Poetry: ethnomethodolgy for people who don’t paint- by-numbers, and a poem by Wendy Cope

I’m a solitary person. I don’t mind people. As long as there aren’t too many of them. And they’re not too noisy. And they don’t inflict small talk on me.

I’ve discovered that this makes it much easier for me to spend time with women than men. When women talk, they also listen. When I listen, they talk more and don’t think I’m being strange by being silent.

When men talk they don’t listen, they compete: for air-time, for status, for approval. What they say is less important than how they are heard. Listening, or at least appearing to listen, is a sign of submission or perhaps an acceptance of fraternity. I’ve never figured out how to talk to men without either being bored or ending up in an argument that is heavy on emotion and light on facts. Perhaps I just know the wrong men.

Way back in the last century, when I was young and thought my inability to connect came about not because I’m different but because I was missing something, I studied ethnomethodology to try and make sense of things. I read Goffman’s “Presentation of Self In Everyday Life” and Garfinkel’s “Studies in Ethnomethodology“. I was encouraged to look at interactions as data and behaviour as problematic. So I did and I learned two things: this emperor wore no clothes and sociologists had no sense of humour.

I moved on to poetry to try and figure out the things others see that remain invisible to me. Of course, what I found was the things I see described in words that made more sense of them than I did.

Wendy Cope does that. In “Men Talking” she captures, in less than sixty words, the experience of being in a group of extrovert men while they talk at each other. I wonder how many words it would have taken Goffman or Garfinkle to describe the same thing and whether I would have recognised what they were talking about when they were done?

These days, I don’t do ethnomethodology any more. It seems to me like a paint-by-numbers guide to social situations for people who can’t master perspective well enough to draw for themselves.

I do do poetry. It hasn’t helped me with small talk or talking with men but it’s given me something to think about while they talk to each other.

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