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.