Mood Changers [NOT 1/7/22]

Breaking the Tension

Peek a boo by Currier and Ives
Detail from Peek A Boo / by Currier and Ives circa 1868 /Credit Library of Congress

Things to do when a situation is broken

As time goes by, I’m less and less a fan of Saving Private Ryan. The schmaltz doesn’t sit well with me. But there is one scene I like. The squad is completely fried and has pulled guns on each other in anger. And then Captain Miller breaks the tension by finally revealing who he was back home — an English teacher in a small town in Pennsylvania.

Let’s talk about things you do to change the mood in a tense or tedious situation. There’s the great scene in A Christmas Story where the Mom distracts the Old Man from ripping into Ralphie by suddenly bringing up out of the blue that the Packers and Bears have a game on Sunday.

Maybe you’re facing a tired, worn down store employee, but instead of demanding to see the manager you get them to help you by first complimenting their shoes.

Maybe you keep some photos of puppies or kittens on your phone — even if they’re not yours — and if you’re stuck in a cubicle with someone droning on and on and notice they have a photo of their dog or cat, you pull up the photos to break the spell.

Get Them Groaning?

Say you’re stuck in a room with someone and the silence is getting oppressive — do you have a go-to corny joke? For instance (acting this out gets extra impact):

A man walks into a bar with a dog. The bartender says “get that dog out of here!” but the man says “wait, wait, this dog can talk! I’ll show you and then you can give us free beers.”

The bartender looks skeptical, but tells the guy to prove it. So the guy says to the dog “What’s on top of a house?” and the dog says “Roof.” The bartender raises an eyebrow. The guy then says “What does sandpaper feel like?” and the dog goes “Ruff.” The bartender’s eye starts twitching.

The guy says “what’s a slang term in Australia for kangaroo?” and the dog goes “Aroo!” The bartender starts tapping his foot. Then the guy goes “who is the greatest Yankee of all time?” and the dog goes “Ruth!” The bartender grabs them both by the scruffs of their necks, says “that’s it, get out of here” and tosses them to the curb.

Outside, the man throws up his hands at the dog and the dog faces the man and says “I don’t care what you think, I’m never going to say Jeter.”

So What Do You Keep in Your Back Pocket?

When I’m faced with a grumpy baby, I’ve found that a game of peekaboo is a great way to get the fussing to stop. Just the act of covering my face can break the mood. And then pulling back my hands to reveal first a normal face, then increasingly different faces on the next go-rounds will get the baby focused on the game and not their teeth, or itch, or general overtiredness.

“Baby Sitting Up in Baby Carriage” 1957 by Angelo Rizzuto / Library of Congress

So Deadsplinteras and Deadsplinteros, what kind of tricks do you have up your sleeves to get things moving? A song you sing, like John Candy in Planes, Trains and Automobiles launching into the theme from The Flintstones on a bus full of grumpy people? A bit from Shakespeare you can quote? Some ridiculous ringtones you can play on your phone and ask someone if you should switch to them?

Did your mom have a way to distract your dad when he was grumpy? Do you have a coworker who is clever about creating a break in a meeting, by maybe spilling a glass of water that needs to be cleaned up, or “accidentally” kicking out the cord of the projector and putting a stop to a Power Point? Do you keep bits of local sprots team trivia in your head to break the ice with your plumber?

We can all use more of these types of things, so share what works!



    • Heh.

      It’s funny how sometimes the mere gesture of offering a joke, or a story, or a photo is what matters — the person on the receiving end is aware of the dynamic and wants something, anything to move things in a different direction, and will cut you slack if you give it to them, even if the joke or story sucks.

  1. This isn’t an answer to your question, but it’s what I instantly thought of when you brought up Saving Private Ryan. It’s a very good video essay on depictions of war from film to video games. And they talk about that movie a lot as a major turning point. I typed a few attempts to sum up their points, but I can’t do it justice. Worth watching.

    • One of the big problems with SPR is I think Spielberg lost his nerve and felt the need to tack the framing on the beginning and end with old Ryan. Everyone thinks the beginning of the movie is the Omaha Beach scenes, but the actual beginning is awful.

      He tried to have it both ways, and it really undercut the best parts.

      • I agree, I didn’t like the “Modern” portions.

        The part where the former Private Ryan asks his wife to tell the late Captain that he’s been a good man. That really really bothered me. I’ve usually heard shit like that coming from people who have really fucked up and are looking for someone to tell them otherwise (especially managers.) If you really have to ask if you’re a good man then you don’t want to hear the fucking truth.

        We all have our moments of doubt and pain, but we usually know what the hell kind of person we really are and the lives we lead (even if we spend a large chunk of our lives denying it.)

        Maybe Private Ryan did return to the farm and take care of his family. Or he was someone who let the PTSD consume him and lead off into a terrible path that he took out on his family.  I don’t know because there’s nothing about him post war. There is no happily ever after. Life and the universe goes on.

        Either way, you’re right. It feels hollow, but that’s always why Spielberg films have irked me. The schmaltz and the fake sentimentality.

  2. i dont have things in my pocket to get things moving again..i probably didnt even want to be here in the first place

    the silence doesnt bother me

    you know who has opposable thumbs and can stare at a wall for 8 hours?

    this guy *points at self*

    i mean…i cant do it sitting still…so i will annoy the shit out of everyone with my pacing….but i sure as hell wont feel like cracking jokes or anything like that to get a mood going

    leave me alone you chatty bastards

    • Something tells me though, if you’re stuck at a bus stop with a six year old who is bumming out that they won’t get wherever on time, you’re a right charming dude who makes it all OK.

    • I usually assess the situation. If the person don’t want to talk then I won’t make them talk.

      I don’t mind silence either.

      More than a few times, my late friend and I would just sit and stare out the window or watch TV never saying more than “Do you want a beer?” or “Pass me the chips.” Sadly more so when he was in hospice. What the hell could we say to each other?

      • The ending of the movie Big Night with Deadsplinter hero Stanley Tucci and Tony Shalhoub has a great scene like that.

        If you haven’t seen it I won’t spoil it, but it has one of the great what else can you say scenes ever.

    • One of the interesting things in a social situation is whether another party is aware enough and composed enough to reply to someone else’s self deprecation with their own self deprecation.

      If you’re at a party and you tell a story about getting lost on the way, it’s not necessary for them to also say they got lost in the exact same way. But there’s a world of difference between ” I know what you mean, I got lost whenmy phone gave me horrible directions last month” vs. ….long pause…. “I never get lost.”

      • I’ll admit I use self depreciating humor as a test. I don’t mind serious people, but I don’t like people who take themselves so seriously that they can’t make fun of themselves.

        There’s a line between self depreciating and self loathing (which I have crossed from time to time.)

        The folks who tend to fail this little test usually scream right wing (not always.)

      • One time I went off the rails to distract myself from exploding at someone. At one place I worked, I kept being called Steve by someone.  BTW, my name’s not Steve.  The problem was that he was the only other Asian male working at the plant. I don’t know if this particular white guy was racist or just face blind, but being confused with Steve (who is/was a good guy) really really really really pissed me off.

        In order to keep myself from lashing out at Mr Faceblind/Racist?, I went off on a crazy tangent in front of my coworkers.  I turned to two of my techs, a skinny Italian guy and a burly Scottish fellow and blurted:  “You know what bothers me?  It’s that I can’t tell you white guys apart.  Shit, I look at Gio and I think he’s Ben and visa versa.  You white guys gotta wear some fucking name tags.  My Korean eyes have a hard time as you all look alike.  Scottish, Italian, Portuguese, Irish, English… doesn’t matter. You’re just all white to me.”

        The three Indo-Caribbean technicians who were part of team my fell out of their chairs laughing as I ranted on.  They knew exactly why I was saying what I was saying.

        My mostly white coworkers were so confused. At least they didn’t take me to HR.

        Moral of the story: Mr Faceblind never called me Steve, again.

  3. I’ve always hated SPR – mainly for it’s premise. I don’t think there is anything remotely heroic about sending a group of men to their deaths just to save one man for a PR stunt. I know the point was that war is horrible but I watched that movie once and never watched it again because it made me so mad.


    I usually ask people what time they get off work if I get a surly customer service person. If they’re close to the end of their day – it seems to reset them to be nicer. If they have the whole rest of the day – sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.

    If people working for me are having a bad day, I just usually pull them aside and ask what’s going on and how can I help them. I find that bad moods can be contagious and if there is something going on with personalities and/or issues – it needs to be nipped in the bud. I also find that a lot of people won’t address issues with others in the work place and just let things fester until it turns into resentment. I like for the work environment to be pleasant for everyone. I literally won’t fire anyone for a fuck up or multiple FUs but I have been known to fire or not ask back people with crap attitudes. Also, in general – I do find that compliments work well – even just giving one usually puts me in a better mood.




    • A lot of times when people know from the outset you’re just trying to get in and out as efficiently as possible puts them in the best possible place.

      The Seinfeld Soup Nazi is the classic case. Don’t be Elaine.

  4. I make a joke with myself as the punchline. Normally because I’m working with pissed off adult children who are convinced of their own intelligence and I need to ask a question pointing out how dumb something they did was.

    “We all know I’m confused, and let’s be real that’s a common state for me, but hey are you saying ____”

    • That’s a lot like Columbo. There were some great episodes where the writers, directors and actors do an amazing job showing Columbo stepping on rakes over and over in front of the killer, until that moment when the killer realizes it’s been a distraction and Volumbi has been settjng a much bigger trap in the process.

      “Ya know, I just don’t understand how cars work, and when I tried to start this I kept stalling out. Maybe you can tell me what I’m doin’ wrong…”

      3/4 into the episode… “The funny thing is you told me there was a trick to starting the car, but your late wife couldn’t have done that trick only you knew about, so that puts you right at the scene of her murder…”

      • I should really give Columbo another try. My husband convinced me to watch it with him because it was one of his favorite shows as a kid, but I fell asleep halfway through. Pacing was kinda slow…

      • Being a short woman, who has typically been seen as “small & harmless” or “fluff for brains” because of my height & high-pitched voice for most of my life?

        Not gonna lie, I either tend to go the Columbo route, like You & Brighter, *or* i go directly for “Poke The Bear” because i know that *because of my size* I am HIGHLY UNLIKELY to have a negative reaction/negative consequences for it😉😈😁

        If I go “Poke The Bear” it’s typically met with a giant “WTF?!?!???” because I’m often seen by the bear I’m poking as “small and harmless!” so it ends up being a complete shock, and stuns them out of the pissy mood😆😂🤣

        Or the cajoling of me repeatedly poking at them & being annoyingly upbeat & persistent about it(😉😁🤗) tends to make them crack a smile & start fiiiinally talking about what’s *really* wrong & bothering them.

        It works, because it ends up being similar to the effect a persistent kitten or puppy has on decent folks–annoying but cute tends to eventually gain smiles😈😉

        But for ^that^ one, I DO have to know the bear I’m poking!

        The Columbo route is my other play of choice, because if folks don’t know me well, they are so often willing to underestimate me, because I’m “small & fluffy & work with kids!” so they assume I’m the stereotypical “Preschool Teacher” who’s nothing but sunshine & rainbows & has nothing but fluff for brains…. so I just let out enough rope to let them tie themselves into knots & then see that they did it to *themselves*😈

        With the folks I know well?

        I’m also usually good at diffusion, because with those folks, i know how to cajole them around to a better mood, orrrr if they don’t know me *that well*?

        I also am not typically expected to be the person who even knows a swear word…

        So me breaking out in to song with a line like the one from The Offspring’s “Bad Habit”– “You stupid Dumb Shit, goddamned motherfucker!” orrrrr saying something like “Well THAT person was a complete & total Asshat!” can often stun a bad mood directly in its tracks & completely derail it🤣🤣🤣😊

        There have been SO many times, that a well-placed swear or f-bomb has lifted someone’s mood, because they don’t expect someone who looks like a preschool teacher to even know swear words😉

        And with my kids, I tend to go the empathy route of validating their feelings in the moment, then helping them manage those feelings, or if it’s a kiddo who’s refusing requests, I’ll turn the refusal on its head, by making things into something of a game & cajoling them out of the refusal (again, somewhat “Poke The Bear”💖)

        One of my little guys this past year used to get really “Stompy” when he was refusing, soooo i stomped back at him–and that’s how we got into our “Stomp!”/ “Late 1990’s Tap-Revue” routine, of him stomping, then ME stomping, then us stomping *at each other,* which would then turn into us stomping/tapping together, as we moved down the hall😁🤗💖

  5. I’m pretty good at the light and chatty thing, most of the time. A compliment, or a sassy comment, or a joke… I usually pick the right direction to get people to lighten up. I like making people smile.


    I also once broke up a bar fight by sliding in between the 2 guys who were toe-to-toe and kissing the guy I knew. Just full on planted one on him, and asked him to come be my partner at pool. Distracted him so much that he forgot what he was going to fight about and followed me back to the table like a puppy while the other guy’s friends hauled him out. Husband thought it was hilarious and was glad he didn’t have to deal with it (he was the bouncer!)

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