September 13, 2012

Like to Get to Know Ya Well...but Not Too Well


"It's the flu,” he said.
"Yes."
"I'm not upset."
"No."
"If you tell any of the others you saw me like this, I'll never forgive you."
"I won't say a word to anybody."
"Swear it."
I swore it, and sat with him until his body stopped jerking, and he fell into a troubled sleep. But I had been a witness to his cracking and that, dear reader, is how you make enemies. 

- excerpt from Barney's Version by Mordecai Richler

Last weekend I attended an English-French conversational exchange group. Four strangers gathered, three women and one male, around a table, sipped beer and struggled to introduce themselves. It could have been awkward because none of us were from the same country and each of us led a different lifestyle but instead it was quite entertaining.

Until…

From the get-go, I should have picked up on the insecurity displayed by the British woman sitting next to me. The eagerness to bring out details of each person’s story whether or not they wanted to; the name-dropping; the light touch on the arm that says don’t you agree, isn’t that so, isn’t that the way it is for all of us? Well actually, no, but there was a clear need for reassurance and I misunderstood and thought she was trying to reassure me.

While I can be quite congenial, Stobby tends to be misinterpreted especially if you haven’t met fun-loving, open-minded Natasha, first. Opinions can sometimes get ahead of me so social gatherings end up a delicate balance between being agreeable and being honest. Truthfully, I was there to learn French. 

And everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves. It didn’t take long for me to feel comfortable moving the conversation from casual, how about this weather, to provocative, are there differences between men and women in the workforce?

Bad idea.

In my opinion, based on experience and what I’ve heard, women are more sensitive. I’m not trying to suggest we are delicate creatures that must take extra care with our constitution. Rather, women are apt to pick up on body language, slight changes in intonation and stress indicators much more easily then men. As my friend Stef. suggests, sometimes women are more human. The problem is that these signals are easily misinterpreted and to get around this many women insist on a more personal relationship (personal revelations)  which may or may not be invited. If this sensitivity is coupled with a male dominated and/or heavily competitive environment working with or for a female can be more challenging. I am in NO WAY trying to suggest that women are inferior to men. There are strengths and weaknesses with both sexes. This, of course, is just my opinion.

Now, dear reader, how have you interpreted what I've said? Are you tremendously offended? If so, you are not alone. After belittling, patronizing and then practically accusing me of being misogynistic, the perfectly nice British woman got up and left so abruptly she forgot to pay her bill. It took me by surprise. It upset me but no more so than the fact that as a wannabe writer I didn’t see this conflict coming. I thought I was merely participating in a conversation. After days of running this event through my head I now realize the impact of what I was saying to someone who was most likely struggling for validation of her own. So now I'm just letting it go. 

Still..

Along with grammar and proper punctuation, understanding foibles, gestures and word choices are essential for crafting a character. They also help with everyday diplomacy. Deciphering people is a key to good writing but as Mr. Richler wisely notes, it’s also a way to make enemies. Apparently I’m not working it on both fronts. Perhaps it's wiser getting to know people then letting them know me....without letting them know that I know you know? 

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