Friday, November 16, 2007

Bus Driver's Syndrome

That's the term my friend Ellen Kushner has coined.

I guess I would have called it Grocery Clerk Disorder if I'd thought to label it. You know what I'm talking about. You are in a large grocery store. You manage to locate an actual employee who will speak to you. You ask where the ant traps are.

You are told "Aisle 6," then, if prompted, they may even add "on the left," and if they've gone that extra mile, for sure they'll tack on the killer line: "You can't miss it!"

Yeah. You can't miss it. They leave out the last part of that sentence. You can't miss it...IF YOU KNOW WHERE TO LOOK.

Which of course you don't, because you aren't the all-knowing grocery clerk, who I guess just can't conceive of anyone more clueless than themselves.

Ellen coined BDS when she got on a bus in a strange town, told the bus driver she was new to the area, had never been on this route and needed to get off at the Library. Could he please let her know when her stop came up, as she was totally unfamiliar with the town.

He said, "No problem! You can't miss it. It's the stop right after where the old A&P used to be."

Sure can't miss that, now can you?

Why is it so difficult to put oneself in another's shoes for a moment, see the world through their eyes, to tell them NOT what we know, but what they need to know, what they want to hear?

A) Is it ego? The delight in knowing something someone else doesn't and wanting to hold on to that mystery, even if it's just the location of the ant traps? Even if sharing information is your job?

I am thinking of the occasional tech-help types that I am sure are getting their small revenge for prior slights by clinging to the mysteries of their tech universe, cackling with their flock of techies about the cluelessness of non-techies because they don't know the Secret Order of the Button Pushing to Open the Portal of Knowledge.

B) Is it lack of imagination--they just don't get that everyone is not filled with the same knowledge they posses? Do they assume the Jungian collective unconscious is broad enough to include where the ant traps are situated if everyone just concentrated hard enough?

C) Or does it fall towards either profound uncaring laziness or a spirit of cockeyed positivism that, Candide-like, everything is possible in this best of all possible worlds. That what you are looking for, asking about, whatever, is going to just jump out & bite you on the butt and they really don't need to lift a finger to help that happen?

D) I'm thinking B). In many situations people are just so focused on themselves they really can't conceive of thinking about things from a different perspective, as a different person with a different frame of reference and knowledge base. Worth remembering.

I recently learned how to print photos at the CVS machine & was thanking the very nice guy that helped me (a lot!). He demurred & said it's easy. Yeah. IF YOU KNOW HOW TO DO IT. The first time is rarely easy. You know, its hard out there for a virgin...

So what do you think,

E) Some of the above?

F) All of the above?

G) None of the above?

I'm sure you have your own BDS stories of your own....


Liz Fielding said...

Visting my mother the first time after she'd moved house and completely lost, my husband pulled over so that I could ask a man in the street for directions.

He just shook his head and said, 'You don't want to start from here..."

Isabel Swift said...

Have a friend--male--classics professor, who has an expression I have adopted in response to such profound "found" lines like that one: "You don't want to start from here."

"That is so beautiful, I could cry!"

Thank you for sharing!

Charlotte Forbes said...

On my bus in Manhattan a man offered a dollar to anyone who had a quarter for the fare. (They didn't take anything but change back then.)

I looked around. It was as if he hadn't spoken. No one seemed to even look at him.

After a moment I moved forward and gave him the quarter and refused his dollar, then went back to my seat.

You should have seen the number of people who craned their heads to look at me! Several even asked, "Why did you do that?"

I was flabbergasted! My reply: "Wouldn't you want someone to do it for you?" left them stunned, yet it seemed so obvious to me.

I'm not always perfect, of course, but I still try to remember that moment of clarity when presented with opportunities to help.


Isabel Swift said...

I think what you do--both good and bad--gives "permission" to have it done back to you. I hope your action inspires others!

I do think--of necessity--we often create (in Star Trek language) force fields, to protect ourselves, especially in cities where there are a lot of random meteors impacting us. We read articles that someone asking us for the time is often a shill slowing us down so a colleague can pick our pocket, or that asking for change can be a method to find out where you keep your wallet. That can close us off.

The desire to maintain your humanity, the willingness to accept the risks, the belief that you can make a reasonable judgement of motive and circumstance takes real energy. Takes thinking. Takes effort. Compassion is not passive. Not everyone is at that place, not all the time.

I applaud and honor your gesture, but I can also understand the other side--indeed have been among the bumps on the log myself. But it's stories like yours that remind me--keep some change in your pocket.

Anonymous said...


Your reminder to look at both sides with empathy was eloquent and gentle.

I am touched--and even more deeply taken with your blog.

Thank you, and Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours.


Isabel Swift said...

Charlotte--Happy Thanksgiving to you (my favorite holiday, non-demoninational and containing pumpkin pie)! I was reminded of a rhyme:

A friend in need
Is a friend indeed

I'm sure you have been one--I hope you always have one!

Anonymous said...


Isabel. You're so awesome!

Want to publish my novel? ;-)
(Just trying to prove your saying correct!)

Enjoy the pie!