Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Lessons in social awkwardness: ignoring people you know

I am a reasonably personable individual, but there are times when I find social interactions unnecessarily hard. I have thought quite a lot about what it is that sends me into a nose dive of social awkwardness and have decided it's generally related to a forced transition from being an introvert (i.e. lost in my own thoughts) to being an extrovert (i.e. talking to other people). Spontaneous small talk (or any form of small talk to be honest) is just not my thing.

Take today's example. I was walking to the childminder's after work when I came up behind someone who looked like one of my NCT friends. I wasn't sure it was her (she was wearing some jazzy purple trousers I just couldn't quite picture her in) but she walked like my friend, and her hair looked like my friend's... As I passed her (she was going slowly and I was running quite late) I took a sideways glance and realised it probably was her. Did I stop and say "Hi!" though? Nope, for some idiotic reason I kept going. I then spent 5 minutes marching on as fast as I could, debating how I could possibly acknowledge that she was behind me, without making it obvious that I had known she was there all along and had snubbed her.

It's not that I don't like this woman - she's lovely and we always have a good old chinwag when we meet up. It wasn't that I was in too much of a rush to talk to her either. I could have spared an extra minute to walk at her pace and have a chat, or I could have just said, "Hi, I'm really sorry, I have to run". It's more that when I am walking to and from work, that is my quiet, reflective time, and I find it really tough to switch to sociable mode. Plus, from my brief glance, I couldn't be 100% sure it definitely was her and I didn't want to randomly stop mid stride and say hi if it wasn't - potentially very embarrassing.

Maybe this inability to switch modes makes me slightly autistic. It almost certainly makes me antisocial and probably quite rude. Yet however much I kick myself for doing it, time and time again I find myself pretending not to see people rather than just stopping and saying hi. My aversion to an awkward social encounter, one with no clearly defined end point or get out clause (particularly when you're in a hurry and walking in the same direction) and ripe with the possibility that, caught off guard, you'll say something stupid, is just too strong. Because, caught off guard, I usually do say something stupid, like "bit chilly today isn't it?" (in December) or I'll forget to enquire about something vital like "how's your Dad doing after his heart attack?" or "are you having a nice birthday?" which will cause more self-admonishment later.

I wish I could tell everyone I've ever ignored not to take offence - that it really isn't you, it's me. Who knows, maybe they actually appreciate me not saying hi, as it means they can pretend not to have seen me either, neither of us has to talk, and we can both go about our days in blissful knowing ignorance. I'm sure this is true for some fellow anti-socialites I know. Furthermore, if I'm being REALLY honest, there possibly is a dash of "I won't disturb them because why would they want to talk to me?" in the mix of my thoughts too. On a largely unconscious level, I believe I'm doing them a favour by sparing them my presence.  Not a sign of healthy self-esteem I'm sure, but as I whinged a couple of weeks back, that's one of the potential downsides of being more self-aware...

Anyway, I made amends eventually today. As I was unlocking the buggy once I reached my childminder's, my friend walked past and I did then shout out a hello and apologise for ignoring her as "I wasn't quite sure it was you" (nearly true). We parted on smiley, friendly terms, and she admitted she had seen me too but had thought I looked busy so didn't want to disturb (I was reading an email on my phone, it's true). I have no real idea how much offence was taken though. I'll probably never know either, because, like me, she's one of those people who will keep on smiling even when you've spilled coffee in their lap. Which I have actually done. Twice. Oh dear, she secretly hates me, doesn't she?

Sunday, 20 September 2015

Ten things to expect when renting a holiday home

The Ducks are currently on holiday (sorry, vacation) in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Not an obvious choice, I know, but it was the furthest place we could think of that would involve sunshine and beaches and balance maximum air mile usage (Drake has a bucket and spade load) with a survivable flight time (seven hours to Boston was only mildly hellish).  Plus the US is really child friendly. As is advisable for any holiday with small children, we're staying in a rented house rather than a hotel. The house is great - traditional shingled exterior, a stone's throw from the beach with a creek out back and a canoe! However, as with every rented house / villa / apartment I've ever stayed in (and I'm going back to my own childhood here), the photos and descriptions on which you make your choice don't quite tell the whole story. Here follows a list of Duck Family holiday home certainties:
  1. You'll be slightly creeped out by the unfamiliar, mildly (sometimes very) shabby interior for the first day or two, and spend a lot of time with your feet tucked under you in case a hand reaches out from under the sofa and grabs your ankles or a bug runs up your trouser leg.
  2. The kitchen will be stocked to the gunnels with a hodge podge of gadgets and gizmos that you don't even recognise, let alone need, but it will be devoid of several essential bits of kit that most people use every day. Our house this year has a crab pot and crab claw crackers (to be fair, we are in Cape Cod, seafood capital of the US), a Nutribullet, a capsule coffee maker with no capsules and no indication of what capsules it takes, three Tupperware tub lids (no actual Tupperware) and six chip 'n' dip bowls. It entirely lacks wooden spoons, a functioning potato peeler, sharp knives, a salad bowl, a proper chopping board, egg cups or any form of spatula.
  3. At some stage, the house will be invaded by unwelcome wildlife. In the past we've shared our home with mice (twice actually), a swarm of harvest spiders, giant centipedes, ants, feral cats and, my favourite, a "ghost", which may or may not have actually been one of the rats that lived in the tree outside rummaging through our bins.  My Dad took us to the best places when we were kids...
  4. There will come a point, usually three or four days in, where you sit out on a lounger at dusk, gin and tonic in hand, surrounded by chirping insects, and you'll say "why the hell do we live in the UK?" Then a moth the size of a sparrow will get stuck in your hair and you'll remember why.
  5. The house will contain at least one fundamental design flaw / oversight that will bug you all week. This year it's the lack of a full length mirror anywhere, and a parasol so small that only one person can sit in the shade at a time.
  6. Your welcome pack will contain local idioms or bad translations that make you laugh out loud. My all time favourite was in France, where the local restaurant guide suggested we eat somewhere with a speciality of "raw cow with truffle soil". I think they meant steak tartare with truffle oil, but we avoided that particular dish anyway, just in case.
  7. Something will break or go wrong at some stage, often following a thunder storm that trips all the fuses. This year, it was a smoke alarm which woke us all up at 6 am due to a flat backup battery, then proceeded to beep intermittently for most of the morning until Drake found a loose wire and plugged the battery back in to charge. What a man!
  8. However "child friendly" the blurb claims it to be, there will be at least one major hazard that you child will seek out within minutes of arrival. Like a sodding great river in the garden... Or the sharp, terracotta tiled steps my sister slipped on the first time she climbed them, necessitating a dash to a Spanish A&E for some chin stitches.
  9. The artwork / d├ęcor / furniture will sit somewhere on a scale of "not quite to my taste" to "were they on f**king acid?!". Best ever = the house in Provence with a giant mural of The Cat In The Hat on the bathroom wall. That cat was no prude about folks in the nude... (sorry).
  10. Whatever your initial misgivings, by the end of your stay you will have grown rather fond of the place and won't want to leave. I will almost certainly shed a little tear tomorrow when we go, though we do at least have a few more days in a hotel in Boston to round off the holiday nicely. Cue multiple accidental calls to reception, obsessive knocking on other people's doors and mini shampoo bottles emptied out on the carpet. Give me a rubbish potato peeler any day..

"I go boat in Mummy's doos?  Yes?" (N.B. we did not allow him to go out in the canoe in my shoes.  Or indeed at all...)

Thursday, 10 September 2015

Does it pay to be self-aware?

Last week, I found myself drawn into a conversation with a colleague about a self-help book she'd once read on the merits of being "self-aware".  She couldn't remember the name (and a subsequent search of Amazon* didn't help much - there are hundreds), but the basic assertion seemed to be that self-awareness is universally a Good Thing for everyone. To be honest, this seems to be a pretty common theme in most self-help / management bible type literature (not that I've read much - money for old rope mostly, if you ask me). If you know yourself - so the thinking goes - you can strive to take action and improve yourself, which in turn improves your relationships with others, your life prospects and ultimately society as a whole. Hooray!  I have no doubt that there is an strong element of truth in this, and God knows the colleague in question needs a bit more self-knowlege. Since having Duckling, I've definitely felt the need to critique my own behaviour more too, primarily to ensure I don't set a crap example. However,  despite what the books say, I remain to be convinced that being really self-aware is that great for the individual concerned. Some of the happiest people I know are also some of the most blinkered, shallow and clueless, and they seem to bumble through life just fine, precisely because it never occurs to them that they should strive to be anything other than what they are now. Yes, the more unpleasant types piss other people off, but because they don't realise it, they just aren't bothered. It almost makes me jealous...

There seem to be a host of different ways of defining self-awareness.  At its most basic level, it is the ability to look in the mirror and recognise oneself as distinct from the surrounding environment; a conscious and autonomous individual in the crowd. Delve a bit deeper, and you discover more complex layers. The ability to recognise your own personality and key character traits. Knowing your strengths and weaknesses and your "place" in family, work and social structures. Understanding your emotions, thoughts and memories, and the fact that they might not always be accurate reflections of reality (at least not reality according to other people)... The list goes on.

When you think about it, it's actually quite a slippery concept. I consider myself reasonably self-aware under all the above categories (but then I would, wouldn't I?!), but it's difficult to be sure that I really am because self-awareness, as used in common parlance, doesn't actually have all that much to do with the 'self'. Herein lies my first issue. When we state that someone has no self-awareness, we generally mean that they have a poor grasp of how others (we) see them, not that they don't have a strong sense of who they are. That weird guy in accounts who always makes inappropriate comments about your outfits may be universally known as "Creepy Chris", but in his mind's eye he is "Cheeky Chris", and describing your new boots as 'kinky' will make your day (no Chris, it really won't).  Furthermore, character traits are socially constructed, and because we do not live in a vacuum, we can only really be defined when placed within a particular context and compared to those around us. So Chris is creepy, but only because we're in the office; in a nightclub he might get away with it. What's more, in comparison to Pervy Pete, Creepy Chris is just mildly inappropriate and a bit socially awkward. 

Poor old Chris struggles because we can only really understand ourselves by listening to the discourse around us and observing the reactions of others, and he's not very good at that.  He finds it tricky both because people lie (or at least don't reveal the whole truth for fear of hurting his feelings / embarrassing him / showing themselves up) and because his interpretation of their reactions is coloured by his own internal reasoning, which in turn is influenced by his past and personality. Chris sees us blush and turn away, but because of the way his Dad always talked about women and his Mum behaved, he thinks it's because we're flattered but shy, not, as is actually the case, weirded out and squirming. To be properly self-aware therefore, you ironically have to be a really good reader of other people, and this is far from straightforward.

The next problem: to be really self-aware, you have to question how and why you do things. A lot. If you're not careful, this can tip you into becoming either self-conscious or self-obsessed. You know your weaknesses and fret when these are tested. You know some people see you as bossy, and thus scan every utterance and every reaction to that utterance for signs of people being put out by your domineering style. Eventually, you can become so inhibited and guarded, that your fundamental personality and spontaneity can be warped. Alternatively, you constantly ask people "oh God, did I offend you?", which is actually more annoying than whatever it was that you thought might have been offensive in the first place. I struggle with the self-aware / -conscious / -obsessed balance regularly. 

Then you have the fact that being self-aware doesn't necessarily mean you can change your behaviour, which is very frustrating. I am perpetually late for everything and it really annoys me and everyone else I know, but recognising this and the causes for it doesn't seem to make me any better at leaving the house on time. I am also shy, some might say standoffish, when I meet unfamiliar people, mainly because I am afraid to let my more extrovert, know-it-all side out (years of being branded an uppity teacher's pet will do that to you). I worry that my new acquaintance will decide I'm really annoying or show-offy or weird, will call me names and won't want to play with me anymore, boo hoo hoo. I recognise being shy doesn't do me any favours, and yet I can't seem to change it because the alternative - irritating people - seems much worse.

Finally, in part because of the above, self awareness means you have to experience lows as well as highs. If you're a real happy-go-lucky type, chances are you're either not very self-aware (you just pootle through life unconcerned about looking like a fool or about your impact on others) or you're a bit of a egotist (you only notice your strengths and the times other people say you're great). Conversely really downbeat people often only notice their weaknesses, failures and less attractive characteristics, or fail to consider their own influence at all and blame their woes on fate, their crappy lot in life, or on other people. Thus they never see that they have the power to improve things.  Or at least that's what the books would say, I sure.

A truly self-aware person will sit somewhere in the middle.  They can recognise when they've really contributed to a job well done, and can feel good when they've consciously avoid causing offence, or actively made someone feel great about themselves. But they also have to stare the reality of the times they've been a bit shit square in the face. And that's HARD. Particularly when you're prone to guilt (i.e. female) and when you can't be certain how shit you've actually been. In some respects it would be great to be able to give everyone you know a survey about their impression of you to understand more about yourself. But the results would have the potential to completely shatter your self-esteem, and those with no self-worth are even worse for social harmony  than those with no self-knowledge. 

So while self-awareness is probably good for society as a whole, I think a bit of self-delusion is ultimately necessary to get us, as individuals, through life, help us achieve things we might otherwise think we couldn't and keep us from constantly being paralysed by anxiety and the knowledge that we are but an inconsequential speck of sand in the great desert of space and time...  I can never be sure how self-aware I really am, but I know for certain that if I didn't have some self-delusion about others' interest in my ramblings, I probably wouldn't be writing this blog. Though I might not be running quite so late for our flight right now.  I know it usually takes forty minutes to get to Heathrow, be we can do it in ten, right?

Maybe I should read that self-help book after all...

*just as a random aside, my quick search of Amazon inexplicably came up with this absolute gem at the top: Shiatsu Therapy For Horses.  Had me giggling for ages.