Thursday, 29 March 2012

Narcissus

Today I wore a very loud shirt.

This has never been an unusual thing for me, but on a whim today I took a particularly gruesome specimen out of the garage to see if it still worked. It did.

Forty-six different people, on forty-six different occasions, made reference to it in some way. A few said they liked it, a few more said they hated it, but most of the forty-six people simply pointed out that I was wearing it.

Actually, I’d spotted that myself…

It’s the old haircut scenario. Not only have you done your time in the barber’s chair, making polite conversation while your ears are being permed, but if you’re anything like me you’ll have felt every agonising moment along the way. Clearly you’re aware the haircut has taken place. And yet, days afterwards, you’ll still be faced with well intentioned people who feel the need to alert you to it.

“Oh – you’ve had your haircut!”

Yes!

I suppose what people are really trying to say is that they’ve noticed. Although few of today’s forty-six shirt spotters got much beyond just thinking out loud, they were all just trying to connect. Some out of politeness, some out of rudeness, and most out of a really sweet and endearing desire to find something to say, they all decided that our interaction should start with their reaction to my shirt.

But how interesting that hardly anybody stopped to think about what they were going to say. Was it original? Perhaps I’d moved on since 0825 when I first slipped into the shirt this morning? Perhaps I’d have already had the same conversation forty-five times today?

If this really is The Truman Show, it just doesn’t matter. Everybody’s so interested in what you have to say that you just don’t need to think before you speak. But if not then surely communication has to start with how the other person will respond to what you’re saying. If it’s not about that, then why say anything at all?

I recently interviewed somebody about Narcissistic Personality Disorder, a medical condition which, in its most debilitating form, sees the patient entirely absorbed by their own existence. But in less extreme cases, it can mean a general inability to relate to anything on terms other than your own, to appreciate that it’s not all about you.

I think there’s a bit of it in us all.

At a friend’s leaving do recently, one of her colleagues delivered a speech that was almost entirely about himself. It touched on my friend’s contribution to the organisation, on her talent and enthusiasm for the job, but only by talking in terms of his own talents and enthusiasm for his own comparable role. He said “I” countless times, and my friend’s name just twice. The sentiment was actually a fairly decent one, but for me it was drowned out by the subconscious voice of Narcissus.

Clearly, we’re all limited to experiencing the world through our own selves; we’ll never truly see how it looks to someone else. But the basic art of conversation is to at least try.

Don’t get me wrong, this is not about the bloody shirt. A man who adorns himself in such a foppish manner deserves everything he gets, as I did today. (Incidentally, I didn’t intend or want a reaction – it just happened to be wash day.) It’s more about communication, and why we bother.

In a world where we supposedly communicate more than ever before, we’ve actually never been more narcissistic. Who, honestly, goes onto a social network with the sole intention of finding out about other people? For most of us, it’s primarily an exercise in seeing how other people have responded to the things we’ve said and done ourselves. Yes, we interact with other people while we’re there – and ironically, we’d never be so unoriginal as to point out a loud shirt under what is clearly a photo of a loud shirt on Facebook – but it’s mostly about narcissism; it’s about seeing other people interacting with us.

It pains me to say it, but if we all took such creative pains in real life as we do on Facebook and Twitter, life’s casual little exchanges would be much the richer.

In the meantime, I’ll plump for more conventional pastille shades in the shirt department tomorrow, if only to force people to find something else to talk to me about. Or, better still, perhaps I’ll arrive for work in just my underpants.

That should leave ‘em speechless.

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