Juliet England: The perils of the unexpected encounter

Posted on June 6, 2017

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I like to think of myself as sociable. I turn down few invitations, not least because I both live and work by myself. So, planned meet-ups for breakfast, morning coffee, lunch, afternoon tea, dinner and dancing? By all means. I will genuinely be delighted to shoot the breeze with you, from dawn to dusk, and maybe even beyond, depending on how much I like you.

However, there’s one thing that strikes greater fear into my heart than the words family fun day. And that’s when you run into someone you haven’t arranged to meet. The unplanned encounter. The bumping into of somebody you don’t know that well, a circumstance which, given my very real clumsiness, is all too often an all too literal occurrence.

Even running into someone unexpectedly and then mutually deciding to go for coffee spontaneously isn’t as terrifying. And it’s often a pleasure to run into someone you know well. It’s the casual acquaintance I’m talking about here.

What’s more, I’m sure that this deep-rooted, 3am sweat-inducing fear is at least partly due to my rubbish hearing, and because I’ve been known – I am indeed a terrible person – to run out on simple errands sans hearing aids, in full knowledge of what an appalling habit that is.

Even when I do have my aids, I feel reluctant to hang around on pavements talking. And I wonder if that’s because, for those of us with rags for lugholes, conversation can inevitably be a real effort. Perhaps I/we prefer to save that effort for the conversations we really need to have, rather than those which are merely polite. Then there’s the effort expended on unfamiliar voices – is it really worth it?

The trouble is, I’ve lived in my area a fair old while now, and have been no slouch when it comes to joining walking, writing and reading groups, gyms and the like. (See Sociability, above.) So, over the years, you gather acquaintances much as a carpet gathers dust.

Especially if I’ve come out bare-eared, my immediate instinct is to nose-dive into the frozen foods bins at the supermarket, to avoid, avoid, avoid. Another tactic is to keep walking, perhaps upping the pace if you dare, while raising a palm in greeting and acknowledgement, a gesture that also says ‘Don’t talk to me.’ Or you can always try trilling something about not being able to stop.

All too often, though, in the name of common courtesy, scuttling away isn’t an option. There is eye contact. You’ve been spotted. The casual acquaintance knows who you are. They know you’ve seen them. You know they know you’ve seen them. You’ve both stopped. There is no alternative but to engage in conversation.

There are many problems when this happens. Firstly, you never know when to end the encounter. Or the other person doesn’t. A guy from my old gym has a habit of accosting me in Waitrose and quizzing me about my new place, demanding details of every last spin class, under a vague pretence of interest in transferring there himself. But it’s a nonsense, and what am I supposed to do, lead him by the hand to the new gym? There’s no more information I can give him, and I leave each meeting exhausted.

But you can terminate a chat too quickly, too. The other Saturday evening, I was sitting at a bus stop when a fellow user of the new gym spotted me and wandered over to chat. We exchanged inane pleasantries about not recognising each other out of Lycra. Then, after about two minutes, all too aware of my hearing aids in their pouch in my handbag rather than my ears, I invited her to enjoy a splendid evening and she beetled off at speed, leaving me mortified and sure that I’d dismissed her far too briskly.

Sometimes, it’s almost easier when you actively don’t want to speak to the person. I no longer have dealings with a woman at my gym for reasons too tedious to go into here. Suffice it to say her patronising approach and general ignorance of my hearing loss mean I’ve abandoned a much-loved boxing class because having her as my sparring partner week in week out was more than I could bear. Anyway, I saw her in the John Lewis beauty department the other afternoon (you are usually about as likely to find me there as Nigel Farage on a pro-EU march, I was buying something for someone else). Before pupils could be locked, I turned my back and engaged the bewildered assistant in needlessly lengthy conversation about creams and skin types until I was sure the coast was clear.

Even some planned encounters with someone you don’t know very well can make the heart sink. This very afternoon, I’m travelling down to Salisbury for an event with a college acquaintance who pops up every year or two. She is perfectly pleasant, and I would be glad to catch up with her at the event. But now I will have to make polite conversation for two hours and you can’t shout on trains, and I had been looking forward to an afternoon of coffee and reading in blissful solitude.

To make things even more confusing, and to compound the misery, so much depends on mood. The other day someone I only know slightly spotted me as I was on a computer at the local library. My attempts to avoid contact were unsuccessful – but we actually ended up having quite a nice little chat.

Read more of Juliet’s articles for us here. Juliet England does freelance social media and PR work for cseeker.

Photo by Frank_hb

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