Yesterday in the bookstore, I witnessed an exchange that stuck with me.  I was just about to leave the shop, having finished my hours for the day, and the next volunteer had already arrived.

Two girls walked into the shop together, full of the joys of the new summer, just excited about nothing much at all. One went over to the poetry shelves and called out ‘Oh I love poetry! I should read more of it!’ She browsed for a few moments and then came over with an old hardback volume, no dust cover, rather shabby and brown and asked the price from the other volunteer. It must have been a rare copy because it turned out to be quite expensive and her face fell.

‘Do you have any books of poetry that are cheaper than this?’ she asked. ‘Can you help me decide what to read?’

So the volunteer went back to the shelves with her and started pulling books out and offering them. I was picking up my stuff and not paying so much attention, until I began to feel a sort of cloud of creeping unease travelling over towards me. Something wasn’t going so well.

‘How about Auden?’ the volunteer was saying. ‘Do you know him? What about this by Shelley?’

‘Who’s Shelley?’ the girl asked, in a tone that suggested this sort of thing had been going on fruitlessly for some time.

‘Only one of the most important poets who ever wrote!’ the volunteer replied.

‘Well, I’d better read that one then, hadn’t I?’ the girl asked cheerily, clearly trying to retain a bit of dignity.

But by now the volunteer was leafing through the book. ‘Oh you don’t want this,’ she said. ‘It’s some sort of commentary on the poems, not the actual poems.’

The girl had had enough by now, and I didn’t blame her one bit. ‘I can’t see my friend,’ she said. ‘I think she must have left the shop. I really ought to go after her and come back when I know a bit more what I want.’

‘Yes, you do that,’ said the volunteer, completely unperturbed. I knew the friend was still in the store, only hidden out of sight around the little corner at the back. The volunteer stalked straight over to where I was standing. ‘Did you see that girl?’ she demanded. ‘I don’t know what she wanted. She said she loved poetry and wanted to buy a book but she hadn’t heard of any of the poets! Then I had to stop her from buying some book of literary analysis!’

Just to finish off the embarrassment of the encounter, the friend had realised that she had been abandoned and was heading out of the store towards our ex-customer who stood hovering on the threshold, beckoning her, and in perfect earshot of the volunteer’s unjust remarks. The two girls rushed away.

‘I think she just didn’t know very much about poetry and wanted to learn,’ I said.

‘She knew nothing about poetry!’ said the volunteer still outraged. ‘Why did she say she did?’

This exchange made me wince. It filled me with dismay, and not least because I hadn’t been able to find a way to intervene helpfully. I hadn’t realised the exchange was going so badly until too late, and to tell the volunteer now that she had been insensitive would have caused nothing but more wounded feelings. She is a much older woman than me, and someone who has worked in a lot of arts administration. I’d been warned before I met her that she could be disconcertingly brusque, although I hadn’t had any difficulty with her myself. But oh how I felt for that poor young girl, who had been made to feel so stupid. She had been a very pretty girl, elaborately made up, with her eyeliner making little hooked apostrophes around the outer corners of her eyes; she was dressed up in summer finery and in full flight of enthusiastic youth, in love with her own possibilities and all the other ones in the world that had yet to be revealed to her. If only she had been able to say, look, I’ve hardly read any poetry and I want to know where to start. But that would have been hard for her, to alter the stance she had taken and which, after all, must have felt so deliciously grown-up and serious and romantic. Who among us, at any age, could give up such a position in exchange for genuine, dull ignorance?

Over the past couple of years I’ve become very interested in dialogue, in what people can hear when they talk to one another, and the kind of miraculous exchanges that can really take people somewhere or effect meaningful change. I suppose this has grown out of my interest in teaching, and from the experience of trying to explain chronic fatigue to people who can’t or won’t understand what it is. It seems to me that the basis of any successful conversation is attunement. The ability of one or other party to get themselves in line, mentally and emotionally, with their interlocutor. When conversation breaks down in conflict or disagreement, you can really see that absence of attunement, the unwillingness to understand where the other person is coming from. The volunteer in the shop couldn’t attune to the customer; she believed that the young girl’s mind was a copy of her own, that a professed love of poetry equated to her own love of poetry. It was such a missed opportunity. But this is difficult, too, conversation happens so fast, it can be very confusing, it is inevitable that our own position dominates our focus. So often we just don’t want to get in line with someone else’s insecurities, their fears, their inchoate desires. And so most conversations snarl and snag up, or end in their participants repeating their own lines over and over, without ever feeling heard.

Well, I can’t fix conversation, but I know that for my own peace of mind, I’ve got to find a way to get in there quicker, should there be a next time. It makes me feel all funny inside to think that someone didn’t get the reading they wanted.


18 thoughts on “Attunement

  1. Oh that is so unfortunate, and it’s hard in the moment to know what to do. But you’ve perfectly outlined the dilemma of human conversation. It happens too fast, and we should all be taught how to slow it down, to pause, to consider and be comfortable with the pauses while we are considering or the other person is. The way I’d intervene in a situation like that (if I wasn’t caught in uncertainty, which sometimes happens to me) would be to pop in with a comment that showed me in an ignorant light or as a beginner. Something like, “When I was your age I didn’t know anything about Shelley either. But a teacher said I should read X and I loved it.”

  2. I sometimes think that what’s needed in conversations like this are subtitles that tell you what someone is really saying. The young girl was saying, “Oh, how I love the idea of poetry and summer and reading, and although I know very little about poetry itself, I have exactly $5 to spend on a book that might lead me further into this ideal scene.” And the volunteer was saying, “I am so sad and frightened by how little the world I love seems to mean to the young.” They both have a responsibility to try to hear each other — not just the volunteer, but the young girl also, who is not without resources and kindness herself. And yet, as you say, conversations happen so quickly and the subtitles are so often blurred!

    Interestingly enough, dialogue in drama and fiction more often resembles the conversation you heard than the one that was actually taking place, and demonstrates how people fail to see each other clearly, misunderstanding more often the comprehending. In a way, I suppose good dialogue teaches a reader to look beyond what is said to what is beneath and maybe even creates the skill to read life’s conversations more adeptly.

  3. Me, when I run across something like this don’t try to find a good author fit, but a subject fit. Does the young woman look like a pub bunny? I see if her ears perk up when I mention something related then I suggest Charles Bukowsi. Wearing Native American jewelery? Henry Real Bird. Got a fierce but also beautiful tat? Sappho or maybe Angelou. Dressed conservatively but in light colours? Wordsworth probably or Dorothy’s journals.

    Need to interrupt? Drop in a non sequitur. – Did you see the cat with the mouse on its head run past? No? – It’ll get their attention and divert the growing antagonism that comes with the volunteer’s literary egoism. Being willing to seem a fool is the best way inside almost anyone’s defenses.At least I’ve always found it so. But then, perhaps seeming a fool is easier for me than most others.

  4. Thank you for sharing this. It’s a good reminder of the subtleties of conversations and where they can go wrong.

  5. Oh no! The poor girl. I hope it doesn’t put her off trying poetry some other time. Librarian me would have looked at the book she had wanted to suggested something similar. Or, barring that, I would have foisted one of my favorite poets on the girl gushing the whole time about how wonderful the book is and how I was sure she’d love it too. Never question the customer’s knowledge and never make them feel stupid.

  6. I love dialogue too. I forgive Mary Renault’s modern novels their faults for this reason: she has an undeniable gift for portraying people in conversation who are not quite managing not to talk past each other, or even better, two people on exactly the same wavelength and a third not anywhere near it. She just does it so elegantly and with so little apparent effort, it’s like watching a superb dancer, doing incredibly complicated things and making it look easy.

  7. What you describe is so true, and unfortunately this “disattunement” occurs so often and is the cause of so many useless rows! It does make fantastic fiction, however. I’m thinking, for instance, of McEwan’s (who, conversely, wrote ATONEMENT, not ATUNEMENT!) ON CHESIL BEACH, where the conversation the young couple has at the end is so grippingly heartbreaking exactly because the characters aren’t telling each other the truth, just mundane half-truths to try and keep on the masks of who they want to be. Here’s an example:

    He was preparing to tell her what he had come to say, and he moved a step closer. ‘Look, this is ridiculous. It was unfair of you to run out like that.’
    ‘Was it?’
    ‘In fact, it was bloody unpleasant.’
    ‘Oh, really? Well, it was bloody unpleasant, what you did.’
    ‘Meaning what?’
    She had her eyes shut as she said it. ‘You know exactly what I mean.’ She would torture herself with the memory of her part in this exchange, but now she added, ‘It was absolutely revolting.’

    And, just a page later:

    ‘I am not going to be humiliated by you.’
    ‘And I’m not going to be bullied by you.’
    ‘I’m not bullying you.’
    ‘Yes you are. You always are.’
    ‘This is ridiculous. What are you talking about?’
    She was not sure, but she knew it was the route she was taking. ‘You’re always pushing me, pushing me, wanting something out of me. We can never just be. We can never just be happy. There’s this constant pressure. There’s always something more that you want out of me. This endless wheedling.’

    End of quote. Always this vagueness! It’s very painful. You just wish they’d break down in tears and actually TALK about their problems! So yeah, these passages reminded of what you were talking about. Thanks for sharing your story.

  8. How unkind of the volunteer. I suspect it would have gone like this anyway, maybe the looks of the girl were a bit of a reason. Being pretty can be a curse, I’m afraid. Some people try to put pretty people down just to make themselves feel better. Being punished for being pretty is so common…
    But I agree, it is interesting to listen to conversations. It’s fascinating how people really don’t talk to each other, they utter things in reaction to something that has been said, but just like having their buttons pushed, not as an adequate respone to what has been said…

  9. Litlove, I don’t think this was a communication problem. Simply stated, the volunteer was rude…and was acting like a “know-it-all.” Maybe she was having a bad day, maybe her feet hurt, but there really isn’t any good excuse for it.

  10. Being a good communicator can be difficult I think. Sometimes people just don’t listen to the other person or don’t want to hear what they’re actually saying and there is nothing worse than being made to feel silly or stupid or unimportant, so I don’t blame the girl for turning tail and leaving either.

  11. Ouch!! There was nothing to be done, of course, but I would have agonized over the lost opportunity too. Your description of how difficult dialogue is sounds exactly right — sadly, really listening to someone is difficult and rare. It’s a skill to work on!

  12. I wonder what would have happened if that girl had been more consistent with the common image of a book worm, i.e. shy, plain with glasses and with horrible clothes. Pretty often means shallow in people’s heads. (cf teen movies)

    I like your idea of atunement and I share your views. When I was 17, I read “Parle moi, j’ai des choses à te dire” by Jacques Salomé (Talk to me, I have things to tell you) and I never forgot it. It learnt me how things can go wrong between people just because that lack of atunement you’re describing very well.

  13. Lilian – That’s a good way to intervene. And I really like what you say about being able to slow conversation down. I’m a quick talker and rush to respond to people; I do it out of an anxiety that they won’t think I’m engaged, and really, I could slow that down a bit!

    Lily – subtitles is a brilliant idea! If only we had them! And you know, the sort of dialogue I really love is slightly oblique – where characters are responding to what they’ve heard inside the other person’s sentence rather than what they actually say. I wish I could write that kind of dialogue, although I can’t. Have you ever seen Rear Window? That’s a different type of dialogue again, very sharp, witty, little anecdotes being told to imply a lot of things (particularly by Stella). I watch that film over and over (to the boys’ chagrin!).

    Mary – I have no problem with being foolish or looking like a fool if it gets the job done! There probably are mice in our store, although I wonder quite what I would spark if I suggested I’d seen one.. 🙂 But I see exactly what you mean. A good diversion is worth a lot. I like the idea of seeing the sort of cultural niche the person wants to inhabit as a clue to the right kind of poetry.

    Susan – it astounds me how many conversations we manage to have satisfactorily – we must be really good at picking up on non-verbal clues and deciphering codes really!

    Stefanie – absolutely with you on the gushing over a favourite poet. I haven’t looked at the poetry shelves very closely so I don’t know what we have (and it changes all the time, which does my head in a bit) but if there was anyone relatively accessible – Plath, Adrienne Rich, Sophie Hannah, Wendy Cope, Mary Oliver, I’d probably have been pushing that. I just wish I’d been able to!

    Jenny – oh-oh, Mary Renault is someone I’ve never read. I can just see my wish list growing a bit longer! But I really love good dialogue.

    Charles – I read On Chesil Beach last year, and liked it very much indeed. Your quotations bring it back to me; I’m a big fan of that sort of stylish economy with words. And you also remind me that I haven’t read much Ian McEwan. I haven’t read Atonement for instance – and I really should, don’t you think?

    Caroline – I think there may well have been a generation gap problem. And yes, it is really funny to tune into conversations and hear how sometimes they run on rails that always go the same places. The therapists talk about having scripts, particularly in families, and that’s interesting to read about too.

    Grad – well, it DID come across as rude, alas, although she had no idea that she was acting that way. I think she was defending a love of poetry that wasn’t really under attack. It’s funny how often that brings out the worst in people – thinking that something precious is under attack (when it isn’t really) and setting out to defend it.

    Danielle – it is difficult, because often people don’t say what they mean, and don’t mean what they say. I really hate to see anyone made to feel silly, though, or at least, not when they don’t deserve it!

    Kathleen – I just wish I’d been quicker off the mark! Next time… next time.

    Dorothy – oh it’s not like I haven’t misread enough conversations of my own! Listening can be really hard, as can figuring out where other people are coming from. But it is a painful sort of thing to watch. Well, better luck next time.

    Emma – ooh I haven’t heard of Jacques Salomé before. I’ll have to go and look him up. I think if the customer had been able to signal that she really didn’t know much about poetry but wished she could, then maybe the volunteer would have heard her. Sigh. It’s true that preconceptions and snap judgements can easily get in the way of good communication.

  14. I liked this post a lot and have been meaning to comment for agggges. It came at just the right time to enlarge my understand as I had just reviewed ‘Coconut Unlimited’ and read ‘What I Was’ which both have teens who must put on a pose, but really long for understanding and guidance without having their posing revealed.

  15. Jodie – that is such a perfect description of the young girl. I sympathised with her pose! It was full of excitement and lovely longings for good things, even if it did put her in a position that was untenable. Just got to hope that something good came out of the brush-off for her. Strange things happen, sometimes.

  16. Ouch indeed! If only the volunteer had been able to offer her a more generic book of poetry rather than getting snagged like that. Great dialogue though.

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