Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Perception and authenticity - who to believe

A few weeks ago I met a friend of a friend who said: "We never met then, but I remember you from uni. You used to wear big hats."

I had a vague recollection of wearing hats - being always watchful of suntanning, melanomas and unwanted freckles and a little bit fashion conscious in my younger days. I did not recall wearing them to lectures, but after she said this I did conjure an image of myself striding purposefully into LA307 - Land Law (?) under a broad and capacious brim.

It was not an unpleasant image. A happy and care-free time? Somehow hats seem to speak of poise and confidence and a certain devil may care approach to things. Alas, no snaps to share.

The remark came only days before another friend (let's call her Ethel), asked me what she should do about someone who advised her not to be too friendly with me.

At first I thought it was merely a theoretical or hypothetical conundrum - along the lines of: "what does one do if a friend is out of favour with another friend?" In my role as coach/blogger/agony aunt I get these rather a lot. But it transpired that I was indeed the subject of unsolicited, whispered advice along the lines of  "steer clear of Springgirl. She will only bring you trouble. She will twist your words against you." After I stopped laughing at the rather tragic comic image of myself in wide brimmed hat playing  hateful and conniving Scarlett O'Hara meets Lady Macbeth, I was flabbergasted. The person who was recommending that Ethel think twice before being friendly with me (let's call her Mildred) has exchanged perhaps 23 words with me in my life - I know her vaguely as a mother at the off-Springs' school, and have met her over coffee with not less than 6 and possible as many as 11 other women. I recall nothing but school related chatter about curriculum, holidays and the parents' association. Oh and I plugged my book - but that was after she said I was bad news, though I did not then know anything about it.

Knowing what she thinks of me certainly explains why she has avoided my glances and smiles for several months. I had just put it down to a European thing. Being Australian and fairly democratic in my disposition I only recently realised there is an entire subtext that underpins intra-European relationships; class and ancestry being just one factor. Regional affinities is another. There was I blithely assuming that we were all happy expats mucking in together. Lo and behold, I discovered that I am oblivious to myriad European nuances of acquaintance, friendship and familiarity, not to mention cold war, enmity and dislike. I guess that several centuries of close proximity with potential foes can result in greater national allegiances, this of course exacerbated by football, not so long ended wars, generally not very good weather and economic problems. We Aussies are like little kids hanging around outside the fence of the big kids' playground...

Still, even allowing for subtleties and jingoistic concerns, I want to think well of everyone unless there is clear reason not to. I have not really found a reason to think ill of a lady dropping her child at school, engaging in mild chitchat at the gate, smiling benignly at other parents and children. Having said that, even after 5 years as a school mum - in London and Australia, note - I have not managed to work out just how this making friends with other women at school thing works. 

But as I said, I tend to be mildly (by no means aggressively or loudly) friendly to everyone. Though I am rethinking my approach now. Clearly what I though was pleasant, wry and self self-effacingly funny has been interpreted as something else entirely - mean, untrustworthy and sinister?  I am prepared to accept that my humour may be the cause of the perception Mildred has that I am "trouble". It took a while for the whole thing to settle in my mind. You see, there are many things I will put my hand up to - self-promoting, a bit gossipy and gym obsessed, I would accept. I would not be taken aback if accused of parenting as if it were 1975, defensive (when confronted by wide eyes and shrieks of "three boys? how do you manage?"  - I am never sure whether to be offended on behalf of my sons or on account of myself, you see), or old-fashioned. I would even be reconciled with being labelled holier than thou or prone to talking the moral high ground (from time to time). But two-faced or untrustworthy? Not typically among my repertoire of shortcomings. Indeed, they seem to describe another person altogether. 

So what? I know you are thinking, "let it go already. Who cares what some bored housewife thinks of you." Indeed, I could let Mildred and her views go. I fairly easily dismissed the entire episode drawing on my three pronged 2 minute analysis process which goes something like this:-

1. That's so odd! Assuming this story is true then who or what is to blame? (Blame first, ask questions later!)

2. Attribute the perception to ignorance, mismatched sense of humour and temperament. A misunderstanding repeated too often? The wonderfully unifying human trait of gossiping about a common enemy perhaps gotten out of hand?

3. Pause to wonder just why Ethel felt it necessary to share Mildred's views with me.

You see, while I am at heart an earthy pragmatist, there is within me a somewhat sentimental girl. She operates very happily in Springland where no one has a tv, children go to bed on time and everyone loves reading and bracing country walks. In this place, coffee is prized, as is dark chocolate, ideas and laughter. Gossip is idle, not malicious. We are happy to proven wrong and talk is intended to elucidate, amuse and foster understanding. In this place Springgirl wears big hats and is generally liked and respected. It is a convivial place. It smells of lavender and sea air. The day time maximum is never higher than 24 degrees celcius. Books are free and cool breezes blow in new ways of seeing and perceiving. 

Springland abuts central London though. And the neighbours can get fractious and wilful and capable of nasty thoughts. Some even host noisy parties til the small hours and lurk outside windows swearing drunken obscenities. In London strangers touch your children and have no idea how to share the pavement.

And in central London, as in many parts of the world, indeed anywhere where communities "flourish" cheek by jowl, there is the capacity for ill-informed judgement, intolerance and ill-will. 

So no, Mildred and her views are not important; they are inconsequential. But they do raise at least two interesting issues for me. And one or two less interesting ones, admittedly (like, just how many people was she poisoning against me? - think not Macbeth but Hamlet, if you will).

The first interesting issue is  that one can see how misunderstanding or gossip can create suspicion, enmity and even hatred. People sometimes say that wars could be avoided if women ran the world. I actually don't agree. Sure, the wars would be waged differently (you can ponder that!) but there would not be greater harmony or accord.

The second issue is more personal. It has several parts. First, is Mildred justified in her view? Second, are Mildred's views merely the tip of the iceberg? Is Ethel in fact doing me a favour, by gently trying to raise my awareness that I am in fact the object of fear, loathing and derision? Is Ethel the self- or indeed, officially - nominated spokesperson for the "real world"? Flowing form this then, am I truly delusional; more at home in Springland than the "real world"?

How do we reconcile our real and authentic selves with the image we project? Because, if one thing is clear it is that we cannot do much about the perception of others. We cannot control the audience or their reactions. We can but put it out there. We do not often find out whether we are recognised and seen as we truly intended to be?  Assuming we have any intent at all, of course.

It seems that in a world in which brand, labels, trappings of success and status can hold more sway and have more influence than connections with others, true human relatedness and even trust, all we can hope for is to stay true to ourselves.

This means first finding the self and then holding on to it, preserving it or its essence amidst all of that noise: the chatter and gossip, the advertising and name dropping, the "hot lists" and the wish lists, the must haves and the must dos... 

I am not espousing that we get clear about who we are and what we value, and rigidly hold to that. No, for there are no walls or bolted gates around Springland. There is always room for a little self doubt and uncertainty, for new ways of seeing and interpeting ourselves and our world. Nothing is cast in stone, not least us.

So, whether we relate best to Shakespeare or Pixar, the key is to find our own truth.

At the end of the day I suppose actions do speak louder than words. Mildred can have her words. While I have sympathy with the sentiment of Robert Burton in The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) Part I, Section II, Member IV, Subsection IV:

It is an old saying, "A blow with a word strikes deeper than a blow with a sword:" and many men are as much galled with a calumny, a scurrilous and bitter jest, a libel, a pasquil, satire, apologue, epigram, stage-play or the like, as with any misfortune whatsoever.
I am sure now that you cannot be remembered as the wearer of big hats and not be misunderstood by someone. 

I am indebted to Robert Burton for his writing on Melancholy and promise to share more of his wisdom in the future:
The Anatomy of Melancholy (Full title: The Anatomy of Melancholy, What it is: With all the Kinds, Causes, Symptomes, Prognostickes, and Several Cures of it. In Three Maine Partitions with their several Sections, Members, and Subsections. Philosophically, Medicinally, Historically, Opened and Cut Up).


  1. Never underestimate a person's reaction to feeling intimidated....

  2. I clicked over from twittermoms, and thoroughly enjoyed reading this post. You've given me some things to think about. I often wonder how I am perceived by others. I tend to talk a lot, not always something I'm proud of, and I can't help but think when I leave a gathering of one sort or another, everyone is happy to the see the loud mouth go. My dearest friends insist this isn't the case, but they are my friends. Of course they would say so! In the end, I am what I am and hardly know how to be different. So what is whispered behind my back must remain irrelevant.

  3. Thanks for visiting MommyJ. I guess we never really know. I used to revel in exercises on management courses where people had to write down their first impressions of each other - might have lulled me into a false belief that I was generally perceived favourably. Doesn't really prepare one for real life where far more is at stake.