19 August 2008

What to my wandering eyes should appear

At the final reception at the NCS, I was talking with Dr. Virago and some friends of hers I had just met, and found my eyes wandering around the room in the way that so often signals "You're not important; I'm looking for a Name to talk to." I kept telling myself, "Stop that. It's very rude. Focus on the people you're with," and then I'd catch myself doing it again.

I'm sorry, fellow-NCS-delegates. Let me explain. First, crowds make me nervous; at least we were at the edge of the room, where there wasn't anyone behind me, or I would have been even twitchier. Scanning for possible danger is almost instinctive with me, the behavior of a shy animal. What could happen? Oh, I don't know; that's not the point. I might be pounced on by either a very large predator or someone trying to get me turn in something I've forgotten about (if those aren't the same thing). It's just that I feel I need to keep a wary eye on a room full of people.

Second, I confess it: I was hoping to spot someone else. Not a Name, just someone (almost anyone) I'd known for longer than I'd known the people I was talking to. I was at the end of five weeks away from home, in which I had had many conversations with people I had just met, about either purely practical things or completely superficial subjects. I had spent no time at all with old friends or anyone who might be counted among my intimates. I was tired of such a public life. A few minutes with someone I had some history with would have been restorative.

As medievalists, we're familiar with how in bono and in malo interpretations of the same scene can co-exist. I admit my behavior looked bad. But perhaps, knowing the background, you can find it in you to be charitable, as I prefer to be so long as I can imagine any alternative explanations for behavior I might otherwise object to. This person may have had a forgetful moment; that one may have been jet-lagged; another may have been profoundly nervous at seeing Professor X in the audience.

I'm no saint. Finding charitable explanations is an act of rebellion: my mother, in her own words, is a nasty old cat who can't imagine how she raised such a mealy-mouthed child. A bland social smile is to my face as full Goth makeup once was to some of my peers.


Dr. Virago said...

You know, I didn't even notice you doing that! Or if I did, I probably interpreted it relatively correctly, since I know you're shy *and* I knew that you'd been doing the conference circuit for awhile. I probably just figured you were taking a mental break from conversation.

All of this tells me that when I *do* get anxious about that wandering look, I should remind myself that my interpretation of it (or not) as someone looking for a Name has as much to do with my own intermittent insecurities as it does with such actual behavior.

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

You might also say that I am the sort of person who cares about being polite and will self-monitor, whereas (I am sorry to say) there appear to be people who . . . well, about whom I find it hard to be charitable! I make allowances for a certain amount of time, but after that, some people just get a wide berth from me, because I don't want the aggravation. At least it's pretty clear who they are. But what about such people as the one who forgot we met through one of my professors and is unflatteringly surprised to (re)discover where I went to grad school? Forgetful, I say, for now. But on the watch list. You know what's great about tenure? You can choose not to play the game and just hang out with people who are interesting, nice and fun, and ignore institutional affiliations, status, and all that.