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Small talk

You’re at a gathering of pleasant people you don’t know well. Somehow, the fact you’re a motorcyclist comes up and someone pops the question, “So, what kind of motorcycle do you have?” How do you answer? What are you even being asked? Do they want a manufacturer? Model name? Genre? Displacement? Would any of those have meaning? If you’re like me, this simple, well-intentioned inquiry creates a terribly awkward, irrationally irritating situation. I need a trap door to open beneath me and facilitate my immediate, explanation-free exit. Everyone else can go about their business as though the topic were never broached, and I’ll regain my composure elsewhere.

Listen to this column as Episode 10 of The Ride Inside with Mark Barnes; this episode doesn’t include a Q&A session. Submit your questions to Mark for the podcast by emailing [email protected].

Keep in mind there are few things I enjoy more than talking for hours on end about motorcycles and motorcycling. The problem in the aforementioned scenario is I have no idea how to answer that query in a meaningful way without instantaneously overdoing it by a mile. Since the asker didn’t acknowledge being a rider, too, I have to assume they are not. Given that, I must also assume they reside in a world of vast ignorance and wildly inaccurate fantasies about motorcycles, motorcycling and motorcyclists (“Funny, you don’t look like a Hell’s Angel, Dr. Barnes…”). I cannot formulate any short reply that would be satisfying to them and me, so I lock up as though someone just filled my mental gearbox with sand.

The inquirer is undoubtedly making perfectly polite chit-chat. The appropriate response would be, “Why, thanks for asking. I have a blue one.” Then they’d say, “Ooooo, a blue one – NICE!” After this insipid exchange, we’d all promptly move on to the next scintillating option on the fast-spinning Lazy Susan of superficial cocktail hour conversation starters. If only I could follow this script, the ordeal would be over in seconds – but I can’t.

On one hand, to distill down this elaborate, precious, nuanced, fundamentally vital aspect of my life to something as inane as a paint color or a brand, or whatever other one-word reply would fit the situation, seems like patently absurd reductionism and an intolerable betrayal of my identity and much I hold sacred. For that matter, I couldn’t even pluck out just one bike from my current collection, much less a lone representative of my long and varied history as a motorcyclist. I might as well try to capture the complexities of my clinical career in a single measurement of my office chair. I realize they’re not after a comprehensive survey of my half-century of involvement with bikes, but they’ve offered me this one shining moment to present something emblematic of a HUGE part of my life. How can I resist? Pulling at any individual detail, though, drags along with it immense, tangled webs of additional material, all of which seem like critically important context. (Yes, this is what neurosis sounds like.)

On the other hand, any answer involving more than half a sentence will invariably be met with glazed gazes, darting glances or painfully transparent feigned interest, all followed by hasty efforts to relocate or give that Lazy Susan a more deliberate shove. An acquaintance asks how I’m doing as we pass at the store. This isn’t really a question to be answered in any depth; “Fine!” is all they want to hear. Launching into an inventory of my troubles only makes them impatient, resentful and sorry they asked. Likewise, telling a non-rider what I ride in a word or two conveys absolutely nothing, though it’s exactly what they requested. My answer would have to be accompanied by considerable education to be intelligible, but there’s no room in our transaction for the necessary PowerPoint slides. I must now reference something profoundly meaningful to me in utterly meaningless terms; my audience wants literally nothing else. Albeit unintentionally, they’ve put me in an impossible position.

As much as I love talking about all things motorcycling, that’s how much I’ve come to believe non-motorcyclists abhor doing so. Hell, I’d lose my listeners by the time I got through the string of letters and numbers in my BMW’s model designation! Even if I gave them a non-alpha-numeric name of another bike, what could such a moniker possibly mean to them? Would they know what a “dual-sport” or a “Beta” or a “SuperDuke” is? I could make up a nonsense word and they’d nod all the same!

The things Mark loves to do many others would find sheer insanity.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not criticizing other people for having no knowledge of a domain dear to me but alien to them. Nor do I think they should necessarily want to learn anything about it. No one wants to sit through their host’s home movies – or a lecture on desmodromic valve actuation. It’s not that I expect everyone else to find motorcycling as fascinating as I do, it’s a matter of struggling to communicate amidst my conviction I’m already grossly misunderstood and must somehow set the record straight in only a few words. When the other person doesn’t speak my language, has no understanding of my subculture or personal values, and can’t even make sense of my gestures, I’m reduced to grunting despair. The gulf between riders and non-riders feels downright unbridgeable, and the old adage seems excruciatingly apropos: “For those who understand, no explanation is necessary; for those who don’t, no explanation is possible.”

If I were only contending with a lack of information on the other side, it wouldn’t provoke such angst. No, the deeper problem is people think they know things about motorcycling, but what they “know” is so far off the mark it amounts to a barrage of searing, if unwitting, insults. When someone grins and nods vigorously while gripping invisible handlebars, then makes revving noises while twisting both hands and pulling those bars back toward their neck, I become apoplectic. This person believes I both do and enjoy something that couldn’t look more idiotic, and they’re confident they understand how motorcycles work: the rider rotates both handgrips and pulls the bars (apparently ape-hangers in this case) back toward their body to make it rocket forward – it’s as simple as that!

Then there’s the surprise about my incongruous membership in this group. I don’t seem like the kind of person who would do such a thing. Exactly what kind of person do they think would do such a thing? Now we’re dealing with genuine prejudice. In the other’s mind, “bikers” look and behave differently than normal people. We’re supposed to be weird, antisocial, grungy mongrels readily identifiable in any setting, maybe because we’re forever clad in black leather, all our exposed skin is covered in skull-and-dagger-themed tattoos, and we display unmistakable evidence of numerous brain injuries. Of course, “respectable” members of society don’t come right out and say this to my face, but it’s implicit in their shock that an apparently “regular” human being could do something so frightfully, disgustingly irregular. Perhaps the utterance that makes me squint the hardest is [said with the smarmy inflection of someone sure they sound like a credible insider], “What kind of Harley do you ride, man?” Here, “Harley” is to motorcycles as “Kleenex” is to tissues; a single brand name which has come to represent an entire product category. I’m offended someone so glaringly illiterate considers themselves so impressively savvy, or at least thinks I’m that gullible.

If answering “blue” does such violence to the topic I can’t stand it, but anything more instills such burdensome boredom in the asker they can’t stand it (not to mention the impact on innocent bystanders!), what now? I don’t know. Hence my usual mumbling, squirming, halting attempts to split the difference and quickly give the Lazy Susan a forceful turn of my own. As you see, it’s not just my inability to judge how much detail to provide about a bike I own. I’m also combatting a set of preposterous stereotypes activated in the other person’s mind by the simple revelation I’m a motorcyclist, a set from which they’ll pin one on me! None will have much, if any, basis in reality – not only my personal reality, but the realities of actual motorcycles, actual motorcycling, and actual motorcyclists. Nevertheless, I see the wheels turning in their head…

Okay, if he’s not a Hell’s Angel (no greasy beard, blood-stained leather or visible prison tattoos), then what other ridiculous template from movies, television or rumor should I apply? Does he have a death wish? Is he stuck in perpetual adolescence? He must be much less educated, less intelligent, less responsible than I initially thought – or is he a dangerously sophisticated psychopath? Why does he terrorize his community with deafening exhaust noise and wheelie through hospital zones? What’s he trying to compensate for?

How the genteel guests at the dinner party see everybody who rides a motorcycle.

There’s no way to fend off all these misconceptions with a properly brief response. It’s like being aggressively cross-examined by an attorney who insists I answer “yes” or “no” to the question, “Do you still beat your wife?” I might attempt to clarify I never beat my wife in the past or present, but he cuts me off and demands only one word, yes or no.

Obviously, I’m exaggerating and being hypocritical here. I’ve just done the very thing about which I’m complaining. My caricature of non-riders is as hyperbolic as their supposed caricature of us. I do know better. Some of them don’t immediately jump to such outlandish conclusions, and would actually display a bit of sincere, open-minded curiosity about my motorcycles and my involvement with them. No doubt our conversation would bear no resemblance to a deeper discussion I’d have with a fellow rider, but it could still be an enjoyable, meaningful interaction.

Yet there is truth in the above portrayals. Not only are all those dramatizations based on my own true-life experiences, but an anti-motorcyclist stigma really does persist within the population at large. It’s a curious sociological phenomenon that outlaw biker imagery originating in old movies and 1960s newsreels retains such a prominent place in modern mainstream fantasy. Maybe I should view interactions with non-riders as opportunities to show “regular folks” motorcyclists can also be “regular folks,” but that’s not quite right, either. While we’re not all Hell’s Angels, and we come from all walks of life with wide-ranging interests and personalities, we do possess a taste for adventure uncommon in conventional circles. Certainly, other enthusiasts share this distinction, too. Mountain climbers, aviators, and sailing aficionados might feel vexed like me when put on the spot to deliver a soundbite on behalf of their respective Passions.

Your dream gathering. Mark’s utter nightmare.

I still think we’re special. As evocative as many other adventurous activities may be, motorcycling has a unique place in the popular psyche. It conjures especially intense emotional reactions, many of them dark. Because of this, motorcycles carry lots of extra psychological baggage. No parents will become uneasy upon learning their child is dating a mountaineer, pilot or sailor – but a motorcycle rider? Most sphincters will tighten at that point.

Motorcyclists aren’t going to win hearts and minds by hijacking dinner party conversations or getting defensive about our image, and there’s a type of mortification we simply must endure when others try to demonstrate their solidarity with grotesquely misinformed impersonations. Our challenge is to suffer such foolishness with grace and appreciate any affiliative intent, however misguided. We may occasionally get to have a more substantive discussion with someone later, but there’s just no way to fit something as big as motorcycling into something as little as small talk. “Blue” it must be.

Mark Barnes is a clinical psychologist and motojournalist. To read more of his writings, check out his book Why We Ride: A Psychologist Explains the Motorcyclist’s Mind and the Love Affair Between Rider, Bike and Road, currently available in paperback through Amazon and other retailers.

2 thoughts on “Small talk

  • I like to say ” a sport tourer, as I like to go both fast and far”…if it gets beyond that, well….they asked for it….

  • Mark. Great article. Having recently moved, I’m interacting will new people frequently. So I’m constantly confronted with how to respond to the motorcycle type inquiry. As you say, we need to give them just enough info so they feel satisfied with the response but not overwhelmed hem because most people aren’t really interested. It’s the same with mountain biking or skiing; most people can’t relate. My go to answer is one step more detailed than “blue”, though. I usually say “it’s a touring bike so I can travel around”. That usually satisfies them and the conversation shifts to something more mundane. Only once has someone ask to see my bikes and the shop…another aficionado and kindred spirit.

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