Last weekend Chas and I went car-browsing. The whole experience feels like one giant cliche. You walk in, some guy with comb lines in his hair slinks over to you to ask if you’ve been helped. You, convinced he’s Satan in a shinier form, don’t return his smile in favor of raising one eyebrow and pursing your lips to allow “No” to escape. He says something about “________________ taking care of you” and you think, Oh I’m sure he’ll take care of us.
This continues to a desk and a crowded parking lot and a car and an “I really like you guys” and, “You’re so funny together.”
You test drive a couple of cars the salesperson plays tough about a lot of things and makes a few jokes that fit neatly into gender roles. You hear several acronyms that are meaningless (well, not to Chas) and when you’re spinning from the GLT and the TDL and BSP and LTD and the DSL, you’re back at that desk again. Then come the “figures” written down on paper–aloud will not do. “Are you a nurse? Are you a firefighter? Did you serve in the military prior to 1954? Are you the type of person who dresses up as a banana on occasion?”
Of course, you’re none of those things but somehow when the salesperson returns from “the back,” you qualify for four thousand dollars worth of “discounts.” She or he assures you that you haven’t yet seen what Tavon can do when he “sharpens his pencil.” Yes, this is the number we can give you before Tavon “sharpens his pencil.” So maybe you will return when the pencil has its pointiest point. Maybe, you say, “I will come back after I send an email to another dealership.” And you both keep your eyeballs still and locked as your heads make circles like you’re drawing mutual lines around one another’s skulls with your noses. And then you leave your information and say that you’re headed for Subaru. Gotta see how sharp their pencils are.
These types of exchanges are hilarious to me for their predictability and for the use of meaningless language. I actually hate/love this kind of thing, maybe I just love to hate it. This silly turn of phrase “sharpen a pencil” is more than just a cliche. It’s code. It’s silly to me because the salesperson could have just said what she meant. She meant that he could get more of a discount for us. So just say it. And then just do it.
One of my all time favorite Seinfeld episodes is “The Dealership.” George plays me.
GEORGE: Look at these salesmen. The only thing these guys fear is the walk-out. No matter what they say, you say, “I’ll walk out of here right now!”
(A salesman approaches)
SALESMAN: Can I help you with something?
GEORGE: (Threatening) Hold it! One more step and we’re walkin’!
The entire episode plays into my lunatic thinking via George Costanza and he believes nothing. I’m actually surprised the phrase “sharpen a pencil” doesn’t pop up.
These weird little unspoken agreements we have in order to be vague and unclear to one another are so odd. In Morocco, we (Chas) learned through research that there, bargaining is welcome. But you have to play the game. The seller gives a price. You counter with a price that is low but not insulting. If the seller counters again, then he/she will make a deal with you. If he/she says “Nope” on that first offer, then just go. It’s not worth it. The seller does not like you and feels disrespected by you. This version of “pencil sharpening” I respect more than these weird American versions, though, because they seem more agreed upon. Like we all get it. And by “we” I mean those of us who read Lonely Planet and also Moroccan nationals.
But wouldn’t it be funny to look at a leather handbag that’s labeled at the equivalent of $30 American and hear from the seller, “I am willing to sell you this for $10 but I labeled it at $30 in case you’re a sucker”? Or if I approached the seller and in broken Arabic/French said, “I want this badly and it would cost about $200 in the US but I would pay no more than $12 here, so what’s your limit?”
Maybe at the car dealership we’d say, “Hey, we’re really cheap. We want a GTI manual transmission and we ideally want to pay no more than $22K.” Then the salesperson could say, “Listen, we get a gajillion dollar bonus if you add to our total of 129 cars by the end of the month so we’ll actually give you the GTI you want for $21K if you just shell out the cash and then just get the hell out of here so we can have a celebratory beer with the mechanics in peace.” The best view into this world is here. Literally (and I mean this for real) one of my favorite podcast episodes ever. In this episode the line “Buyers are liars” is said to be a catchphrase in the “bizness.” I think the line should be “Everyone is a liar.”
There are plenty of things we say in the U.S. that we don’t really mean, and I’m not even talking about “I literally died” or “I can’t even” or “That’s hilarious!” (but with a straight face). I’m talking about “How are you?” or “How have you been?” and other meaningless pleasantries that people spew out just because they think they’re supposed to say them.
What do you think the percentage of “How are yous?” you receive is genuine? I’d bet it’s pretty low. So I propose, you answer it, no matter the asker, honestly. Someone in the grocery store says “How are you?” Launch into the truth about the clogged toilet in the basement leveled out by the fact that someone at work shouted you out in front of the group this morning. Skip the “fine” or the “well” and go right for the jugular. Hey, if someone asked it, doesn’t that person deserve the real truth? That’ll make that person think twice before a insincere question!
Another one is “It’s nice to meet you.” But is it? Is it nice to meet me? Did I make your life better in this awkward 30 second, obligatory interaction? Will you remember my name? Or my face? Or my aura? Did you even realize that I believe firmly in “No dead fish” for a handshake? Do me a favor, if you meet me, and it’s not “nice” to meet me, just don’t say it. Or tell me that it’s been “mediocre” to meet me. That kind of honesty would really impress me, and then it would be nice to meet you.
I think what I’m realizing is that 30 is too old to be playing along. I want to speak the truth in all circles and I don’t really care who’s around the perimeter. It’s a waste of time to play along and life is just too damn short. Leave the acting for the actors and be straight up.
Honestly, just be honest. It’s legitimately refreshing. And if you’re going to comb your hair like Christian Bale in American Psycho, don’t expect me to trust anything you say, especially if it involves pencil sharpening.