Friday, 18 May 2007

Human behaviour

I mustn't be ruled by my increasing mustographeaphobia, because I actually had a nice realisation this afternoon. It was about someone of whom I have been thoroughly scared in my whole time in this particular institution. Other people also have been very daunted by her and felt her to be unfriendly. Today I became convinced that, however things may have progressed over time, she started out as intimidated by it all. She made a passing reference this afternoon to interview candidates as scary people, when most people would put the fear gradient the other way round. I think perhaps she just has not realised that she has been here long enough now to count as part of the establishment -- when she first got here just being female would have been a pretty ground-breaking activity on her part. Her prickliness must at least have started out as a reserved manner combined with an unwillingness to lay herself open to attack. And that is very very understandable to anyone who goes to the sort of meetings we have here.

I'm not saying that understanding this makes it suddenly OK. If someone's unfriendly, they're unfriendly whatever the reason, and we all have a tiring duty to be alert for other people's vulnerabilities and to avoid upsetting them. I suppose the reason it cheered me up so much is that it's better to think of someone as reacting through excessive dauntedness than through ill-will. But also I think it struck me so strongly because it's something I really have trouble with too. I realised in my third-year seminars that sometimes it is selfish to be scared of people, but that realisation didn't make me any better at not being scared. Then in my first PhD year a new American post-grad whom I hardly knew from Adam sat down opposite me in the pub and demanded to know if I had a problem with her. I had come across as unfriendly to the point of deliberate rudeness entirely unwittingly, and I would guess that that has happened on other occasions to people less willing to be confrontational in pubs. (It was one of the most mortifying experiences of my life. And she seemed to think that after we had got it all out in the open we could be friends, whereas of course that was absolutely impossible for me.) We mostly see ourselves as the oppressors, not the oppressed, and think we are acting on the defensive not the offensive. (Which maybe leads me back to my mustographeaphobia... but if I start trying to make too many allowances my head hurts.)

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