Those Things We Do

Humans, it is said, are creatures of habit. That's certainly true, but it occurs to me that some of our habits are more useful than others.

For example, consider the act of making tea. We toss a teabag in a cup, boil some water, put them together to steep and then… dump the teabag in the sink. I'm not sure why we do this, except that there must have been a rash of garbage pail fires back in the 1970s caused by hot, soaking-wet teabags. Either that or a kitchen cleaner manufacturer has subliminally encouraged this in its advertisements so we buy their “tea stain removal” products.

We have a number of strange habits when we're on the phone too. For instance, ask anyone (in North America, at least) at the other end of the call a question that involves shuffling through paper or looking something up. Chances are that, while doing so, they will make a strange noise with their mouth that sounds something like “chew-tee chew-chew-chew.” I think this comes from a generation of radio and television conditioning: we know there must not be dead air silence.

Or consider gestures. How many times do you or your officemates gesture to explain something while in a phone conversation, even though the other person isn't able to see it? And how many times are you going to laugh at yourself this week now that I've pointed this out? [Columnist's disclaimer: Author not responsible for laughter causing car accidents if you were talking on your cell phone and noticed yourself gesturing. Indeed, author strongly encourages you to stay off the phone while driving and to stay in your own lane!]

Speaking of driving, another utterly useless practice is turning on your signal light to indicate that you want to parallel park. This is because in most cities, traffic is so bumper-to-bumper that the person behind you is only three inches away from your tailpipe and couldn't back up to give you any room even if he wanted to. And anyway, he probably won't want to, because he's too busy gesturing rudely at you to move on. Or possibly gesturing at the person he's talking to on his cell phone.

Some of our habits have good intentions. I suspect most of you, either at home or at the office, have a place at your desk for pens and pencils. This will either be in the right-hand drawer, or in a battered coffee mug that says “I listen to CHUM FM Radio!” on the side. Time for a quick survey. How many of you

A) Don't have any actual pens or pencils in your special “pen and pencil place” because you've absentmindedly left them near the copier or other people have filched them?

B) Have 38 pens that don't work because they have no ink, and 15 pencils that don't work because they haven't been sharpened in five years and you have no idea where you put the sharpener?

Of course there are some habits with historical legacies that may have made sense once. Many of us still say “knock on wood” or “touch wood” when we want to prevent a jinx on whatever we just mentioned. The problem with this of course is that very few of the things we own these days are wood and somehow saying “knock on MDF product” or “touch plastic” just doesn't have the same ring to it. And talking of ringing, there's the phone. I'd sign off on this column now, except that I can't find a working pen. Just as well you can't see me gesturing about this.

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