"I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that." - Douglas Rain as HAL9000, 2001: A Space Odyssey

Jan 03 2014


First of all, I'd just like to apologize to every man I've ever worked with named Dave for unleashing this line of dialogue at them when they ask me to do something unpleasant. I wasn't the first, I'm sure I wasn't the last, and I'm sorry I annoyed you just because your name was Dave. If it makes you feel any better, be grateful you weren't named Maria, because then I'd have started singing at you.

There seems to be a shared delusion that the best way to frighten people is to scream at them. Just before Christmas, in fact, I was both entertained and terrified by the way the guy in front of me started bellowing at a bag boy who accidentally stepped in front of him. It didn't matter how many times the poor kid apologized, the man kept shouting about how rude he was and actually started chasing him around the front of the store a little bit, demanding an apology he'd already been given. He even went so far as to offer to take the kid outside to teach him some manners, shrieking his head off the whole way out of the store. Once he was outside, we all laughed at how ridiculous he'd seemed and how badly he'd overreacted about nothing.

We laughed.

I shouldn't try to speak for the other folks who were in the store that day, but I know that the only reason I was frightened was that you never know who's carrying a gun these days. The shouting, cursing, and storming about? He looked like a very large 4-year-old in need of a nap. Not exactly the stuff of nightmares.

Which brings me back to the HAL9000 so politely declining to allow Dave reentry into the spacecraft. Anyone who has seen that film will tell you it's a chilling moment - so chilling the HAL9000 was named one of the American Film Institute's Top 50 Greatest Film Villains. HAL never raises his voice beyond the gentle cadence he uses throughout his sequence in the film. He doesn't curse, he doesn't name call, he doesn't talk about your mama, and he doesn't threaten your little dog.

He very calmly and politely kills you.

Much has been made of the loss of civility in American society over the past 10 years or so. I can remember another incident in a grocery store, when I was only about 7 or 8 years old, when a man began shouting at a grocery store clerk he thought had given him incorrect change. He raised his voice and started using ugly words I hadn't heard much at that point in my short life. 

I'm quite familiar with those words now that I've been teaching for so long. But pay that no heed...

The entire store came to a standstill. We were united in shocked silence and we all watched the manager of the store stride over to the rude customer. "Sir, I'm going to have to ask you to leave the store, and please don't come back. We don't want your business here." The man stormed out, still cursing and shouting. I don't remember anyone laughing, but I do recall several adults thanking the manager for refusing his business.

Similar incident 30 years later? People laugh and the store clerk apologizes to the person who's being rude. That's how common it is.

I'm not saying there's anything we can do about that beyond policing our own behavior. No, I've got a much more important message: how to terrify others.

If shouting and cursing a blue streak has become so commonplace that most people ignore it, conserve your energy and employ a smarter strategy. Follow HAL's fine example: calmly and politely explain how and why they're going to suffer. You don't need to yell to scare someone. Sometimes, being calm and polite is enough to scare the bejeesus out of them.

You know what's even worse? Smile.

Smile genially as you detail how you're going to - with great courtesy and using only the legal means at your disposal - ensure that they rue the day they ever crossed your path and dared to cross you. You don't have to threaten to abandon someone in the airless void of outer space to fill them with fear - just let them know you'll be speaking to their mother. Or their wife. Or their boss. Or their dentist.

Did that last one scare you? Good. Behave yourselves.

Save the screaming for the toddlers who haven't learned a better strategy. Smile and whisper, and the folks you're talking to are more likely to listen. Right, Dave?

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