Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Can I Help You?

One of my favorite phrases is “Can I help you?” By altering nothing more than voice inflection and context, it can convey anything from a helpful countenance to a hostile attitude. Let’s say that you walk into a store, and despite taking note of their cryptic aisle signage, are still unable to locate a can of Rotel. Exasperated, you approach a nearby employee and just as you are about to ask for their assistance they smile and say “Can I help you?” In this particular case, their body language expresses approachability and a willingness to assist in your search.

At the other end of the spectrum is the “bank line” scenario. Let’s say you are standing in line at your chosen financial institution waiting to cash the 41-cent check you received from a class action suit against Pontiac, when you notice that the individual to your right is talking rather loudly on their phone. Unbelievably, the conversation consists mainly of their retelling of an inebriated Friday evening. Around the time they utter the phrase, “Dude, how was I supposed to know she was 16? What am I supposed to do, check the ID of every chick I hit on at Roller City!?” you realize that you are clearly staring at this person in disbelief. They place the phone against their shoulder, look directly at you, and ask, “Can I help you!?”

Even though this individual utilized the identical phrase of the store employee, it is apparent that they have no desire you assist you in your search for dry goods. Instead, they earnestly wish to convey that they have taken note of your interest in their conversation and find it disagreeable. How the scene plays from here depends greatly on your response. You generally have three options:

1.      Feign surprise that they have even taken notice of you, shrug your shoulders, and sheepishly check your deposit slip for the eighth time.

2.      Politely suggest that perhaps they might wish to consider discontinuing the conversation in mixed company.

3.      Inform them that although their dogged pursuit of underage girls at a skating rink is infinitely fascinating to the rest of us, it might behoove them (and their soon-to-be-filed statutory rape case) to choose a more secluded venue for bro-time.

Taking the first option would be the most advisable way to avoid antagonism, but would result in being further subjected to Fast Eddie’s hot-pretzel themed pickup lines. The third option will lead to either a fisticuffs or an enduring friendship so you decide to take the middle ground. This is the approach most likely to win you the silent adoration of your peers but avoid being garroted by a wallet-chain.

My wife recently had occasion to employ the more hostile of the “Can I help you?” incarnations. After hearing a faint knock at our front door, she discovered a man standing outside the window where our son was napping. She stepped out onto the porch, cleared her throat, and said, “Can I help you?”

In the south this is a thinly veiled way of asking “What the hell are you doing on my property?” As it turns out, he was a plumber that I called a week ago to look at a burst pipe that had since been repaired. However, he clearly understood the implication of my wife’s question as he quickly identified himself and apologized disturbing her. 

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