10/30/2010
The grocery instinct

I'm in a conference room, seated with at least seven other people, and all of us are asked to define our attitudes and personalities through a series of quantitative tests. After all, quantitative data beats qualitative data in one thing: keeping the playing field perfectly even.

Of course, there's a catch: defining your personality through those tests, purportedly devised by psychologists and the like, will never reflect those little quirks you have. Or that's what we think. They are doctors! They should be trusted! They spent all their lives trying to figure out how our brains work, never mind that they only get to play with electric pulses routed from some wire attached to your head, and not your actual brain, because mucking about with a living person's brain is fatal. Of course they know how our brain works. Of course they know that the subtlest of decisions say a lot about ourselves. Or something like that.

So surely, they have this fool-proof way of figuring out who I am depending on what boxes I check. One test has a statement that goes something like "people always ask me for advice" and it triggers this fairly complicated series of thoughts in my head. Sure, I think, people always ask me for advice, but it's the romantic sort, and it doesn't happen frequently. But they always ask me. I check "fairly often". Surely those doctors have that figured out.

Another one of those tests has me deciding which of the two adjectives provided I am more of. Those adjectives come from a pool of ten or so, and the test provides a big handful of permutations. (I'm not a doctor. I find it difficult to explain this test. But you get the idea, right? You will get the idea, right?) Sooner or later you'll get the hang of the test and you'll form an automatic narrative of sorts. I'm more gloomy than resentful. I'm more resentful than argumentative. And just when it gets a little easier to decide, it gives me two completely contradictory adjectives: "sociable" and "shy".

I'd like to think I'm fairly sociable. I can talk to people effortlessly, especially when I'm fairly comfortable with them. But I clam up as effortlessly. And now, I have to choose one of those adjectives, and judging from my answers so far I'm either more sociable than something, or I'm more shy than something. So I start pondering my response - there is no time limit, but I can't spend five minutes deciding that, and in the thirty seconds I did spend deciding, I looked up and glanced at the six other people taking the test with me. I can tell if they're sociable or shy just by glancing at them, I thought. Woman with dark-framed glasses and Mitch Albom book: shy. Man with teen actor-like grin: sociable. Woman with that elegant air around her: a big snob.

I'm in a bookstore, flicking through magazines, when I chance upon a particular upscale magazine's society pages. You know, the sort that always talks about the biggest (supposedly) parties of the past few weeks or so, with arty photos of socialites and social climbers wearing arty outfits. You'll wonder what they did to get where they are. Sure, they look sociable - there is a reason why they're invited to that party, and why they have the privilege to look slightly wasted and get published in a particularly upscale magazine - but I'm the one browsing, and (you guessed it) I can tell who they are just by glancing at them. Snob. Snob. Snob. Pretentious snob. Fucking pretentious snob.

I'm in a stranger's house in some upscale subdivision, attending the birthday party of a kid I don't even know. To be clear, it was the birthday of the son of one of my father's friends in college. He turned five years old today. I don't know why they asked me to go with them, as it's a children's party, and I don't know why I agreed to go, even if I know that I get bored easily. It certainly wasn't my mother telling me about the birthday boy's half-sister, who she thinks I'll get along with, because we're both chatty and we both like food. I guess I just thought of getting out of the house for something other than my career.

Cait - I checked Facebook and I think I got it right, and to be very sure, I know she's really named Caitlin - is 21, is fresh from culinary school, and is chatty. Suddenly I am expected to be getting along very well with her. Not that I don't want to, but I'm actually feeling the pressure. I'm in a stranger's house, in a birthday party I wasn't exactly invited to - and I'm the person who tends to make conversation with the older people, which in this case, consists of my parents' friends. Not that I let that get in the way, but I won't just come into someone's house and be this chatty person, right?

For an hour or so, I drifted from the cold sofa in the living room to the magic show in the garage, exchanging pleasantries, and still trying to get used to the situation.

A couple of hours later, I'm on the passenger's seat, and Cait is driving to the grocery to pick up items for her sellout tacos. At the back of my head, I'm going, we just met a couple of hours ago, and now she's inviting me to accompany her to the grocery? Not that I don't want to.

To her credit, Cait is a very outgoing person. I was a visitor, and an unexpected one, but in a short while we've ganged up on her dad - "adding beef on a samosa doesn't work!" we'd exclaim together - in between discussing the cooking shows we've watched. Yes, a new friend, more or less. And someone my age, too. She herself pointed it out: it's hard finding someone her own age, the very thing I've dealt with all this time. And, it's hard finding someone who actually gets her drift when she starts talking about her cooking. I don't know if she was referring to me - I was too busy carrying the shopping basket, and the PA system was too loud, so I can't tell the different between her talking to me, and her talking to herself, mumbling the recipe to her chocolate oatmeal cookies so she can keep track of what she's buying.

True enough, I did get the hang of it, and by the time we were in the grocery I managed to make fun of her missing the shelf where all the oatmeal is, which happened to be beside the shelf where all the flour is, which happened to be the shelf where we came from. Yeah, I managed to cite her "grocery instinct" - that thing about knowing what to buy when you can't find what you need - and I ended up spotting her car when she parked in front of her house, never mind me not driving as well as she does. Yeah, I managed.

My friends would tell me that I am a really, really talkative person. And yes, I do get where they're coming from. But before I become that really, really talkative person, I'm the guy who's too worried about what people think. Well, I still am with my friends, but more so when they're still strangers. In most cases, that means me keeping everything to myself, until someone approaches me and gives this hint that goes, yes, it's okay, I don't bite. I'm thinking of Mon, or Mooie, or Valerie, or... no, that person doesn't count, because I started the conversation on that one.

"I'm sorry I'll miss the cookies," I told Cait as I left the house. It was six in the evening, and I was in the kitchen, also known as that place I can't enter whenever she's cooking, or so she says. (I get it.) I grabbed her free hand, and did something in between a handshake and a high five. "But I'll find you on Facebook."

I struggled looking for her, the same way I struggled picking between "sociable" and "shy". But in the thirty seconds I spent staring at the monitor, I figured, my dad is friends with her dad, and her dad must be friends with her, right? Right. Exactly. By the way, I chose "sociable".

And your responses...

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