On not knowing how to be

I don’t resort to bad language as a rule but there are times when the occasional expletive shoots from my mouth, the odd fuck or shit.

Otherwise, I tend towards the well-spoken.

I try to enunciate my vowels the way my teachers taught me at school. But these days I find there is a disconnect between the words that come out of my mouth and the thoughts in my mind.

These days I find there are things I want to say to the person seated opposite, things I should not say, like

‘Your breath is foul,’ or

‘There’s parsley on your teeth,’ or

‘There’s a pink line along the edge of your neck where your makeup begins and your skin colour ends. It looks ridiculous.’

 I want to say these things but I know they are rude and people do not say such things to one another, unless they’re troubled, or the mother of a small child or maybe someone’s partner.

But even married people don’t say these things to one another unless they aim to hurt.

These days, whenever I sit with the group of people from my work, when we form a tight circle around the edge of the room and hold our hands on our laps and look at one another earnestly as we speak about the important things that matter at our work with troubled people who come to our agency for help because they have no money and someone has to decide whether they should be eligible for a hamper of food or a credit card that allows them to buy proper food at a supermarket or provide a bed for the night.

We cross and uncross our legs. We take it in turns to speak. We wait patiently until the person speaking has had their say. We do not interrupt. We do not remark on anyone’s appearance or the fact that one person looks to be hung over or that another member of the group is fighting off the urge to sleep or someone else is trying to stop themselves from flying into a rage because they did not get the permission they needed to give a large sum of money to a very worthy woman to whom they had taken a liking.

We do not remark upon what we have observed or give words to our thoughts, or so I believe if I am to believe that other people think like me.

But I cannot be sure that other people think like me and when the woman who sits beside the tall older man who has now fallen asleep and begun to snore taps him on the leg to wake him up, does she do so because she is like me and cannot abide the sound of a man snoring or does she do it to spare him the embarrassment of being so deeply asleep that his snores will soon turn into grunts and everyone will notice.

Not everyone is like me, I need to remind myself.

Not everyone cares about what other people are doing or saying or not saying. Not everyone wants to get inside the other person’s head to figure out what goes on there.

It is important to take care in this world of social discourse.

It is important to keep good manners, to watch your ps and qs, as my mother used to say.

It is important to keep up appearances as my sister once told me. To be tactful, and sensitive as my teachers have taught me. To look to the needs of others and to forego your own.

But it can be hard to know your own needs when you have focussed so much on what goes on in the minds of others, or at least when you have focussed so much on what they might be thinking especially when they do not say.

‘Would you like tea or coffee?’ the person in charge of the kettle says to the next person who stands in the queue.

‘I’m easy,’ he says.

‘Whichever is easier,’ the next person says

And the woman with the kettle must decide for them or ask again, ‘Which do you prefer?’

People are like that. They don’t own up to their desires or preferences and so you need to figure it out from the clues and hints that come your way and you can never be sure.

You can only practise yourself.

‘Yes, please. I’d like a cup of tea, white with one sugar.’

The sugar is dangerous, you know.

In this day and age, people disapprove of sugar much as they disapprove of cigarettes. Smoking is a complete no-no and drinking too much alcohol as well. A small glass sipped gently and over a long period of time is okay but no guzzling.

Serious drinking and the eating of sugar must take place behind the scenes.

I cannot get to an end of all things I must figure out in the strange thing called human discourse, but I shall keep on trying, otherwise I will be ostracised and then I will not have one single clue about how to live my day.

I want my share

Years ago, Barbara Johns, a woman who taught my children public speaking, addressed an audience of parents and children about the art of speaking out loud to groups of people.

The words that stayed with me from that evening where we all sat together in the local scout hall, keen to hear more about how best we could help our children to become confident young people, and able to command an audience,

‘When you get up to speak in public, your audience is on your side.’

Your audience wants you to do well, Barbara Johns told us.

Your audience is keen to hear from you, and especially to hear that you have something meaningful or entertaining or compelling to tell them, something, whatever it might be.

Your audience suffers with you if you’re too anxious or if you lose your train of thought.

Your audience is your friend.

This idea appealed to me. It suited me to imagine then that if I was to get up to speak my audience would back me.

I’ve since discovered that’s not always the case and that audiences by and large might want the speaker to do well but audiences consist of individuals and people are not homogenous in their desires to see you do well.

There are those who might object to something you’re saying, those who might want to silence you – out of disgust, or rage, or even out of envy, or resentment that you’re the one out there in front and not them.

Your audience, or at least some members of your audience might dislike you for political or personal reasons and resist what you’re saying.

I wish I could hold more steadfastly to Barbara John’s notion that our audience is on our side because whenever I imagine my audience in my head, I’m aware of a much more hostile audience, one that’s ready to bring me down.

Why is this so?

Perhaps it has something to do with the position I hold in my family of origin. Something about being a middle-born child and a female to boot.

Perhaps it has something to do with the fierce competitiveness I’ve long detected among my siblings, each of us striving to outdo one another, even the youngest pitched in competition against the oldest.

The age differences and chronology don’t apply so much these days when we’re all over five decades old and my oldest brother is in his mid-seventies and my younger brother nearly sixty.

But still something of the flavour of those childhood years remain and for me in the middle, my memories of feeling inadequate when pitched against my older sister remains intact.

When I hear my older grandson rebuke my younger grandson for being stupid, I tell him to desist.

‘Don’t tell people they’re stupid.’

They‘re very likely to believe you.

Siblings have a way of competing that no others hold. It’s a competition for parental love most likely.

In my family, there was always this sense that my mother preferred the boys to begin with and most notably her first born son. And then she was also keen on the youngest, my baby brother, but by the time he had arrived there was not as much energy available and she left his upbringing largely in the care of my older sister.

And me, as I grew older.

My family was my first audience, my parents in the front row and they have not been the appreciative audience I’d have liked, though there have been moments when it seemed there was more to go around, when each of us might take turns to speak and when a sense of fairness prevailed. But not often. and not for long.

Too many children and not enough parents. Not enough interest to go around. And so I must create my own.