Remember when you were a child and a visit to a furniture shop meant you could run around and ‘play house’, imagining every sitting room suite and double bed was your own home? What fun we used to have. Sadly that’s not acceptable behaviour for a grown up. I’ve tried it and all you get are disapproving stares from other customers and requests to leave from store security.
This is why I bring my children with me when I visit these retail outlets. I use them as a cover for my childish behaviour. Last weekend we were in a popular furniture chain and I was exhorting my two boys to try out every sofa, kitchen table and office chair available. ‘Do you need any assistance?’ a member of staff asked me. ‘No thanks!’ I yelled gleefully, running from display to display, while my children sheepishly followed. I found a nice looking leather recliner. In America the popular brand is La-Z-Boy; you can push back into the armchair and the footrest pops up while the back of the chair reclines. I’ve always wanted a nice leather recliner that I could call my own and wouldn’t end up covered in dog hairs, mashed biscuits and chewed lollipop sticks. I’ve another ten years or so before this becomes a reality.
‘Check out this armchair lads,’ I said as I flopped into it, ‘watch how it works!’ I planted my feet onto the ground and began to push back, with my arms clamped to the sides. ‘This is great,’ I said, as the chair (and me obviously) began to tilt back. There was no sign of the footrest at this point, however, and yet I was still reclining. Further back I tilted until suddenly I had the sensation of... well, falling backwards. The reason for this was because I was literally falling backwards, on the armchair. It wasn’t a recliner; it was just a regular leather armchair. Back, back I went. My view momentarily became the ceiling of the furniture store and the next thing I knew the chair was on its back I was rolling heels over head onto the shop floor.
‘Ta-daa! And for my next trick I’ll execute some equally mortifying manoeuvre.’
When faced with public humiliation there are two ways to respond: laugh it off loudly and proudly, or scuttle away red-faced and sad. For the benefit of my two children, who had observed this You’ve Been Framed-style stunt, I opted for the former. I felt it was the right example to set. There was a fellow shopper in the vicinity, an older lady, who undoubtedly witnessed the event. How did she react? She quite literally moved away and pretended not to notice. There was no ‘are you okay there young man?’ or ‘should I call an ambulance?’ She clearly felt under threat of humiliation contagion and wanted to distance herself from the middle-aged loon with the kids. Granted, I didn’t need an ambulance and I was perfectly okay, but a little bit of compassion wouldn’t have gone astray.
More significant was the reaction from my two boys. The older fellow started crying and the younger chap burst out laughing. My embarrassment was momentarily forgotten while I tried to grapple with the contrasting reactions. I had to reassure the older lad that I was okay, but at the same time concur with the younger boy that the incident was indeed quite a hoot. The Germans have a word for deriving pleasure from the misfortune of others: Schadenfreude. The antonym is Mitgefühl, which essentially means ‘compassion’. Which word would describe your typical reaction?
It got me thinking that we are born one of two types of people: those who laugh at the man slipping on the banana skin and those who feel his pain. In order to reassure my children, I was in the unusual position of having to endorse or be an advocate for both reactions. At this point matters were getting a bit too philosophical for me, and it was obvious the staff were hoping I’d just leave, so we went for a hot chocolate. I’ve been thinking I should contact the furniture shop and ask for CCTV footage of the incident. It could make a fortune on YouTube. I wonder do the Germans have a word for deriving financial gain from online video exploitation of the time you fell off an armchair?