Judgement day

Blogs are notorious for elevating the minutiae of the blogger's life into distended posts. Well, grab a couple of matchsticks for your eyelids, Gladys, because minutiae don't come much more minute than this.

The scene is a checkout queue in my local supermarket. The time is a quiet weekday morning. So quiet, in fact, that few of the lines are open, and the gent in front of me has a full family load of goods ambling towards the till. He asks for help packing his purchases: none is forthcoming. I offer to help: he refuses. I, foolishly, think he's merely being polite (pointless self-denial is the British way), so I offer again. He declines again, rather more forcefully. 'It wasn't an aggressive offer of help, you know,' I say, taken aback. 'Look, I've said no three times now,' he snaps. 'Just leave it.'

Well, I warned you it was minutiae. But there is a point, honest: as I stood there, baffled, oddly chastened and waiting for him to deal with pastas and salads and fancy biscuits, I reflected on how audiences read acting. We go to the theatre and we confidently assign meanings to human behaviour. Sometimes those meanings are diagnostic (he's angry; she's grieving), sometimes they involve a moral judgement (naughty man; nice lady). But although my neighbour and I might disagree about these readings, there is usually a good steer from the performer or production to help us assess the character.

Without context, I realised, we flounder. I had no idea why the man in the queue responded so sharply. Was he painfully shy or furiously self-sufficient? Did he feel that his alpha-masculinity, already severely compromised by shuffling celery on a Thursday morning, was placed under even greater threat when another guy offered assistance? Would he have responded differently to a female shopper? Was he planning to poison his wife with a toxic tagine, and fear that he'd been rumbled? How could I begin to guess?

Or, even more troubling, was I failing to read my own behaviour correctly? Maybe I didn't seem friendly at all, but pushy, or even creepy. Was this a scene about an angry boor spurning a good samaritan, or about a reserved man fending off a meddling loon? Without some establishing scenes involving friends, family, authority figures or a Greek chorus hanging around the frozen goods, it was impossible to know how to read the encounter.

So far, so Thursday. But critics tend to describe characters and performances with just a phrase or a single epithet: recently, I find, I've gone for harried, gorgon, 'a shambles of dubious potential', 'droll-dimpled' ['were his dimples really droll?' asked my editor. Yes, indeedy], 'unglamorous voluptuary' and, I'm afraid to confess, 'a cock with a quiff.' The last was cut, but on grounds of taste rather than its unimpeachable accuracy. All seemed spot-on to me - but how would I sum up the man in the queue? How would I describe myself? How much confidence do we have in our character readings?

June 1, 2009 6:42 PM | | Comments (3) |


good quote, catrina. indeed we inhabit our own consciousness, to the point that the neuro-biologist, eric kandel (nobel prize 2000) of columbia university feared human consciousness (the holy grail right now) impossible to study scientifically - because any experience is totally subjective and individual and cannot be verified by another, as required by the scientific method.


Many thanks for the quote, Catrina, and the kind words. Separating out the subjective is indeed a challenge; and one that is clearly far too complicated to juggle with shopping for groceries...

I am reminded of a quote from a business book by Charles S. Jacobs:

"Brain science has determined that each person's mental world is subjective, and we mistake this perception for reality and assume that other people experience the world as we do. We do not, in fact, inhabit a common reality."

So true. Great post.

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This page contains a single entry by Performance Monkey published on June 1, 2009 6:42 PM.

Ruff stuff was the previous entry in this blog.

Forsythe and Shawn: American artists in London is the next entry in this blog.

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