Friday, August 29, 2014

On socwardness (part three)

As I've claimed on this blog before,  I am generally a fairly socially adept person, with some notable exceptions. No, really. It's partially a personality trait I've had since I was quite little and somewhat baffled realized that other people occasionally enjoy my company(!), and partially a skill I've developed through the collection of experiences I sometimes refer to as "life". It's cocky of me, though, to claim "life" taught me social skills - at least the kind of social skills I am trying to get to explaining here (I just get caught up in digressions sometimes, not that you didn't know that...) - as probably about 80 percent of them I acquired during my last stay in Japan. Working at an embassy doesn't necessarily make you diplomatic(!!), but you'd have to try extremely hard to avoid a major part of our job if it doesn't make you at least a little bit more equipped at small talk. The kind of small talk that arise in social settings that involve (some) alcohol, pieces of food intended to be eaten in a single bite ("finger food" is a ridiculous name for it, at least in Japan, where there always are chopsticks available), and clever little gadgets that attach your wine glass to your plate so that you have a hand free for shaking or exchanging business cards (of course, you are really expected to do the latter with both hands in Japan, so the really ought to make a gadget that attached the plate and wine glass directly to your body, and then somewhere which wouldn't be affected by all the bowing you also will do. I'm thinking hip or knee).

This kind of setting frequently arise when you work in an embassy, and thus you become extremely good at talking to people you barely or not at all know about mundane subjects (remember, no politics or religion!) for a relatively short time. At the end of my stay in Japan I was almost as good at small talk as the average hair dresser (which is saying something - think about it!).

However, this skill/personality trait doesn't necessarily translate well to other types of social situations, and especially not the one I'm about to describe: Friday lunch.

"Friday lunch" might sound like a specific concept the way I just put it, but in reality it isn't. It's lunch, on a Friday. However, the difference between Friday lunch and Any other day lunch is the simple fact that Friday is the day before the weekend. And thus Friday lunch invites a certain go-to conversation (or, if you will, small talk, to tie it in with the digression that introduced this particular point).

Every single Friday, at lunch time, you stand at risk of being asked "so, what are your plans this weekend?".

Now, I realize I outdigressed myself a little today, as this isn't normally what I think of when I say "small talk". Technically, the dictionary defines it as "light conversation" or "chitchat", but I frequently add "with people you don't know very well" to that, as I find that the moment you know people well enough to have proper conversations with them, you tend to stop with the small talk. I still occasionally have lunch with people where I do definitely practice small talk (by any definition), but since I work in a place with a manageable number of colleagues I find we usually have fairly meaningful conversations during lunch. Which is nice. However, even when you know people this well conversations inevitably every now and then hit a lull, and someone needs to find something to keep it going. On Fridays this will, often, be the above (and below) mentioned question.

"So, what are your plans this weekend?"

To me, this is an incredibly tricky question.

First of all, it is, like many other reasonably generic (as opposed to situational or you-specific) questions, reciprocal in its nature. You're supposed to ask it back. The agony here is to time your answer so that it won't be too long since the original question was asked before you return it. Nothing says "socward!" like ending up spending a disproportionate part of the conversation on yourself, thus not allowing the other party/-ies to participate (thus not making them "parties", as much as an "audience").

Seemingly, this timing problem might be solved by simply limiting your own answer to a few well chosen points, and then let the other party be a party. However, when the question is being used as a conversational catalyst you don't want to keep your answer too short either, as this will quickly put an end to the entire conversation. Consequently, you will have to find some kind of middle way, and that can be tricky. (I believe this particular situation has given rise to the conversational technique "But enough about me; what about you?". )

Secondly, however, you also face the age-old problem of ugly truth vs spiffy façade. You can, obviously, admit the ugly truth, and it might be refreshing that someone owns up to his/her plans of spending the entire weekend in their jammies, watching bad television and eating junk food. In reality, however, there appears to exist a social convention that dictates that even though people realize this is what you mean, you have to camouflage it into something akin to "oh, you know, nothing much. Just have some me-time. Wind down from the stressful week, really. Maybe go for a walk."

If you go all in façade-wise, though, you might also invent a few cool weekend activities you plausibly could attend. I have never gone this far down the road in trying to impress a colleague with my interesting life, but I may have indicated once or twice that I was planning on going to a party I was invited to (but didn't intend to actually go to) or maybe concretized extremely vague plans with some friend I knew never really would show up.

However, this brings me to the third of the problems the question brings about. Because debating whether to be frank or deceitful isn't just a question of façade. Sometimes it is also a matter of self defense. When you know someone well enough for them to ask what you are doing this weekend, it is often a risk that you also know them well enough for them to ask the following:

"Oh good, so nothing special, then. How about...?"

And then they have the audacity to suggest some alternative activity, frequently involving themselves!

As you have now revealed that you are not otherwise occupied, and thus you do not have the option of turning their offer down politely. Either you have to accept (against your will), or you have to tell them that you simply do not want to do whatever it is they are suggesting (as opposed to the kinder "Oh, I really wish I could, but I already planned X" which you could have answered if they hadn't already forced out of you that you weren't).

This is problematic for several reasons. You might really want (and need) that "me-time", even if it only involves jammies, junk food and jelevision. You might have a very good (or bad) reason to not want to do that particular activity - say it's a wine tasting and you cannot drink alcohol due to a medical condition, something you might not be too eager to reveal; or maybe you're being asked to help someone move, and you simply don't want to. The latter may not be a very good reason, but it should nevertheless be your prerogative to choose whether you want to do something or not. Finally, and this last one is bad, you might not want to do any kind of activity with that particular person. I have occasionally been attempted befriended with people I do not wish to be friends with. It sounds awful to say so, but it's still true. Now, I don't want to be cruel - just because I have no desire to hang out with someone doesn't mean I want them to know that. I don't want to offend someone, and at any rate it might not even be personal (say you're working with them and you feel your professional relationship might be hurt by a personal one; or maybe you simply cannot manage to keep up with the friends you already have, and don't want to add to the burden), but even when it is I still rather let someone down easily than be forced to tell them upfront that I would rather spend my weekend doing absolutely nothing than be forced to hang out with them.

Basically, no matter how you spin it the second question is deceitful, as it isn't what you set out to answer when you replied to the first question. Except, with time I've been accustomed to the possibility of getting that second question, and thus I will (as described, in detail) feel more than a little skeptical when the first question is posed. As a consequence, my response, more often than not, will be the following:

"There are several things I'm considering, but it's not set in stone yet. Why?", which leaves me with a handy (if somewhat cynical) solution to problems 1-3.

I realize my statement from the beginning of this post [" I am generally a fairly socially adept person"] may seem odd in light of the wall of text since. However, I stand by my initial comment. I am generally a fairly socially adept person. The fact that I am also a grumpy and cranky fart who does not always appreciate this particular skill/personality trait of mine is not contradictory to that.






Wednesday, July 16, 2014

On feelings you might be having right now

The feeling of taking the last of the Nutella because you feel entitled to it.

Of arriving late at work because you can.

Of reading one of the free newspapers taken from a stand at the bus stop, and realizing it made you think of a friend you haven't seen in over a year.

Of actually sending him a text, suggesting hanging out again soon.

Of actually getting a reply, and a positive - and specific - one.

Of listening to light jazz without having to deal with canapes.

Of being more concerned with an achy knee than all the work you had planned to do (but didn't).

Of hating yourself a little because you forgot to order your iced latte skimmed.

Of compensating for this by hating yourself more by finally being concerned with the work you had planned to do (but didn't).

"Hate" is too strong a word, fortunately. Resent, perhaps?

Well, most of the resentment is at any rate subdued by a glimmer of happiness caused by nothing other than the fact that it is summer, sunny, a relaxed mood in general (though "in general" is too strong a term - so many places in the world in turmoil, and even if the heart becomes blasé with wear and tear the morning news still affects it).

The glimmer of happiness shines, however, brighter than the ache of the heart - or for that matter the knee - fortunately.

And it is also the feeling of slight irritation that the automated blinds try to override your manual setting.

The feeling of considering whether to write what it is that really bothers you, with the risk that it will put yourself in a poor light because it isn't something you are actually entitled to be bothered about.

Of knowing, secretly, that you weren't entitled to the last of the Nutella either, but that it still feels somewhat comforting that you took it.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

On LBJ

We meet again, old vague acquaintance.

I never did get the hang of you last time.

Your entry into the White House was sudden, unexpected, tragic. It was inevitable for you to end up in Jack's shadow. History didn't change that.

Your domestic experience gave you no credit among students of diplomatic history. Whatever foreign policy you led, we usually accounted to your predecessor's memory. Besides, your foreign policy = Vietnam.

You are little more than a footnote in books about U.S. policy in the Middle East, and he only thing really worth mentioning is your strong support for the State of Israel (but then this isn't exactly unique among American presidents).

You are said to be one of the main inspirations behind Kevin Spacey's character in "House of Cards" (along with King Richard III of England). Good for you.

Your name. Lyndon! It sounds like a character from a 1950s superhero comic (though no the hero. Not the villain either, I think. The jury is still out). The only U.S. politician sounding more like a superhero comic character is Spiro Agnew. You can't beat that.

You did leave a legacy in domestic politics. But I don't study domestic politics.

You're from Texas. Which called for another footnote in the books about U.S. policy in the Middle East, as you were already accustomed to deal with oil companies. So no need to mention that part of your foreign policy either.

Your wife is called Lady Bird. That is all.

You share initials with your wife (and your daughters, and your dog), though I think it would be much more entertaining if you also shared her middle name. Lyndon Bird Johnson makes you sound even more like a character from a superhero comic (though still not the hero).

We were never friends. I don't think that will change this time either. But perhaps I might get to know you a little better, at least?

I am not sure how I feel about that.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

On metrogiraffe


It's been years since I last visited Paris. I think it's time to go back. 

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

On the return of light and giraffes

The sky is reflected in the windows of the nearby building, stretching out in a metallic-blue-yellow hue in between an instagram filter and something you might have found in the fabric of a skirt in the S/S13 Saunders collection, if you cared for such things. It's been a lovely day, with deceitful promises of pending spring, even though the mended heart is too scarred to believe it really is so. Winter may catch you yet. Regardless, you have this day. The day the light returned. Light, which will kick start the slow process of defrosting the marrow of your brittle bones.



In the meantime, there is this picture of a woman and a giraffe:









Friday, December 13, 2013

On the excitement and worries concerning two important work tasks I have today (the title is an understatement).

Today I have two tasks that plague me more than the 70-paper-long-log-of-papers-I-need-to-grade.

One is to write a speech for tonight's Christmas Party at work, where I will mull over the past two years I've spent here as an employee in the history department at the university.

The other is to refresh the website of the faculty board committee for hiring, to have first eyes on the protocol from today's meeting determining my future. You see, after having taught history for two years with only a Master's degree I finally decided it was time to apply for a phd. It's been quite the process getting here, but today the final verdict stands. Will I still have a job come January? (And if not, how will that affect my speech tonight?)

*refresh*

I am of course overstating the tension for dramatic effect. In reality I have written most of the speech days ago, and I also have a fairly clear idea what the result of the meeting will be.

*refresh*

Two days ago a department board meeting took place, where the matter of the phd position was discussed prior to sending it off to the faculty. The board, following the advice of the appointed committee that considered all the applications, recommended me for the position.

*refresh*

Two weeks before that, when I was asked to deliver tonight's speech, I decided against writing two speeches covering the two potential outcomes of today's meeting (an idea I briefly toyed with). No matter what the results of today's meeting, no matter whether I will still be working here in January, I've had two marvelous and challenging and exhausting and rewarding years, and my potential future here does not change that.

*refresh*

The excitement today, then, is not so much whether I will get the position, but my feelings concerning it. There is a substantial insecurity connected in this for me. There is a reason why it's been three years since I finished my MA and I never even applied before now.

So, in order to start with a a fresh sheet, I feel the need for some confessions. I have never read Bourdieu, or Derida or even Gadamer. Worse, I don't actually want to. I can't list every battle in every war despite being a historian. I am frequently wrong. (Though hearing me admit it is unusual.) I don't think writing history is a piece of cake. I don't even always think it's particularly fun. But I am quite good at it. Even if I don't always believe that myself.

*refresh*






*refresh again just to be sure*


I GOT THE JOB!  :D

Thursday, November 14, 2013

On pretense

Let's pretend this is a blog you still read with some regularity - in fact, let's pretend it's a blog I write with some regularity.

Let's pretend Albert Einstein was a duck. Might as well.

Let's pretend the below picture isn't photoshopped.



Let's pretend the reason I am not writing here regularly is because I am so busy living a fabulous life. Let's pretend I'm never tired of the fabulousness.

Let's pretend. That nothing no one never said was true or false.

Let's pretend that winter is not coming.

Let's pretend that I am not worrying about work and not work and the potential of not having to worry about work.

Let's pretend that I write. Occasionally.

Let's pretend that placebo is as good as Placebo. Let's pretend you could watch that video without having to watch a commercial first.

Let's pretend that all it takes is a good night's sleep, and that you will get just that, tonight.
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