Sometimes you learn a lot of interesting things about people whom you have met in passing previously, but for one reason or another have never fully engaged in conversation. The conversation is when you get to know people—the topic of original conversation, the turns and twists taken along the way that take you to an altogether different place. And you find yourself learning quite a bit about both the other person and yourself.
There are also people with whom you have conversed many times and at first found fascinating, only to realize after several weeks or months that they really have only one major topic—usually themselves. Or you get to a point where topics become less neutral or friendly and more critical or dour. By the time you realize that more time is spent in the negative hemisphere than the positive, you start wondering what it was you found so interesting about the individual to begin with.
So meeting a person for the first time does not necessarily occur in a single moment in time. It can take place over many months.
It took me a while to realize that an individual I met two years ago—let us call her Alice, for the sake of privacy—is nothing like the friendly, open, and nice person I thought she was for most of that time period. In fact, the last four or five encounters I’ve had with Alice have been rather uncomfortable and, during the most recent instance, clearly dismissive. But allow me to tell you how she was before I explain recent observations.
Alice has a very high position in a local learning institution. Part of her job involves a great deal of PR work with the overall community. And she is the only person of the school that does so, giving her quite a bit of clout. When I first met her, she seemed to be a Child of the Sixties, which included being the “groupie” for her husband’s performances, smiling at everyone, speaking briefly to all faculty and spouses, and ostensibly getting to know the driving forces of the island. When I first met Alice, she had been here only a month or so longer than we were, and seemed to be thoroughly enjoying life in the Caribbean.
The faculty, administrators, and staff combined is a small enough population that all employees pretty much have at least a nodding acquaintance with every other employee. The faculty have a weekly Friday “blowout” to let down their hair and just get to know each other as human beings. Spouses, visitors, significant others, etc., are always welcome. General staff rarely attends, probably because some of the conversations can become very technical and are over the heads of even the spouses and visitors. Some administrators stay away because–well, they probably think much of the conversation revolves around their capabilities; interestingly, no one discusses the administrators unless it’s to speculate on their health and/or their long vacation from the island.
From my first such outing, I found it difficult to carry on a conversation with Alice. Granted, I’m no brilliant conversationalist, but I’m a good question-asker, getting people I meet to open up a little about themselves and learning what brought them to the island, what they had been doing before, what their hobbies were and whether the island provided enough environment to pursue those hobbies, etc. etc. etc. You know: the general types of questions people ask of others just because–small talk, I guess; or maybe to figure out if this person has the potential to be a friend or characteristics that leave them in that nebulous no-man’s land of acquaintance. At first, speaking to Alice was like talking to a chair. Very little of my usual “getting to know you” questions were actually answered, and I could barely get her talking at all unless she had a couple of drinks first. You know how it is. Sometimes there are people who never pick up their side of a conversation, no matter how hard you try to get them talking about anything. However, after a while, Alice became generous in her exchanges with me, although clearly she would remain an acquaintance.
Over the past several months, I felt that she was going out of her way to avoid me (so, of course, I made it a point to “visit” with her long enough to say hello, glad you’re here—that sort of thing–just in case I was misinterpreting). But even at campus social events, it became clear that she had little to say to me, and once actually grabbed her husband and another couple to sit at a different table during a special formal function. Being me, I confronted her about whether I had done anything to offend her, and she answered no—but I had some trouble believing her, since she became even more adept at avoiding me from that point on.
Now I began seeing myself as meeting the real Alice for the first time. I feel that the original Alice was a phony, and I’m not even certain that the new one is any more genuine in general. A dinner at a faculty member’s home on Easter clinched my perspective–at least for now. I try not to attach motive to the actions of people I observe, but sometimes… Well, I was having a pleasant conversation with one of our hosts’ guests. We both had a mutual friend who had left the school, and there had been a bit of friction between me and that friend that caused us to steer away from each other for a while. Eventually, we made up. So I filled the guest in on this upward progress, and wondered if she had heard from the mutual friend more extensively than I had recently. As it turned out, I had more contact than she had.
But to bring Alice back into the conversation: the guest and I were having a lovely conversation about this and that when Alice interrupted, sitting on a small circular coffee table that could have served as a stool, deliberately turned her back to me, and began a conversation with the guest without an acknowledgement that I was there, or even an apology for interrupting the discussion. Guest and I were tete a tete, so there was no reason to think that we were merely sitting back and enjoying the ambiance. This was not an inadvertent interruption. This was a deliberate intrusion. I sat back and watched in absolute astonishment as Alice kept right on talking and making certain that I could not became part of the new conversation. For a few moments, I sat there as Guest tried to bring me in. Each time Guest did that, Alice would move her hips over as though pushing closed a door that was not swinging shut fast enough on its own.
I guess I should have been expecting this for some time, but I just found the entire event highly rude and so dismissive of my presence that the only thing I could do was stare and smile, bitterly laughing inside that Alice had finally played her trump card. During a pause, I excused myself from the sitting arrangement, telling Guest that we could continue our conversation later, and telling Alice it was nice talking to her. Guest looked like she wasn’t happy about what just happened; Alice didn’t even seem to hear the part of the comment directed to her.
As I said, looking at the character of someone “new” does not mean it has to be a person you recently met, per the assignment. It could easily be meeting the new person inside an old acquaintance. I don’t know if I have ever met the real Alice, or if the Easter Alice is the genuine article. Alice’s action just surprised me greatly, won’t be going out of my way to just say “hello” at the next gathering I attend. If this behavior continues, then so be it. She is not worth any further angst. And, although I’m always free to change my mind, right now I don’t like Alice very much.