I was rarely as relieved by a brief conversation at the water cooler. It was the frank admission by a colleague that made me realise I wasn’t unfeeling or self-centred. I was pleasantly surprised to discover I am not the only person who suffers from this particular social condition, but more about that shortly.
Do you know someone who has the unique ability to talk endlessly about themselves and never, ever ask about you? It’s not that you don’t enjoy this person’s company or you try to avoid them, but over time you realise that all they ever do is go on about themselves. The conversation is usually a one-way street; never do they turn to you and ask about your job or your kids or what plans you have for the weekend. The other extreme is the rare individual who is the perfect listener and absorbs everything you’ve got to say, and even asks for more. (Ironically they make you feel like the latter character I’ve just described.)
Somewhere in between is a person who can balance listening and talking. Better still, they’ve a great memory from your previous exchange and know the right follow-up questions to ask. Sometimes I really wish I was that person. Is it so wrong that my head is filled with day-to-day worries, miscellaneous to-do lists and the typical flotsam and jetsam of the working day that sometimes I forget essential details from other aspects of my life? It’s a rhetorical question, so please don’t answer.
Thankfully my wife is such a wonderful understanding person that she’s used to the scenario that sometimes occurs between us, albeit rarely. Okay, okay, it occurs occasionally. Take a typical working day, and my head will be reasonably clogged up by the time I get home. After the initial greetings, she’ll spring a statement on me, along the lines of: ‘So the meeting went well anyway’. This kind of ambush stops me dead in my tracks. I could be swigging from the milk carton and I’ll suddenly freeze, with the fridge door ajar and milk dribbling slowly down my chin. I try to hide my panic. My brain starts processing like a computer hard drive, delving into directories and folders and files. I’m mentally flicking through various explanations, like someone going through one of those old rolodexes desperately seeking contact details. Did she have a job interview? Did she have to meet the boy’s teacher? What was it?? I’m trying not to panic.
I decide that the best option is to play it vague and try to bluff my way through, in the hope that it’ll either come back to me or she’ll gradually reveal enough detail for me to remember who the meeting was with and what it was about. ‘That’s great,’ I say nervously. I suddenly get a brainwave; physical affection is the best form of defence! I embrace her in a hug. ‘I’m very proud of you,’ I say, as I clasp her and give my head another few precious seconds to flail about in the hope of remembering what she’s talking about. (It is crucial to execute the bluff perfectly; it’s actually worse to get caught out with this ploy than to openly admit at the outset that you’ve no idea what the person is talking about.)
‘Okay, okay,’ she says, sounding somewhat alarmed, ‘it was just the tidy towns committee, but I don’t think I have the time for it this year.’
Phew, I think to myself, that was a close one. Maybe too close. I vow to be more considerate and thoughtful in the future, yet I have a nagging feeling that this scenario will arise again.
Earlier in the week I was at the water cooler yakking with a colleague. ‘I met John, do you remember John?’ he said to me. ‘Yeah, John, of course,’ I lied. ‘Bumped into him the other day,’ the colleague went on, ‘and he told me the new job was going well. I’d completely forgotten what he’s doing now,’ the colleague admitted, ‘so I had to bluff and go along pretending like I knew what he was up to.’
I was secretly thrilled to discover that this affliction, the sudden ‘not-knowing-what-you-ought to-know’ realisation, affects people other than me. It’s not the sign of an insensitive soul; I believe it shows a neurological inability to filter out the clutter. It could even be genetic. As most research seems to conclude these days: if in doubt, blame the genes. Much as I’d like to expound on this theory, I’ve an incoming call from my wife. What was it she was doing today, bringing one of the kids to the doctor? Meeting a distraught friend for coffee? Did her car have the NCT today? Oh no, here we go again.