My name is Lucy Benedict* and I am a people addict. I was going to say ‘I’m a people person’, but that would be a lie. I’m not. I’m shy, utterly lacking in confidence, and a compete introvert. Being around other people too long has the same effect as kryptonite on Superman. I lose all my powers, get drained of energy, and my hair gets upset. I’m not a people person. I like people, generally, as individuals, but I find real life interaction a bit much, and can only handle it in small doses. I prefer to observe.
‘You should have been an actress!’ My mum’s been saying that to me for years. I always thought she meant it in the sense of ‘Oh bloody hell, you melodramatic creature. Stop making a scene, calm down, and cease this quenchless thirst for attention.’ It was only recently I found out that what she really meant is that I have a gift for mimicry, and for spotting things that perhaps other people don’t always.
It was brought home a few months ago, when Alistair and I were discussing a mutual friend. Let’s call him ‘Roy’, seeing as I don’t know anyone called Roy. I made a crap joke, Alistair said ‘That’s the kind of joke that Roy would make!’ and I made a kind of high-pitched ‘Hnugh?’ sound. Alistair stared at me, worriedly, wordlessly. ‘What? That’s what Roy does, whenever he makes a joke. Hnugh?? To draw attention to the fact that he’s just made a joke.’ Alistair looked dubious. ‘What?! He does! How can you not have noticed? Hnugh? Every time.’ Alistair turned away and muttered ‘If you say so’ in tones designed to tell me ‘You are talking utter bollocks, and no, Roy does not hnugh?? after he’s made a joke.’
And then of course, two days later, we saw Roy, Roy made a crap joke, and as sure as I cannot type ‘teacher’ without first typing ‘tecaher’… ‘HNUGH????’ Alistair caught my eye, and I got to pull my very best ‘See, I bloody told you, how have you not noticed this before, oh my god, you’ve known Roy all this time, and yet you never saw it. Until I, me, ME, pointed it out, and you didn’t believe me, o ye of little faith’ face. It’s quite a complicated expression, but I have a big face, so can fit it in quite easily.
Another way I’ve found of pissing Alistair off is to copy his hand gestures. Every time he describes an action, his hands and/or head get in on the fun too. So when he told me how he was going to strap down some tools in the boot of the car to stop them ‘bobbling around’ his head performed a little involuntary wobble, a bit like Stevie Wonder, to illustrate the way in which things can ‘bobble around’. Or if he says he’s going to the garage, his left hand, seemingly without his knowledge, will point to the car park. To be a massive annoying tit, I innocently ask ‘Where are you going, darling?’ and he shoots me a look of longsuffering pain, and says ‘To the garage’, points, sighs, and contemplates walking out of the house and never returning.
But it’s not just physical stuff I notice. Body language is practically my mother tongue, and I can read someone’s thoughts without ever exchanging a word with them, but what I do best is people, in the round. This is probably why I love things like twitter, facebook, blogs. Because it’s not just what people do, it’s what they try to tell the world about themselves. Earlier this year, I had a thought. You can tell a lot about people from their favourite mug. And #MugTheory was born. People tweeted me a photo of their favourite mug, and I tried to provide a concentrated personality analysis. It was fascinating. Genuinely fascinating. To try and analyse people based on a single photo of a hot beverage receptacle. Some people didn’t have a favourite mug (I’m one of them), so they proved harder to read. Other people turned out to have two favourites – one for sentimental reasons, one for actual drinking. And one person (YOU KNOW WHO YOU ARE) refused to submit to my highly scientific process (I WILL BREAK YOU DOWN ONE DAY), and even referred to #MugTheory as ‘nonsense’ (BE VERY AFRAID. I KNOW WHERE YOU LIVE).
It was fun, and I met a lot of lovely, shiny new people on twitter, to replace the older, more worn out ones (I don’t mean you by that. I do mean you, though), but I wasn’t altogether serious about it. What I prefer to do is read the hidden conversations that are happening, the things that aren’t said, or the things that may seem to be a throwaway line, but serve a far deeper purpose than may first appear to be the case. Here’s an example of a conversation I have made up:
Tweeter A: @TweeterB Hey, you around for that thing we mentioned doing on Saturday?
TweeterB: @TweeterA Yes, I think I’m still free. Say about eleven?
TweeterA: @TweeterB Great! Really looking forward to it! Last time was brilliant! Text me when you’re leaving :-)
TweeterB: Ok, will do.
TweeterA: @TweeterB Thanks xx
Right, from the outside, it seems like nothing much, yes? Just two people making plans. Ok, here’s the thing. Why didn’t TweeterA send TweeterB a direct message instead? Because they wanted to make sure someone else saw. Why did TweeterA say ‘that thing we mentioned’? Because they wanted someone else to know that they and TweeterB had had previous conversations about it. Why did TweeterA make a direct reference to ‘last time’? Because they wanted someone else to know they had a history with TweeterB. Why did TweeterA mention texting? Because they wanted someone else to know that they exchange texts with TweeterB. This also reinforces the question ‘Why didn’t TweeterA just text TweeterB in the first place, instead of having a public conversation?’ Because TweeterA wanted someone else to see the exchange, and text messages wouldn’t have achieved that. And the ‘xx’ at the end? That’s the final twist of the knife in the heart of the third party not directly involved in the conversation. And I can guarantee that TweeterB would have been blissfully unaware of any of the heaving, seething mass of undercurrent running through the tweets, probably thinking ‘That’s a bit odd. Why didn’t TweeterA just text? Oh, well’ shrugs, gets on with their day, with no further thought about it. Whereas for me, it’s as plain as the nose on TweeterA’s face.
People give themselves away far more often than they would like to think, and if you're the type of person I am, you learn to read the signs without really being aware of it. It feels instinctive, when really it's more an accumulation of years of hanging back, watching, and then seeing how things go on to unfold. So I've learnt to trust my 'instincts', and I'm not often wrong. It’s a shame, but it does peel back a rather sad truth. As people, most of us aren’t really all that great.
We like to think of ourselves as being kind, altruistic, caring. Actually, most people’s motives are pretty base, and our behaviour is usually caused by the nastier side of ourselves we try to keep hidden. We behave the way we do through fear, jealousy, lashing out, attacking, retaliating. The irony is that the people who motivate our best behaviour, our loved ones, see us openly at our worst, when we’re hurt, upset, angry. The people we care about the least see us at our best, keeping up appearances, not letting our demons peep through. But no one wants to admit that, least of all to ourselves. So we perpetuate the myth that we are being kind, generous, helpful. We’re not. We’re seeking to impress with a shinier, nicer, better cover version
But I’m fluent in the language of people. And even if no one else can understand you, I can. I do.
*My name is not Lucy Benedict