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Holly Erskine

Saturday, August 20, 2016

My career taught me to trust that scientific models could predict the behavior of specimens on my lab bench. Perhaps this primed me to question whether any cosmic laws govern a more thorny human sociological problem. I speak here of the problem of pinning. I suspect everyone pins to some degree, although I am quite certain I have never done it myself (she laughs nervously).


It helps to travel with a safety buddy when you know you are going to be in a Pinner's territory.


If you have ever been held captive by a talking person, you have been pinned. A standard Pinner holds you firmly in place with this distinctive zombie-like stare. While pinned, you are force fed a steady stream of words that you feel obliged to swallow and digest. You gradually register pain similar to one felt after eating too much, only cognitively. You can't accept another bite and your eyes may bulge noticeably. The irony here is that the root of your suffering is your instinctive politeness, a personality trait that in any other situation you should have every reason to boast about.


Blind to the acute sense of existential anguish they inflict, a Pinner does not give a flicker of recognition that on some deep level, you know that you will eventually die, and you have a lot you want to do in your life. Like a fresh specimen in an entomologist's collection case, you feebly flap your fragile wings, eyeing the crusty victims of former encounters with your Pinner. Pinners can't grasp the significance of your fidgety stance, your preoccupation with your watch, and the wild motion of your eyes, which dart to the doors, windows, and ventilation ducts.


Describing this phenomenon scientifically might yield analogies that could enhance understanding, and more importantly, assist. An astronomical parallel might involve two stars gravitationally locked in a stellar death dance; for example, a supergiant devouring a dwarf star. Using the tools of thermodynamics, physicists might define the energy required to listen as a limited, conserved resource shared between two humans. A mouth in motion continues in motion unless acted on by an external force.

Biologists could model pinning interactions with parasite-prey relationships. But biologists know that it's a poor parasite that kills its host. Successful parasites drain just enough blood to keep their host alive for future snacks. In the same way, a practiced Pinner will only drain enough listening energy from you before they abruptly leave you weak and gasping to stalk off, sweeping their laser beam gaze around the room in search of a fresh victim.



Everyone pins every now and then. It's really a spectrum.

There is, in all seriousness, something funny going on with a Pinner's eye contact that I want to explore further. Scientists have studied the body language humans use to signal who is talking and who is listening. A Canadian-British collaboration in the August 2015 PLOS One (Speaking and Listening with the Eyes: Gaze Signaling During Dyadic Interactions) suggests that, normally, it's the listener who gazes intently, not the talker. When most non-pinning people talk they look around the room, as if surveying their mental memory landscape, making only gentle, fleeting eye contacts with the listener.

The researchers noted that in most conversations, the listener watches the talker, whose eyes are cast elsewhere. When the talker is finished, they return their gaze to the listener, who then takes up the conversation. Then their eyes dance around the room, in turn. The Pinner has sabotaged the rules of this eye dance by wielding the gaze of the listener, while talking. Perhaps it the Pinner's aberrant eye-gaze that scrambles our brains to the extent that we find escape difficult.


I feel that there is something odd about having someone staring unblinkingly, continuously at me while they are talking. For me, it brings up childhood memories of being scolded. Or perhaps I have a piece of food stuck to my face. I don't like being in the spotlight.


A subspecies of the Pinner is the Peeler, who works in a group. Imagine you're following a fascinating discussion at a party. You're riveted. Then someone sidles up to you, catches your eye, and begins talking about something completely irrelevant and less interesting. You have been peeled.



Perhaps it the Pinner's aberrant eye-gaze that scrambles our brains to the extent that we find escape difficult.

It isn't peeling if it's a quick, necessary question, like Where's the bathroom? True peeling initiates a second, equally intense, simultaneous conversation. Peeling hurts your brain. I can hear my own synapses frying when I juggle two conversations at once. (I'm famously terrible at tuning anything out. This is the woman who requested her spouse please replace all the clocks in our house with non-ticking versions, because I find the endless ticks, like ongoing conversations, so distracting.)

For some reason I find Peelers easier to deal with than Pinners. My solution is to quickly, politely nip a Peeler in the bud. "Oh, I'm sorry, I would love to talk to you about how you improved your fairway shots, but it's vital right now for me to hear Harry describe his pet squirrel." I determinedly return my focus to the group.

Tim particularly dislikes getting peeled. He dreams of holding what he calls a "conversation party" in order to instruct our friends of the pleasure to be had during one big, continuous group conversation. "Everyone must first agree ahead of time, to avoid initiating side-conversations", he says, his eyes gleaming. We realize a stable group conversation probably requires a maximum limit, as the larger the group, the more peeling naturally occurs. Other variables are: participants' tendencies for impatience and distraction, how interesting they actually are, and the volume of alcohol they consume. It's tempting to write an equation.

If you suspect you're guilty of pinning or peeling-–and we all do it to some degree–you might enjoy the benefits of resting from this exhausting habit. Get curious. Curiosity naturally diminishes anxiety and depression in any case, so it is a good feeling to cultivate, especially if you feel stressed in a social situation. Ask people about themselves, because they might have some amazing stories. I used to have a nervous habit of jabbering on about myself in social situations, and I don't think anyone, including me, enjoyed it. I like to think I have improved a little. While I listen, I relish that peculiar sensation of my jaw muscles relaxing. It's nice!

All of us can bear to remember that listening actively, attentively, and showing sincere interest by asking questions about the person you're conversing with is a talent requiring practice. Everyone hungers for a good listener, because good listeners are rare. Why not become this rare sort of person? I like to tell myself that I can try anything for five minutes. (That's the topic of a future post.) Try listening intently for just five minutes and see what happens. When listening is done well, the effect is magical. You become charismatic.

Pinning has a form of antimatter, and it is charisma. There's a short supply of people who have this intangible magnetism we call charisma. Pinning annihilates charisma and charisma annihilates pinning. There are several bestselling books on gaining charisma. I haven't read them. But I have closely studied the bullet points on their colorful back covers, and from these, I can divulge the main secret: they all say that your key to charisma is to become a good listener.

Charismatic people aren't at all anxious to impress you. They exude quiet confidence. They seem, instead, genuinely impressed by you. You find yourself dazzled by their astonishingly good judgement.

In 1886, political rivals Benjamin Disraeli and William Gladstone happened to date the same woman. As they were competing for the post of Prime Minister, a gossipy public requested details from the woman on each gentleman's behavior. "When I dined with Mr Gladstone I thought he was the cleverest man in England, but after dining with Mr Disraeli I thought I was the cleverest person in England,” she reported. Disraeli won.

Let's talk solutions. I can give real life examples. I completely adore my husband, but we have a problem. We talk with different speeds. Even with the best intentions, mismatched vocal velocities can create inadvertent pinning. Tim grew up in a small house with five siblings. I suspect they naturally evolved to compete for air time with loud, fast talking and lots of impressive hand gestures.

In contrast, I grew up with two much older siblings, leaving me alone most of the time, with all the air time that any young child could want. I love the process of carefully weighing every word, like writers do. My drawl might be genetic as well as environmental. My grandparents were literature professors, and they obviously delighted delivering weighty, slow, colorful speeches for informing us on topics as diverse as the nature of a supreme being, the social inequities inherent in our culture, or that they had to go to the bathroom. (Seriously, leaving to go to the bathroom did involve long colorful preambles.) From them I have inherited a collection of tattered thesauruses. If I could be granted time to use one when conversing, and the luxury to select the perfect words, I would.

While Tim's mouth is racing around with the speed of a ferrari, he brakes and skids, attempting to adapt to my more laborious style. My speech stumbles along with all the grace and speed of a remotely-controlled bomb-defusing robot.

I used to be proud of my ponderously thoughtful delivery. Unexpected pauses always worked so well for Captain Kirk. Thoughtful fermatas are impressive if I'm lecturing an audience. But when facing fast talkers, I find they are all too eager to fill in all my pesky dramatic pauses with their own ideas.

Recognizing a roadblock in a blameless manner is key to finding happy solutions. When we miscommunicate, one technique my mate has used on me, with spectacular success, is to ask, "What can I do differently, in the future, so this does not happen again?" (I hear people swooning already. And he's mine!) Potential mates, take note: This exact sentence may well win any person's heart. It melts mine, every time. And the proper response is to pose the exact same question, in turn, sincerely. Working as a team, you then come up with respectful solutions.

One solution is the wearing of silly hats. Rummaging through our trunk of musty Halloween gear, I have produced and made accessible two plastic bejeweled crowns, a pink princess's veiled cone, and–my favorite–a black witch's hat. Wigs can be used as well. We decided that if just one of us has a load to communicate and can't bear interruptions, that person gets to wear a hat of their choosing. It's for special occasions. Importantly, only one person gets to wear a silly hat at any given time, and that person is the designated talker. It works like a talking stick, only it's more eye-catching. Another advantage is that you can only wear a silly hat for so long.


Everyone hungers for a good listener.


A second solution arose by accident early in our dating history. He was deep into one of his monologues when I had a cool idea. But if there was any gap in which to insert this, it's width was so negligible that my brain could not perceive it. Seeing opportunity spin off as he switched topic, some desperate reflex kicked in. I found myself raising my hand. It was a habit. I had been in school a long time. To my delight, it worked. He cocked his head, as if seeing me for the first time, pointed at me and called my name. I could hear my heart beating in the silence that followed. It was thrilling! We still use hand-raising, and he is just as likely to use it on me. That he cheerfully plays along with my hand-raising technique melts my heart further. I adore my fast-talking man.

A third solution is to get away. Prevention is key. If you anticipate encountering a Pinner, plan an escape route. Certain couples who I won't betray use this trick. One agrees to phone the partner braving the Pinner's territory. This requires estimating the safe amount of pinning time allowed to elapse before the call. It might require more than one call. When your phone rings, you apologize, "Oh, I have to go!" You shrug helplessly. It is not your fault.

Girl scouts and missionaries travel in pairs, and they are onto something. Find a safety buddy. It's harder to pin multiple victims. At a gathering, periodically check your partner for conspicuously pinned expressions. If they are wearing a mask of mute, dumb agony, or if their martyred eyes cast meaningful glances your way from across the room, run to the rescue. Grab their arm. To break the Pinner's spell, you might have to ask your partner something unusual. "Must the mice play tiny harmonicas? How about little banjos?" As the Pinner takes time trying to figure out what you mean, you can both retreat.

If you don't have someone working for you behind the scenes, it doesn't hurt to prepare an escape phrase. It has to be credible; something you feel comfortable saying. "I just realized that I have to go stand over there right now" doesn't cut it.

Take note, however, that whatever words you manage to utter might only feed certain Pinners. If you can manage to toss up a syllable, some Pinners, showing all the gusto of a skeet shooter, might act pleased you sent up a target, merrily blasting your word away with more of their own. You always can try running away, shouting something like "Oh my god, the baby!" It doesn't matter if you don't have a baby. Someone does.

There are strong Pinners and weak ones. I suspect, as one of life's comically short people, that being large or tall helps people pin more effectively. I have trouble holding people's attention unless I am teaching, and even then I have to use my standard tricks, like hurling chalk at my students' distracted heads. Or maybe it is that I don't like to be in any spotlight, myself. It is only my words and expressions that I would prefer to get the attention, not me. Thus, I write. A lot. Perhaps that is how I express all my latent pinning energy.

Some Pinners are stronger than others. I confess, that Tim and I have on occasion naughtily entertained ourselves pitching imaginary battles between known Pinners, debating who could out-talk who: OK, here's one. Mary's talking about tree diseases and John's talking about Broadway musicals. But what if the musical is about Dutch Elm disease? We pause to consider the opponents' strengths and weaknesses. Mary would crush John like a bug.

You can't completely avoid Pinners. We must learn to live in peace with them. I think even they appreciate this. We proudly call a few Pinners, who are brilliant and kind, our friends. They are beloved, energetic people, and they have a great deal to say. After years of pinning they probably can't help themselves. We strive to take it all in as best we can. You simply learn to interact with them in a way where no one gets hurt.



With apologies to artist Gustav Dore