Tuesday, August 07, 2012

What I might have learnt from Reality TV

For many years, I didn't watch television and it was during this period that Reality TV became ubiquitous.  Friends sometimes sent me videos of comedies and Dr Who and when BBC iPlayer came along, I got to see a lot more telly, but it never occurred to me to watch any of this reality trash.  Then I began living around people who'll watch whatever's on - you know, what is actually being broadcast at this very moment - and with Stephen, who is an extremely intelligent, cultured and widely-read classicist who enjoys Come Dine With Me and other programmes of that ilk. Usually, but not always, programmes that involve some cooking and some bickering.

Reluctant at first, I gradually realised how very useful Reality TV would have been, had I only been exposed to more of it in my youth. I have generally been very lucky with people; I've always had a few good friends and a considerable number of very lovely people to speak to.  But like everyone, I have been stung and I think Reality TV could have helped me avoid some of these stingings.

The first and greatest lesson illustrated so extensively by Reality TV is that decent people, with all the basic virtues in place, rarely need to protest their decency. This realisation could have saved me a great deal of heartache and confusion, had it only come earlier. I'm now able to recognise a particular vice whenever TV contestants or new acquaintances say a little about themselves and include statements like
"I pride myself on being honest." (I am not at all honest.)
"I'm not interested in playing games." (I have a cunning plan.)
"What you see is what you get." (I am manipulative and I judge by appearances.)
More than once, I've met someone who has mentioned, repeatedly, how very important honesty was for them; how above all else, at whatever cost, they aimed to be honest. Then later on, I realised they weren't. I'm not talking massive swindles here, but petty dishonesty, exaggeration, making impossible promises and giving different accounts of the facts to different people. I have had friends like this, and how much damage it has done depended on whether I ever actually had to rely on them for anything.

It doesn't occur to ordinarily honest people to say that they're honest, because honesty is fairly normal.  Describing oneself as particularly honest is a little like boasting, “I don't steal from anyone.”

Then there's the use of honesty as a pre-emptive justification for bullying behaviour;
“I say it how it is.” (I go out of my way to be offensive) 
“If people don't like to hear the truth, it's not my problem.” (I like to tell people things they don't want to hear). 
“I can't stand people who can't take a joke.” (I will hide behind humour should anyone call me out on my behaviour.)
Honesty isn't about saying whatever passes through your head. Lots of things pass through my head. Apple crumble! See? A lot of those things - like that next thing I thought of just now - would cause me a great deal of embarrassment and shame if I said them out loud, as they occurred. But most of the time, that's not a problem for me or the people around me. I sometimes do express some of my strange or foolish thoughts, but on the rare occasions that other people are upset by them, I don't respond with, “What's the problem? I'm just saying it how it is. That is an ugly dress and you do look a little like Yoda in high heels.”

Adult bullies frequently use honesty as an excuse to verbally abuse those around them, as if the possession of an honest opinion is like a having a gestating alien in our chest, something that's going to burst out during dinner whether we like it or not.  It's really not.

Incidentally, there's a world of difference between not saying cruel or offensive things and avoiding important subjects for fear of offending people. Vigorous honesty and openness is probably as often used as a mask for bullying and manipulation as social etiquette and familial obligation ever were.

Meanwhile, there's

“People either love me or hate me.” (My mother loves me, grudgingly, on a good day, when she remembers me as a baby and forgets the monster I grew up to be.)
The only people who truly divide opinion between extreme camps of adoration or disgust are very famous people, who we know by their persona or politics rather than personality. Socially, nobody is the human Marmite. Mind you, even Marmite isn't the Marmite Marmite, given that I quite like it once in a blue moon and my sister isn't especially keen but doesn't mind it. So it seems very unlikely that, even if a Reality TV contestant were to smear himself with Marmite - and that's probably happened on Big Brother before now - that people would either love him or hate him. Probably nobody would want to invite him into the hot tub.

However, if someone behaves badly and is mean to other people, he may be universally disliked. I have known ordinarily awful people who divide others between those who can tolerate them and those who can't tolerate them, but that's hardly love or hate.

Regardless, if you suspected that you were regularly eliciting an extreme negative reaction from people, even if other people thought you were great, you'd probably think to work on the negative bit, work out what was going on and, if you could, sort it out. None of us can please all the people all the time, but most of us can manage to avoid acquiring enemies within five minutes acquaintance.

Finally, there's
 "I am a real eccentric." (My hobbies are gardening and sudoku, which I do fully-clothed.)
 "I've always been a bit of an outsider." (I've had a very privileged life, of which I am ashamed.)
"I'm always making people laugh." (I have this one joke about a man with paper trousers.*)
There are all number of traits which it is so unwise to attribute to yourself.  True eccentrics are all but oblivious to their eccentricity - that's part of what makes them eccentric. Almost everyone feels like a bit of an outsider, until they don't, but only people on the inside have the privilege to talk about being on the outside like it's a good thing. And comedians, even truly hilarious intelligent comedians, make their job ten times harder by telling people that they're going to be funny. All this stuff is like saying that you're drop dead gorgeous on a dating site. It's stuff you have to leave for others to judge.

Of course, as well as being better able to identify vices and flaws in others, Reality TV has taught me how to describe myself:
This is me. I am what I am. I am all about keeping it real. Some people may like me, some may not, but most are likely to react with something just the positive side of indifference. Some of those opinions may change after they've come to know me better.

* What do you call a man with paper trousers?  Russell!


Alasdair said...

Great post, very funny and true. Don't know why no one else has commented, but I liked it! Those dubious self-descriptions you list particularly remind me of the contestant interview segments on The Apprentice, but now I think about it they apply to almost every reality TV show. (My particular favourite reality TV show cliché is 'I'm not here to make friends', which turns up all the time, and basically means the speaker is a complete asshole and doesn't even care to hide it.)

On the subject of 'Marmite people', that other great cliché: maybe it's a complete coincidence, but around the same time you published this, the Guardian published a video rant on that very concept by the comedian David Mitchell. See it here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/video/2012/aug/09/david-mitchell-soapbox-loving-hating-marmite-video

(Actually, yours was first by two days. Maybe this is where he got the idea?)

The Goldfish said...

Thank you Alasdair - I hadn't seen David Mitchell's video, although I am a fan so thanks for the link. Rather glad I got in there first. ;-)

"I'm not here to make friends" is a classic I'd forgotten, yes, often followed by the justification, "I've already got enough friends." which always conjures images of a shelf of creepy dolls or stuffed animals with no room for additions. :-)

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