I’ve never seen myself in a film (not a big screen film), but a video, home movie or anything more flickering than a dropped photograph. And even photographs are rare.
Until we see ourselves moving, walking and talking, we never really know how we come across to other people. It’s why there’s a big industry in teaching professionals how to present themselves. Unless you have video evidence to the contrary we have no idea just how big an arsehole we might appear to others.
Hearing your own voice is disconcerting enough, but that’s a simple case of acoustics. We’re too close to our own ears. But think how many times you’ve met someone and somehow, they just didn’t seem right.
A common character is the chatty man. Able to talk about any subject he soon settles down to tell you his life story and you realise that he can talk forever. At this point the conversation is going in one of three directions: he’s either a pervert, a man with a violent grudge against the world or someone looking for money/cigs/bus fare. What started out as a social encounter rapidly descends into a situation from which there is no escape.
I’ve met them all. I must have ‘sympathetic mug’ in neon lights over my head. The last one was at a rugby match and he fell into the second category; a man punished by a school system that refused to recognise his talent as one of England’s greatest second row forwards. With his hackles rising to dangerous threat levels I was saved by the half-time whistle and he went to the bar, giving me an opportunity to hide. Fortunately he didn’t come back.
Sometimes, the encounters are not so sinister, simply surprising. Sat in my car in Windermere a few years ago I heard a tap on the driver door window and there stood a man wearing a flamboyant hat. I wound the window down and he said, “Beautiful car, mate.” It was a 1998 Mazda 323 and he was absolutely overwhelmed by it. The flowing curves, the angles, “The way that top line runs along the roof into the windscreen.” He didn’t ask for money, didn’t tell me about his wife’s favourite habits (I’ve been told everything), and had no grudge against his old school. After a few more admiring observations he said goodbye and wandered off. Had the car been a Lamborghini or a Pagani I would have understood his euphoria, but a 1998 Mazda 323?
I don’t go searching for these people, they find me, but even so I wouldn’t do what Billy Connolly once did in one of his programmes roaming around Scotland. Describing a monument on a hill, I think near Glasgow, he met an alcoholic on a bench who fell into Category Three. After a cheery conversation he asked Connolly for money to buy a packet a cigs. Connolly not only offered him the money but buggered off to the shops to buy them! I find that admirable – courageous – but admirable. Should the cynic in me suspect it also made good television? Perhaps, but what Connolly did showed the dilemma we face whenever we meet people who might be nothing more sinister than lonely.
Chatting to a stranger in public often feels strange, it’s an invasion of our personal bubble. We have expectations and our interactions are usually constrained to yes, no, please, and thank you. Anything more often feels suspicious, but why should we feel that way? Perhaps it’s cultural, an Anglo-Saxon thing. Perhaps it’s experience; I’ve met too many people who did turn out to be weird after an initial promising start.
But how often are we the weirdos? When I stand next to a stranger in a supermarket queue or I say anything more than yes please and thank you to a shopkeeper, are they shocked, do they think he’s a bit weird, he’ll be asking for cigs next? We don’t know. Unless we feel the copper’s hand on the collar and the words ‘we’ve had a complaint, sunshine,’ we just don’t know.