Fear experiment #4: A confrontation with my fear of confrontation (with special appearance by an anti-vaccine cheesemonger)



I hate confrontation. How much?

This much.


Partly, it’s because I am shy. Partly, it’s because I am wussy. Confrontations, no matter how monumental or minor, make my heart beat faster, palms sweat, weird chills zig-zag up and down my back. I develop tics, suddenly, out of nowhere. Who is that cracking her knuckles or messing with her hair? I don’t do that! Normally, anyway. It’s like the merest thought of conflict makes my entire body start to fall apart. Not that avoiding confrontations is particularly healthy either. My guess is that doctors don’t recommend my general M.O.—quiet roiling with outrage, followed by loud venting on social media—as a stress-reduction strategy. Thinking back, there are so many confrontations I could have had, but didn’t:

Scenario #1: NJ Transit guy sets his coffee cup between us on the images-2seat.
What I should have said: “Hey NJ Transit guy? I would like you to remove your cup. Here’s why: It might spill! Which is a possibility that you obviously haven’t considered. And while we are on the subject, why would you even set a cup there? Is it because you think it’ll keep your drink warmer? However well-insulated my ass may appear, it is not your coffee cozy.”
What I did say: Nada.

Scenario #2: Back when I was editing, a big-name writer gets mad at me for making a few suggestions.
What I should have said: “OK, you said these changes are destroying your voice. But here is the thing: We can’t run 10 exclamation marks in a 200-word piece. You’ll look like a hyper-caffeinated middle-school cheerleader. So really, we’re doing you a favor! Because IMHO, if I were one of the National Book Award judges, I’d ask you to turn in your honor on the basis of those exclamation marks alone.”
What I did say: “Actually, my name isn’t Nicole.”

Scenario #3: While I am phone banking for Obama for America, a woman screams at me because all these mother-fucking calls were ruining her mother-fucking dinner.
What I should have said: “Hey, lady, just imagine how crappy your dinners will be when you have to spend them discussing Vice President Ryan’s latest policy address? Are you nauseous now? Good!”images-3
What I did say: “I am so sorry! We will take you off the list.” OK, in this case, I was right to be meek. I had ruined her mother-fucking dinner.

So the other day, when I was in a fancy grocery store, and another scenario presented itself, I was inclined to avoid confrontation yet again.

In this case, an older woman by the cheese counter, was handing out cheddar cubes. There is nothing better than a free cheese cube.

To my surprise, the woman was pontificating. Not about the many virtues of Humboldt Fog, or the horror show that is pre-shredded cheese. But, for some reason, about vaccines.

“I say, just have measles and be done with it,” she was saying to some man who was blankly nodding (whether in agreement or mere courtesy, I couldn’t tell). “I don’t even think it’s safe to put this sort of thing in your body. Who knows what chemicals are in those shots?”images-4

I felt the slow burn of outrage begin in my stomach and radiate out. And the urge to flee, flee to the safety of the freezer section or the cold cuts, to leave the crazy lady and her (Jenny) McCarthyite propaganda behind.

But damn it, I wanted those cheese cubes.

So I said something. I’m not going to direct-quote myself here, because the whole episode was a minute-long blur. But I made a few points:

• That maybe, just maybe, a high-end grocery store wasn’t the optimal setting for a poorly-informed rant against vaccines.
• That it was just this sort of backwards thinking that was resulting in thousands of children getting preventable diseases.
• That I would take a sample of each cheese, thank you very much.

I’ll be honest. The whole thing wasn’t all that dramatic. She looked mildly surprised and uncomfortable, but the exchange was civil and probably didn’t ruin her day, or even her hour. And I felt triumphant to have stood my ground. I wouldn’t have done it without the prompting of this little experiment of mine. And hey, maybe I kept her from spreading misinformation to other grocery shoppers.

Now, if I could only find that NJ Transit guy.