty-third time?
Equally vexing: What is the proper thing do when the look on the faces of others makes it clear you have embarked a story they have heard fifty-three times before?
Do you stop mid-sentence? Do you limp onward, hoping that the story will bear retelling?
As senility advances, these questions become more important.
One friend’s wife has decided that he should number his stories one through forty-six. When the urge arises, he can just say, “Number thirty-nine!”
She will dutifully laugh, go back to her newspaper and be saved the agony of hearing the whole tale once more.
Some politely say, “Yes, you mentioned that!” as a way of cutting things short.
Others patiently fold their napkin and listen with tolerance.
If people want to be nasty, they wait to inform that they already have heard the story until they spot an inconsistency with a previous version.
“Last time you told that, you only saw four hundred deer,” they’ll say, pulling the rug right out from under you.
At that point, I stop and let somebody else tell a story. When you get caught inflating the number of deer present, it’s pretty much over.
Many stories detail youthful indiscretions, things you can talk about now upon which the statute of limitations has expired.
The trouble is, if we mature at all as we get older — and that is not guaranteed — we create fewer new stories.
We’re stuck retelling the same ones over and over for the good reason that our lives have gotten boring.
If you sit on important boards or run a local business, it is probably best not to climb the water tower at three o’clock Sunday morning.
There are risks to creating new stories. So, you tell old ones.
To solve these dilemmas, I have decided to rely on the old proverb: “Do unto others as you wish they would do to you if they had it in them.”
When Uncle Wilbert starts the story about rolling Grandpa’s 1936 Dodge into a Hereford cow, I resolve to act interested, look him in the eye, nod and laugh as if it is the first time I have heard it in my life.
I will look for variations, but not to pin him down. Rather, I will study the variations to understand why the 1936 Dodge came up at this particular instant.
One elderly relative adapts every story to suit the present situation. If I stopped her from telling the story because I had heard it before, I would miss the latest twist.
She was thrown from a horse sometime between World War I and World War II. That is the basic story. However, the story can be varied to explain any present ailment.
If her back goes out, it was due to that horse. If she gets forgetful, it is because she hit her head on a rock on the way down.
Sometimes she’s mad because her Dad left her alone with a skittish horse, other times she’s disgusted that he spooked the horse by dropping the hitch on the hay wagon nearby.
You just never know how the story will end.
Story-telling is not journalism. The truth is never the point. The point is entertainment, or maybe a lesson.
Truly good story tellers know that they have told the story before, but take care to improve it each time.
“He’s so full of it,” we say about such people, but think about it: you never, ever stop a good story teller from telling a story you’ve heard before. The fun of it is hearing how far things have stretched since the last telling.
Kids know this.
“Tell the one about the dog eating the Thanksgiving turkey!” they say, eager to hear Grandma go through the whole story again. Grandma adds new spice to each telling, and the kids laugh harder each time.
Until they grow up. Then it is all facts, facts, facts. “That’s just a story, Jeremy, don’t believe everything Grandpa says.”
Once again, the very old and the very young get it, while the rest of us don’t.
So, a couple of rules:
When you hear a story for the tenth time, humor the teller and listen hard. They’ll probably respond to your attention with a new and improved version.
And when you tell a story for the twentieth time, make darn sure it sounds better than the nineteenth, even if it means increasing the number of deer.