The Wordless Faux Pas

Say nothing and still say a mouthful!

Normally, a faux pas implies uttering words that shouldn't have been said. They're words that should never have left one's mouth, at least not at that particular moment. For example, gloating about the longevity in one's family, in the company of someone who's recently suffered the premature loss of a loved one, could be considered a faux pas. On the other hand, boasting about habitually exceeding the speed limit to one's neighbor—who also happens to be a cop—is less a faux pas than an incomprehensible lapse of reason.

But sometimes the faux pas doesn't involve words at all. As someone with extensive experience, I can testify that actual words aren't required in order to commit the crime. Really, simple sounds used at exactly the wrong moment are every bit as effective as the more conventional use of actual sentences. For example, a loud snorting sound perpetrated immediately after someone else has commented on the beauty of the baby in the stroller can be every bit as useful for provoking the familiar gasps—and in some cases physical violence—that commonly result from the more traditional form of the faux pas. In a similar way, a spontaneous facial expression—one that under other circumstances might be considered comical—can become a perfectly serviceable faux pas under certain conditions. Rapidly raising and lowering the eyebrows at a child's birthday party almost always results in giggles from the young audience, but wiggling one's eyebrows at the judge in traffic court generally produces the opposite result.

In addition to the classic inappropriate snorting noise, a sharp whistle can be used as a faux pas. Useful for summoning one's dog from the backyard, the same sound becomes a faux pas in a pool hall full of large angry men wearing leather vests emblazoned with the colors of the local outlaw motorcycle gang.

In certain situations, silence can be a faux pas. One example of this would be saying nothing in response to the always popular question—generally posed by one's wife or girlfriend—concerning whether or not a particular item of clothing makes her look fat. Of course, in that situation it may be that the faux pas is unavoidable regardless of the choice of words, sounds, gestures, or the absence of any of those choices. This is known as a Catch 22, so called because it almost always takes less than 22 seconds for the significant other to tackle and bring down the perpetrator. A common alternative definition—used in connection with married couples—refers to the number of dollars one has left after the divorce is final.

Unfortunately, the only sure way to avoid the faux pas altogether—at least for me—is to completely avoid any situation that might involve contact with living human beings. Although I've been known to go to extremes in the pursuit of this ideal, I continue to find myself in situations where contact is unavoidable. No matter how much I try to avoid it, hunger eventually leads me to the supermarket, and all the risk that goes along with that environment. So far, I've been able to minimize my liability by wearing a hockey mask, and duct-taping my mouth before I enter the store. But I know it's only a matter of time until those measures, too, are overcome by my uncanny ability to turn any situation into the opportunity for a good faux pas, especially when discretion would dictate a safer, more reasonable path.


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