Sunday, 4 May 2014
Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music
You are walking down the street. There is another person coming towards you in the opposite direction and at some point both of you cross paths. She/he moves to their right and you move to your left. You correct the motion by moving in the opposite direction. Wrong again. Third time lucky? No, still, right for her/him, left for you. Quick smile, she/he stays on their right, you move to your right, too and you both resume your journey.
Train station, early morning. You are standing on the platform and you see a neighbour of yours walking along it only to stop right beside you. You know her/him. She/he is the one who lives two doors down from you. You sometimes wave hello from a distance on your way to the newsagents at the weekend, but other than that you too have never exchanged words. Now she/he takes their headphones off and realises that the person standing next to them is you. Her/his neighbour. Your train arrives. It’s your neighbour’s train, too. You sit next to each other and... what to do? Engage her/him in conversation? If so, what to talk about? For how long? How much should you reveal about you and your work and how far can you go when you ask the same questions back?
It is your first day at work in the school to which you have been transferred. You already know some of your colleagues and meet the ones you didn’t. One of them, a female teacher, is having problems trying to carry a large number of boxes up to her classroom. You ask her where she is taking the boxes and she points to the very top of the building. You notice she is wearing a large blouse, bulging around her waist. You volunteer to help her out. She gives you a look of puzzlement but accepts your offer. On the way up you ask her how far along she is. She bursts out laughing and tells you she is not pregnant. From that moment on, every time you see here around in the school you avoid her eyes. By the way, it is not the first time you have made this mistake. Remember the time on the bus when you got up and offered your seat to a lady you thought was pregnant? Or how about the other time as you commuted to work on the Underground when you pointed at a woman across the carriage and beckoned her to your seat? You even made the shape of a tummy with your hands. She threw daggers at you with her eyes.
We teach children about manners. We give them valuable tips to get by in life: not to talk to strangers, to wear a helmet when they are on their bikes, to put a coat on when it is cold. But how do you deal with awkwardness? How do you deal with that “unplanned instant” for which we have no natural reaction? The silence that descends uninvited and unexpected in what was until now a lively conversation? The split second in between us attempting to kiss someone on the cheek and that person turning the other one, resulting in almost an accidental smacker on their lips?
Life is full of moments like these. Some people call these moments embarrassing. To me embarrassment occasionally precedes awkwardness and sometimes includes it. Being introduced to a colleague’s partner whom we have never met before and calling him by the name of her ex-partner is embarrassing. But how are you supposed to know? Until recently she was always going on about Mr X. Nobody told you that she had dumped Mr X and hooked up with Mr Y.
Embarrassment is longer-lasting. Awkwardness is fleeting. I have always seen the latter as a lapse in our methodical lives, especially if, like me, you are a city-dweller. This is the reason why I value awkward moments, even when the outcome is detrimental. Awkwardness is a sign that not everything has been learnt, that there is still space for the clumsy, the unprepared, the unplanned. We live in a world where one of the top-selling online retailers, Amazon, trades in data. It collects data, our data, so that it can target us, as consumers, more effectively. Supermarket giant Tesco knows all about our shopping habits and it bombards us with offers left, right and centre. Against this invitation to order, the existence of awkwardness is a balm for the soul. Proof that the robots will never take over, no matter how many people aver to the contrary, because they would not know what to do about uncomfortable silences in a conversation. To deal with a situation like that, someone would have to programme “uncomfortable silence” in their hard drives. And even after that our metallic friends would still be at a loss when presented with the sight of a colleague wearing a blouse bulging at the waist.
Next Post: “Food, Music, Food, Music, Food, Music... Ad Infinitum”, to be published on Wednesday 7th May at 11:59pm (GMT)