You Can’t Exactly Stroke a Fish

Or can you? You just said it, but is it strictly true? Maybe someone, somewhere has stroked a fish. There may even be a profession of fish-stroker similar to horse-whisperer or chicken-sexer. My mind is heckling me.

To give the above some context, Godmother Elect and I are sitting once again in Mum’s nursing home room. Mum is watching TV, or so the Home would have us believe, just as they would have us believe she has been reading that ancient, water-stained copy of Woman’s Weekly on her little wheelie-table, or leafing through that disintegrating book of colour photos of lakes and castles . Window dressing!

This morning on TV it’s property porn. You know the kind of thing – New Homes In The Country,  Splendid Homes By The Sea, Coast or Country Which Will You Choose? Iceland or Azerbaijan Which Will It Be? I must admit I used to like them, a bit, but the novelty’s long since worn off. Mum doesn’t care what she watches. Her eyes follow the flickering screen. How thin she is now.

GE and I spend the statutory ten minutes trying to engage/include Mum in conversation. That’s a nice birthday card, Mum. Who’s that one from? It’s from the Home. Somebody in the office has run off a sheet of A4 paper on a colour printer and folded it into a four-leaf card-shape. They have scribbling her name into the box on the front in crayon. Infant-school writing. Everybody gets that same card. Sometimes Mum gets the birthday cards of such of the other residents as can still shuffle about. They tend to circulate around the corridors.

Godmother Elect and I then do what we always end up doing and relapse into adult conversation whilst keeping an eye on Mum and rescuing her teetering plastic mug of tea at intervals. Today I was telling GE about my Befriender visit yesterday to an old lady, and being taken out to admire the koi carp in the pond in her back garden. GE and I agree that koi carp are very beautiful creatures and compare notes as to the likely price of even a medium-sized koi at an aquatic centre. GE, a dog person through and through, said that fish were all right but she couldn’t really warm to them as pets. No, I said, you can’t exactly stroke a fish.

So, that’s the context. I still find it difficult to say meaningless stuff. Hence the heckling. The strictly logical side of my ‘wiring’ objects to it even now. But I do know it’s the proper thing to do…

(Sorry – distracted. Charlie-over-the-the road has been scanning the bar codes of his delivery round parcels, topless, as usual. He has been ignoring loud claps of thunder and the flashes of lightning following imminently upon them. The parcels are set out on his driveway, as usual, ready to go in his car. And now the rain comes, falling in sheets and torrents on everybody’s mail order goods, as the bangs and flashes continue. A torn plastic cagoule now covers Charlie’s almost-nakedness but nothing covers the parcels as he rushes about trying to rescue them. And there are hundreds. I do love a good disaster. But poor Charlie.)

…but I know it’s the proper thing to do. When I was a child people assumed, and I suppose I assumed too, that I was shy. In fact I was socially unequipped, which isn’t quite the same thing. Lacking any instinctive knowledge I became a keen observer of Homo Sapiens, and even more so of Homo NotVeryMuch Sapiens, like poor Charlie. I observed that they spoke a lot of rubbish most of the time but it didn’t seem to matter. After a while I worked it out – it doesn’t matter what you say when you are forced into the company of your fellow humans. It only matters that you say something.

Later still, at teacher training college, I learned that this kind of thing is known as phatic conversation. Phatic means words or actions whose purpose is to show the other person that you are friendly, not dangerous, that you like them, or might like them, that you want to be friends.

It’s also known as ‘stroking’, ie ‘That’s a lovely dress you’re wearing, Ivy. Where did you buy it?” or “I wish my kids were as well-behaved as your three!” or “That’s just fascinating. Do tell me more…” Apparently there is a kind of unspoken tariff for ‘strokes’ too. On the whole one earns one in return, but on occasion it can be more complicated. It depends how much you want the other person to like you, how much you have to gain from them – or even how frightened you are of them. You are exchanging nicenesses.

All this is – or was – foreign to me. For a long time I laboured under the misapprehension that if I were to say something stupid/meaningless/dull/trite I would be ruthlessly judged and found wanting. I must be interesting – the Oscar Wilde of small talk – or keep quiet.

So most of the time I said nothing. This is not the same thing as being shy. I did want to talk to people, just misunderstood how the thing was done. You don’t have to be perfect straight away. You start with the fish-stroking and lovely dress stuff and then, if and when you get to know people well, you can say stuff that means something and, if you’re lucky, they will say stuff that means something back.

Ah well, you live, you watch, you learn.

12 thoughts on “You Can’t Exactly Stroke a Fish

  1. It’s odd how we assume that everyone picks up on social cues easily. Some do, but for others, it’s a learning process. Small talk is still something I’m not very good at, for the reasons you gave…what if I say something stupid? Writing is so much easier, because there’s that handy delete button.
    PS: Is Charlie your mail man?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hi Ann, no Charlie is a neighbour. He works for a national parcel delivery courier. A big lorry turns up every morning with sacks full of parcels to be delivered locally. He arranges them all in rows in front of his house and scans them before wedging them into his car and setting forth, which is fine as long as it’s not raining. We do have a post lady, but she delivers on foot. She dyes her hair blue at Christmas and wears antlers and other strange hats beneath her uniform cap.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. You’d think he would learn after the first few times the packages were rained on! Still, it’s good to know that’s not your mail you have to watch getting wet. We have a next door neighbor who struggles mightily with her garden. She put it in the lowest part of her yard, which is also the part where all the water from heavy rainfalls pours through on it’s way to the gutter and gets trapped by the railroad ties she uses as borders, meaning that her garden is drowned out on a regular basis. She has a huge yard, yet every spring, she replants her vegetable garden in exactly the same place. I think she would get along great with Charlie!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I still envy my adorable chatterbox neighbor of Kindergarten class who talked so very much that first day, her ponytail bobbing every whichway, despite a thousandth teacher-based warning that resulted in a swat on the rear outside the classroom door, I soundlessly and just as animatedly emulated her garrulousness at my own table where I was seated with a fellow crypt-dweller. I have since then watched and heard 14 million people talk and talk about nothing — malt vinegar could be their subject — and realize I shouldn’t have waited (and still wait) to be profound before issuing sounds. People like sounds. Who knew?? Indeed, there come no ropes and a plank to be walked, from letting vowels and consonants rush out like ninnies into shared ether. And a swat on the bottom only stops the human canaries for a while, thank God.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Sometimes even a swat on the bottom isn’t sufficient. I sat next to a woman on the bus the other day who told me most of her (economic) life story. After a while all I could see was this moving mouth. I became fascinated by a little mistake she’d made with her lipstick.

      Unfortunately it takes the best part of an hour to get anywhere significant…

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Lol, I have that kind of face, too. I am only surprised murderers don’t confess to me. (Or to you, or do they??) Seriously. We don’t have to accommodate the world, really. It might be time to get earbuds and put them in after 10 minutes, “Forgive me, but I must finish listening to this before my stop.” Just make sure the other end is plugged into something that will make whirring noises now and then.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. What a good idea! Why do I never think of ruses like that?

        Not that it matters from the subterfuge point of view but l did try out my old MP3 player on the bus. Even with the volume up high I couldn’t hear a note of my erstwhile CD collection (yes, including Abba’s Greatest Hits) over the rattlings and clankings of the bus. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

    1. I must have missed that, but had fun looking it up. According to W/pedia Dr Stephen something or other claimed (tongue in cheek) that though the sea was full of creatures they were not related to one another and a salmon was more closely related to a camel.

      Liked by 1 person

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