Monday, September 30, 2019

Red dots and the quiet life of an introvert

#reddotting on Helvellyn

Last week the Sunday Times carried an article that caught my eye. A gathering of academics at a conference on transgender issues had suggested delegates might apply colour codes to their name badges. A green dot indicated the wearer was happy to be approached for discussion; amber, that they would prefer to speak first; while a red dot signified a wish to keep one's counsel.

This struck me as a fabulous idea. Transgender might be a controversial topic, but frankly, I'm just as uncomfortable at the over-friendly chit-chat of the ladies in Waitrose. Corporate events are even more toe-curling - some years ago, until they took the responsibility off me, I set my firm's budget for client entertainment at zero! And as for any occasion with the mention 'networking'...

Just off to the shops..😂
My friend agrees - I sent her the article and suggested we could glue red discs to our respective front doors. Why restrict it to home? she replied. How about a badge for schoolyard mums, and maybe another for walking in the hills? Good shout, maybe we could launch a campaign: #reddotting - for those who don't want to be mugged...  or hugged for that matter!

The possibilities seemed endless.

And yet, when I mentioned the idea to a different friend, they were horrified. Another example, they said, of the narcissistic over-curation of our lives; why can't we just talk to each other without artificial interventions?

Putting jokes aside, I reflected that there's much truth in this. Transgender is a prime example of an issue so politicised that even curious exploration is now fraught with anxiety; colonial history is arguably another, and views on climate change are in danger of acquiring an evangelical purity. Certainly, we've come a long way from the old pub maxim that the only topics to avoid are politics and religion.

But my attraction to 'red dotting' - that hashtag idea isn't quite dead yet - is founded on a subtly different notion: that too much of our culture - and especially those behaviours we consider socially polite - are shaped by extrovert values. The line between shyness and perceived rudity is gossamer-thin, in contrast to the robustness of commonplace assumptions that silence confers a lack of interest, or not mingling at a party makes you a miserable sod. To make matters worse, many extroverts, whose preferences so dominate our norms, are constitutionally resistant to seeing it differently.

Malcolm Gladwell touches obliquely on this problem in his recent podcasts, Talking to Strangers. Why he asks, are we so poor at interpreting the feelings and intentions of others? Using examples from Chamberlain's appeasement of Hitler to the trial of Amanda Knox (as well as her trial by media), he explores how our cultural norms lead to errors of judgment. Among our chief failings is what he calls the 'illusion of transparency', an entrenched preconception that a person's outward appearance is a mirror to their soul: smiling means you're happy; hesitation that you're lying; eye contact shows you're trustworthy.

But if this is an illusion, it's one that stubbornly persists.  Discussing Gladwell's podcast with Jane - who's a champion mingler and extrovert in the very best and kindest sense of the term - she countered that surely our instincts are 'right most of the time'; that these types of shortcuts make for a more efficient and smoother sociability. I sense there's truth in this too - except why do we default to the extrovert view?  Why not see silence as reflective, hesitation as truth-seeking, and eye contact as deception?
Shhh... Photo by Kristina Flour on Unsplash
My mother in law, bless her, kisses every family member who comes through her door, usually clasping their face in both hands. As it happens I don't mind (truly I don't), but it would no more occur to her that some people might find cheek kissing mildly uncomfortable than she could conceive of a less demonstrable welcome being just as, if not more, friendly. In a similar vein, a good pal has a habit of talking at length - and I mean great length - to random passers-by; I enjoy chatting he says - yes, but do they, I reply!  To a stereotypical extrovert, what they like, and what's socially 'right' or 'correct', are inextricably linked. It's called preference bias - and we all exhibit it to some extent.

I should add here that there's nothing wrong with being an extrovert, just as there's nothing wrong with rain, or trees or choosing pudding over cheese. Extroverts can be brilliant and funny and a million things more. The problem is not being an extrovert, it's presupposing that everyone else is too - or more to the point, establishing an orthodoxy that assumes the same. Introverts are estimated to account for up to forty per cent of the population, so the notion that one's preferences are inherently 'right and proper', or for that matter 'right most of the time', is hard to sustain.

Photo by Greg Rakozy on Unsplash
In truth, the introvert: extrovert distinction is more of a spectrum than a divide. Most of us are not wholly one or the other - though the uber-chummy cashier in our local convenience store comes close (tip if ever you're in my town - avoid his queue no matter how short). But this seems to me to make red-dotting even more attractive - for why wouldn't we want to know how others would like us to be? After all, you wouldn't serve only beef at a dinner party without first checking if there were any vegetarians.

I'm not hopeful though.  Even as I write, I can sense my more ebullient friends muttering - fiddlesticks, of course it's more friendly to be like us... 

And perhaps they have a point. For according to Gladwell, our behaviours are intrinsically contextual - even suicide is often specific to location; evidently, those prevented from jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge seldom try elsewhere. The workplace is another context where our characters can change. I'm reminded too, of Jane's regular complaint at my silence when she's driving - I feel like a chauffeur, she says - and yet with certain friends, she can't shut me up.

Perhaps it's inevitable then, that in social settings, those who project themselves on the world should take the lead in setting the norms. It wouldn't work to entertain in silence, just as singing in the library doesn't go down a storm. And much though I like the idea, I'll concede that it would probably be weird to don badges in the pub. 

Though, on second thoughts, if they were all red, I'd give it a whirl.

Sunday, September 1, 2019

Objects of life #4 - Haston Vallot rucksack

Karrimor Haston Vallot Rucksack
Unless you're a mountaineer - and even then, you'd have to be one of a certain age -  I very much doubt you could name, let alone recognise the significance of, the rucksack in the picture above. For most folk it would be something that's stored in the loft, deprived of light until tipped or car-booted for few quid at best. And yet, in its time, the Haston Vallot was quite the thing, as was the climber, after whom it's named.

I bought mine in June 1980, at the start of the long summer break from university. My parents had recently separated: my mother moving to a tiny flat; my father not really an option to stay with. With nowhere to else go, and some inspiration from the Backpacker's Handbook, I decided to walk from Coast to Coast. And so began a path that, in a sense, I'm following still.

The man in the shop said it was definitely the one to buy. I remember being sceptical: it was expensive, and most rucksacks in those days had metal frames and multiple pockets. This was different, he explained, an alpiniste style which didn't use a structured chassis - the hip belt and straps would do the work, and what's more, if I progressed from walking to climbing, I'd already have the right equipment...

Ten minutes later and I owned my first piece of mountaineering gear.  I bought a sleeping mat too - and a Trangia stove that's still going strong. Somewhera along the way I acquired a tent and sleeping bag; they weighed a tonne, but they saw me from Whitehaven to Robin Hood's bay and afterwards most of the Pennine Way.

In the late Seventies, Karrimor was the UK's leading rucksack brand. They were known for good quality, innovative designs. The model I bought was named after Dougal Haston, the first Britain to succeed on the direct route of the Eiger's north face. His bold style was an inspiration for a generation of mountaineers pioneering alpine style ascents in the Himalaya and beyond. My memory tells me that he designed the outer loop which stows the belt and stops it from snagging if you haul the pack up a cliff - but I can't be sure and suspect I'm getting a bit geeky... What's more relevant is that by the early Eighties all packs looked a little like this, and the sacks we use today owe their heritage to these early designs.

Austria 1983
Returning to my purchase, after that first summer it transitioned with me from walking to climbing, just as the salesman said.  I took it to the Alps, on hut tours in Austria, and for years it carried my rock gear round the crags of Northumberland. It's a regular presence in my photo albums of those years - like a hidden clue, of the sort a TV detective would spot.

And if they ever came looking, they'd not take long to find it - for I never got round to storing my sack in the loft.  In fact, I used it this week to go camping with my eldest son, retracing a walk over the Preseli Hills that we'd first made eleven years ago. He was a teenager then, and the story of that trip became the title piece of my book Counting Steps. It seemed appropriate for our return, though my nostalgic mumblings cut little ice as I fumbled with stiff zips and broken buckles - but that's another story, for another book maybe.

Sadly, Karrimor are no longer in business - they went bust in 2003, though the trademark limps after purchase by Sports Direct. Dougal Haston is gone too; he died skiing in Leysin, not far as it happens from my house in France. But I reckon my old sack has a few years in it yet - there's evidently a repair shop in Lancashire that can sort those zips, and despite the odd creaky joint, I can still smile as I shoulder the weight - and the memories - it holds.

Summit of Mount Serles, Stubai Alps