The Art Of Conversation

Over the last two weeks I’ve been thinking a lot about conversation. I’ve been doing it a lot, too – from Salon London‘s night presented by Theodore Zeldin in which we all had to turn to a complete stranger and ask each other a set of deep and meaningful questions, to a freelance networking event in which we had to do the same thing, but simply discover common ground with the other person as quickly as possible.

It was so interesting. The first exercise resulted in me and the woman I was talking to really connecting over shared experiences and thoughts on things, ranging from our favourite sound to what we think about family, friendship and love. We’ve been in touch since and I was delighted to find a potential new friend, not least a fascinating companion for the evening.

Theodore Zeldin's menu of questions – designed to allow two people to find their common humanity.

Theodore Zeldin’s menu of questions – designed to allow two people to find their common humanity.

The networking event took place the following night, and yet again, I found a woman whose life and interests created a Venn diagram with mine and the joy was in the discovery of the commonality, and the points of differentiation. Both nights reminded me that people are just people – it’s so easy to put barriers up, especially living in a city, but if you remove them only for a moment, there’s someone like you standing there.

I’ve had to really force myself into the art of conversation over the last six months, finding myself having to network professionally in a way that I haven’t done before. Sure, I’ve been a public figure in the UK publishing industry for some years now, but it’s largely been as a public speaker or commentator. I’ve had to generate more one-on-one conversations than ever before and I’ve really enjoyed the process of properly meeting people, not just shaking their hand and swapping a business card during a conference coffee break.

By and large I’ve found that people are generous with their time and advice, and unexpectedly supportive. It’s definitely restored my faith in people, even though I already know that the publishing community is uniquely friendly and supportive.

Whilst all of this great stuff has been going on, I’ve similarly had my faith in people diminished by being ‘ghosted‘ by someone purporting to be a friend. If you’ve not come across this yet, then lucky you, but it’s when a person cuts off all communication with you, suddenly and unexpectedly, especially easy if you’ve only really got to know them through social media. They just stop responding. They cut off the live conversation just as it’s at its zenith. They fall off the face of the earth.

I’m the first person to admit that I live a huge part of my life behind an iPhone and I socialise with people who do, so meeting a new friend through a meet-up group based on that foundation is bound to be risky. However, I do try and attain a level of authenticity – I am where my tweets or Instagram pics say I am, I am the same person in a live conversation as I am on Twitter or my blog. I want everything to be 360 degrees-me, live or on social media.

And then you meet someone who isn’t any of those things – they are not where they say they are, they are not who they tell you they are. Everything about them is virtual so to turn into a ghost is incredibly easy. They are one-dimensional, appearing only online through one medium and are uniquely obsessed with who interacts with them there. All the follows, unfollows, comments, likes – all are tracked obsessively and every bit of interaction with other people is about how they are perceived by them. It is a form of narcissism and it’s so clear to me that they are only interested in a reflection of themselves in a pool of other people.

This is a person who knows the power of a well-timed online manoeuvre and has clearly used it to great effect when ghosting before. It has to be the most cowardly and basically shitty thing to do to a person, and I say that as someone who did it once years ago, before social media was invented. Yet this is a growing trend among younger people who are used to living most of their lives online and who are less committed to the things they say and do there.

If anything, these experiences have reminded me of the importance of real-life interactions over virtual ones and I’ve never been so keen to make the former happen. I could put barriers back up again, in the wake of being ghosted, but I won’t be diminished by the experience. I won’t hide behind my iPhone or my laptop because I want to be in the world, right here, right now.

You can’t hide forever.

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Go With The Flow

I’m going to talk about periods. If you’re rolling your eyes right now then maybe click or look away before I go any further.

*gives it a few seconds*

Periods are big news at the moment – firstly we had the woman who posted a picture of herself on Instagram in which you could clearly see a patch of blood. Instagram took the picture down and she reposted it. They took it down again, but later apologised for their ‘mistake’ and reinstated it. As Jessica Valenti pointed out, Instagram are only too happy to showcase bikini selfies but have banned breastfeeding shots. Similarly, women can be nearly naked, but if they dare to have body hair, they have to go.

Then just last week we had Donald Trump criticising Fox News debate moderator Megyn Kelly, saying on CNN, “You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes … Blood coming out of her wherever.” It’s not new to have a man accuse a confident, vocal woman of being subject to ‘that time of the month’, especially if she’s questioning his motives, but it’s not something you usually hear from a man running for the US presidency. That comment probably lost him the race.

And yesterday we had the news that Kiran Gandhi ran the London Marathon in April while she had her period, but decided to run tampon-free in support of women in countries who have no access to sanitary protection. Interestingly, the incident wasn’t reported by anyone there at the time – maybe they thought she’d simply had a ‘mishap’.

And oh, the fear of that mishap. The leak. I remember the very real fear that it would happen at school. I started my periods while still at primary school and in the beginning, had to wear things (we called them ‘things’ in our house because the words ‘sanitary towels’ were just to awful to say out loud) that resembled single-sized duvets between my legs all day.

I remember my mother describing the onset of my periods as ‘something that happens to all women, even the Virgin Mary’. It wasn’t exactly a biology lesson but I was only nine and I was in a Catholic school. I remember my sister reaching her arm out of her bed to shake my hand: “Welcome to the club,” she said.

From being dropped off at school in the morning to going home at night I worried about leaking. If I sat down too long during lessons the worry would mean I couldn’t concentrate. All I could think about was how I could subtly spin my skirt around when I finally stood up just to check the back. At secondary school, my friends and I had a silent agreement that we’d check each other during those times. “Am I ok at the back?” I’d whisper through unmoving lips. They’d nod. I never leaked there, but I did in ballet class once, whilst wearing a light-blue leotard. I nearly died of shame when I realised later.

Managing this situation takes up a lot of time in women’s lives. If you’re a man, you won’t notice it because we are so practised at hiding it. If we think we might be in ‘danger’, we engineer a trip to the toilet; we stuff tampons up our sleeves or even down our boots if we have to, because the very worst thing we could do is let someone know that we have our period, even other women.

We manage the pain with timely painkillers and work out if we can manage an exercise class without worry. Don’t get me started on PE lessons at school and the showers. The opportunities for shame there are legion.

The worry lessens as we get older as we get more adept at managing periods and knowing what our bodies will do, or can handle, especially as our monthly cycles tend to become more regular. But those early days are fraught with unexpected or phantom start days, sudden rushes of ‘flow’ and not being near any facilities or painkillers for hours.

We even get up during the night to change our protection as eight hours is way too long to wait. We regularly ruin underwear if we don’t, which is why we have special ‘period pants’ that we don’t mind losing.

And then there are holidays. The all-important timing issue. Periods can be so erratic that you can change your holiday dates and still have to contend with the discomfort and inconvenience while you’re away. To a certain extent you can be that girl on a yacht in a Bodyform advert, but the reality is, her smile belies her ‘When will we reach a proper toilet so I can check my situation? Will this tampon last for a whole round-island trip? Did I make a mistake wearing white shorts?’ questions.

And finally, sex. There is nothing more frustrating than being ‘out of action’. Yes, there are some men who don’t mind, but there are even fewer women who think the same way (although maybe I’m wrong). Yes, there are other things you can do for entertainment, but it does rather take the shine off.

It is rather astonishing that something that affects all biological women is so gloriously taboo. The lengths we all go to avoid saying the actual word or admit that it’s happening are incredible. I’m still embarrassed buying tampons in Boots for god’s sake.

So I’m pleased that periods are finally in the news. It’s about time. At least this is blood spilt without harming anyone.

Much.

——————

Great piece on the Trump moment: http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2015/aug/10/menstruation-revolution-donald-trump-periods-stigma

Insta Me

Yesterday I went on my very first ‘Instameet’ – a group of photo-app Instagram enthusiasts met up to socialise and photograph the Tall Ships Festival in Greenwich. There were about 100 of us ‘IGers’, as we are known, and there are ‘meets’ like this all over the world, in most major cities. I loved it – I met some really great people who are as curious as me about the world, with the same ‘that could be a great Instagram’ view on life in London.

I’ve always been a bit of an Instagram purist – I take the ‘insta’ part of it very seriously and HAVE to post photos then and there, in the moment. It slightly irks me when other IGers post things a day or even a week later. The ‘insta’ element has gone as far as I’m concerned and these photos become ‘latergrams’. 

So it took me by surprise that the majority of IGers are using state-of-the-art digital cameras, a range of editing apps, and taking and storing up pictures to be edited and posted later. I posted my Tall Ships pictures as we walked round, all of them taken on my lil’ ol’ iPhone, within the Instagram app, with only a filter added here and there. When I ‘checked in’ to a particular location, I was actually standing there. 

There’s nothing inherently wrong with either way of working but it made me think about how I always want instant gratification and how difficult I find it to wait for things to happen. I like to live life in the moment, because very quickly the moment is gone.

This affects every facet of my life.

Some time ago, a work colleague coined the term, ‘Lisa Time.’ I’d go to the pub with her after work and complain about how long it took for people to do or respond to things. Whether it was a response to a work proposal or a text from a guy I liked, I’d moan to her about how long it all took. One night, she said, “Lisa – those people you think are slow are actually just running at normal speed. It is you who is going fast.” 

This was an epiphany for me. I started to think about all those times when I have found slowness so tiresome.

Commuting to work: quite apart from obvious delays on public transport, I often think that I could complete a day’s work by the time some people have moved out of the tube station. They seem to be rambling happily along, as though they’re on a relaxing holiday. In fact:

Holidays: when people take pictures of themselves ‘relaxing’ on holiday with a cocktail, I wince. Just the word ‘relaxing’ makes me cringe slightly. In these pictures, people are often staring soporifically at the camera, and you know they’re just going to be sitting there like that, without moving, for hours. I find it difficult to be so inactive, so anaesthetised from life – if I’m going to drink, then it comes with very lively conversation and possibly dancing. If people ask me what I do to ‘relax’, I say ‘I go for a run or walk to work.’ Yep, that’s my form of anaesthetic. I’ve actually had to train myself to do ‘sun-lounging’ on holiday, with regular breaks to do something relaxing. Like walking.

At the supermarket: my nemesis is the painfully slow self-checkout, with people moving items over the scanner at a glacial pace. I’m often tempted to just grab the stuff and do it for them. There you go, love. You just gained five minutes of extra time in your life. You’re welcome.

Buying stuff: instant gratification means I buy stuff now – clothes, holidays, drinks, books, food. When I want them (within reason). I don’t save for a rainy day. I know that freaks some people out, but I think I’ve seen too many lives fall apart in later life to wait for some mythical halcyon day to arrive when I can spend all my money. I want to enjoy it now.

Dating: the deliberately slow response to a message so that the receiver doesn’t think you’re too keen. I’ve given up on that. I just answer. I’m usually near or holding my phone when a message comes through so I just answer it. “That was quick!!” they always say. Yep, it is. Deal with it. 

Work emails: I operate a fast-response policy. Sometimes too hastily done, but I can’t bear the other person labouring under a false impression of something, if I have the correct answer to the query, or a correction to the content of the email. Over the years, I’ve caught sight of a few colleagues’ inboxes with hundreds of unread, unresponded-to emails. I can’t bear to look…

Facebook and Twitter: again, I operate my fast-response policy, if only to get rid of the annoying notification symbol from my wall. I want to answer or accept the invitation and move on. As with work emails, I sometimes see friends’ notifications numbering over 20 and shudder. If I get one – I see it, answer it if required, move on. 

Group activities: if I’m going out with a group of people to the pub or something, I always walk on ahead by myself. I can’t bear that moment of faffing around waiting for slowies, and then having to curb my pace as we walk to the venue, filling the time with small talk. I time my activities so I get there ‘just in time’, not before or after (well, maybe a little bit after, as slowies sometimes slow me down en route). It happened at yesterday’s Instameet – the moment after the initial group ‘meet’ in Greenwich saw me striding off on my own to find a space to take pictures. I caught up with a splinter group later, just as they were deciding to move on to the next location. Perfect.

Technology: my iPhone is actually too slow for me. If I accidentally open the wrong app, that split second where it opens and closes makes me want to yell with frustration. The same can be said for supermarket checkout scanners – I’ve put the item on the bagging area before it’s even recognised what it is. Keep up, Tesco, keep up.

I’m not sure if I’m cumulatively gaining extra time in my life by all this high-speed activity, but to me, it’s not high speed, it’s Lisa Time. It’s just the way I choose to live and I do find it difficult to witness people going at half pace. To me, they seem half alive, but maybe I am missing something.

I have tried to slow down in recent years and be kinder to myself, but still, my best moments are the spontaneous, fast-moving, ‘alive’ ones. Like the moment last night where I met one of the IGers from that morning and went drinking and dancing on the terrace outside the Royal Festival Hall. I was exhausted from the day but why would I go home and sleep when I could embrace the moment? It felt like the official Last Night of Summer, as we danced outside.

So today, I’m relaxing, after my Big Night. I’m writing this in bed at noon, with Sunday Brunch on my iPad next to me and espresso on tap. 

Ok.

Might go for a run in a bit…