It's the black humor that really does it. The jokes! the man wailed. I used to hear them in France, England, Spain. And Russia! People grumbling about their hopeless governments, about the elemental and irreversible dysfunction of their countries. And Italy! The sourness, the presumption of decline. It was everywhere and now it's with us, too. That dark sarcasm. It's the killer, I swear to God. That's the sign you're down and can't get up! (II.63.14-15)
When Alan meets a businessman on an international flight, he finds that he's not the only one who has suffered from the "globalization" of the economy. The man has seen it before in other countries—and now, it's hitting home. Language, he observes, is the canary in a coal mine here: when it turns bitter, even in humor, we know things have gone bad. This helps us put Alan's unstoppable joking into perspective.
"People tell jokes when they have nothing to say," she said. (IV.38.33)
Ruby has a way of slapping the happy right out of Alan. But before we peg her as a Debbie Downer, there's some truth to what she says here. Alan's constant joking is his way to create an instant bond with someone he knows nothing about—a way to "force" a friendship that isn't really there. Essentially, a joke is something to say when Alan has nothing else to go on. It's also a reflection of the deadness inside of Alan: joking makes it easier to look like he's enjoying the world, when he's clearly not.
She had not asked Trivole and Alan in, but now she was making way for them—simply because Trivole had begun wiping his feet. Suddenly Alan had the same feeling he had when watching a hypnotist or magician—that there were people in the world for whom the world and its people were subjects on which to cast spells. (XI.30.74)
Alan learns some of his best sales tactics from his Fuller Brush mentor Joe Trivole. In this case, it's a lesson in non-verbal language. Joe knows that there are certain physical cues that are like a call-and-response in personal interactions. Here, he relies on the woman's sense of social politeness to literally get his foot in the door.
Most subjects led to their differing ideas of what ailed the nation and thus were off-limits. So they talked about dogs and swimming. (XII.43.85)
You ever go to Thanksgiving with family members who have opposing political beliefs? Yeah, that's pretty much Alan's whole relationship with his dad. There's not much that he and Ron can talk about without resulting in a screaming match—or in Ron reminding Alan just how responsible he is for the downfall of American manufacturing.
They had no interest in manufacturing or the type of person-to-person sales he'd spent his life perfecting. None of them had been even vaguely involved in such things. None of them started, as he had, selling actual objects to actual people. (XVII.30.130)
Alan's inability to connect through conversation with his young IT team illustrates just how much has evolved in our economy. He's quite literally old school: you know, actually talking to people (to their faces! On the phone!) and selling stuff that you can touch. He doesn't have either the language or the concepts to chat with them about anything, and they certainly have no interest in learning about the good old days.
It was the work of a nut. All of it, the letters and clippings, the copies, were all about God, oneness with nature. That was the stuff Charlie was moved by. Grandeur, grandeur—that was the word he liked. Grandeur and awe and holiness and communion, communion with the outside world. (XXIII.15.195)
Charlie Fallon was clearly searching for something meaningful in his life. He didn't seem to be finding it in his personal life or in his work—but he did find it in words. His fascination with the Transcendentalists, alas, probably led to his bizarre death. But it's telling that Alan does not dig any of this hippy-dippy stuff. He's not looking for oneness or communion or unifying beauty, yet Alan, too, is searching—and failing. Perhaps he should have read some of those clippings.
Hearing what seemed to be the near certainty in Mujaddid's statement, the strong implication that Reliant's grip on the IT sale was unshakeable, gave Alan a burst of confidence. (XXV.38.219)
Alan's unrelenting optimism leads him to grasp at any indication of Reliant's success. Even Mujaddid's slightly encouraging tone gives Alan everything he needs to hang in there for just one more day. But communication in this part of the world is slippery and uncertain, even if these two are speaking the same language. Alan doesn't yet grasp that Mujaddid must play a game with him in order to keep Reliant on the sidelines, just in case.
"All these pictures. You work for the CIA or something?"
The man's smile seemed more genuine now, and it must have loosened something within Alan.
"Just some freelance work," Alan joked. "Nothing full-time."
The man's head snapped back an inch, as if he'd smelled something disagreeable, something unnatural. (XXVII.20-23.257).
Alan's unfortunate banter with Yousef's slightly paranoid neighbor shows that he's just not good at a) interpersonal communication and b) cultural context. He relies on his old method of joking to force a temporary relationship with this man, but it's clearly not appreciated. Alan's lack of sensitivity and social perception nearly ends in tragedy on this trip, but even more, it drags down any chance of success from this Saudi Arabian venture.
The work was slow, and the language barrier made it frustrating on both sides, but Alan felt good being outside, using his arms and legs, sweating through his shirt and khakis, and by the end of the day, they'd completed about eighteen feet of the wall. It was far better than the one he'd build in his own yard. (XXVII.82.264-265)
Interestingly, Alan only gets things done when he can't speak with his co-workers. He's stopped to help a group of Saudi workers build a wall, just so he can do something with his hands. When he can keep his brain and his words to himself, he seems to do all right despite the frustration.
"You know I was kidding, right?"
"About wanting the U.S. to invade our country."
Alan didn't know what to say. Yousef was still grinning. (XVIII.123.126.275)
The term "gaslighting" describes a deceptive use of language to manipulate a victim's sense of reality—like when you baldly state something, then turn around and tell the world that you've never said that before or didn't mean it.
Yousef is engaging in a mild form of gaslighting here when he tells Alan that he was only joking about his desire for a U.S. invasion. It makes Alan uncertain and uncomfortable (did Yousef just ask him to be part of a revolution?). But again, language can be really slippery and uncertain in this context, when English is a second language and two men are baring their souls.