It was time for the new tutor, the self-named Miss Ann Thrope, to give what was supposed to be her second lecture, even though she hadn’t managed to do her first one yet. The students went into the lecture theatre where it was supposed to be taking place, curious to know what would happen.
Miss Ann Thrope came in, stood at the front and said, “Hello again. I was thinking about the things you said last time after our meeting and I realised I should have shown more appreciation for them, just like you were saying people should, because what you said was interesting, and I’d like to hear more.”
Some of the students wondered if she had already forgotten that She was the one who was supposed to be talking to Them.
She continued, “I ran a little recovery group for people with anxiety problems when I did counselling for a little while, and before we started talking about anxiety, we would always have a little friendly chat to put everyone at ease. Perhaps we could do that here before my lectures.”
One student said eagerly, “Oh, tell us about your recovery group. What worked best to help people, and do you have any idea what kind of success rate you had?”
Miss Ann Thrope said gloomily, “I really don’t know what my success rate was, because I never spoke to any of the people in the group after it had finished. We all went our separate ways. They were all nice people, so I hope the group helped them. But I don’t think I’d run a recovery group now. I’ve grown less confident about being any good at helping people over time.
“I tried to help a few of the people I know recently, but that went wrong. Even little things I said seemed to have the opposite effect to the one intended. I mean, one example is that there was one woman whose son got arrested for assault, and he got remanded in custody till his trial. I was trying to be sympathetic and wrote in an email to her that I could understand that it was going to be daunting for her having to tell her relatives about it. I meant it to sound sympathetic, but maybe it was because when you’re reading things you don’t pick up the tone of voice someone would be saying something in, or that it brought it home to her all of a sudden that it might be horrible so it wasn’t nice to read, but she got all upset and angry with me for saying it, and told me that actually she had no intention of telling them. Mind you, she wasn’t a very nice person.
“She often got depressed, and she would email me telling me about how grotty she was feeling. I would sometimes email her back hours later sympathising. But by then, she was often feeling much better, and she’d get annoyed with me for reminding her of her problems. I realised that instead of interpreting what I was saying as sympathy, what was happening was that what I was saying was reminding her of her problems and triggering off the depressing thoughts that were making her feel miserable all over again. Even if I just said something like ‘I hope you’re well’ it would do that, because it would remind her that she wasn’t as well as she’d like to be and that other people were feeling better than her, so she’d start feeling hard done-by and get depressed again; or if she Was feeling well, it would make her start worrying about the possibility that she might not be well soon, so that would upset her too.
“And then she would assume that since she’d got upset right after she’d read something I’d written to her, I must be the cause of her being upset; so she’d get angry with me for saying what I’d said. So I decided that communicating with her was just too difficult and stopped having much to do with her after that.
“I realised that trying to help people was a lot more difficult than I’d thought it would be. So I started thinking I might have made a mistake going into psychology.
“But it wasn’t just when it came to things to do with psychology that annoying misunderstandings happened. One example is that there was one time when I went out to dinner with some friends of my husband, and we’d had a nice meal, and the person who owned the house said he’d make us a cup of tea after he’d washed some things up. We said that would be nice and just chatted. He was washing up when someone who knew how much I like tea saw me drinking some water and said, ‘I bet you wish that was tea, don’t you!’
“I said, ‘Oh yeah’ enthusiastically, and the man doing the washing up seemed to interpret that as meaning I was impatient for a cup of tea and wanted one right there and then. He said in an irritated tone of voice, ‘I told you I’d make you one when I’ve washed up!’
“But I hadn’t been hinting at all, and was perfectly happy to wait! So that just made me feel more fed up of people.”
The students sympathised for a few seconds, though some were wondering whether those were really good reasons to start hating humanity and calling herself a misanthrope.
The more the tutor carried on talking, the less confidence they had in her ability to teach them, although they thought she’d given them a Bit of useful information the last time she was supposed to be giving a lecture. They wondered if there was any point in paying attention to much of what she tried to teach them at all most of the time though. And it seemed she was telling them some things that should have been kept private, or at least not told to a bunch of strangers she’d only just met. One or two wondered if she’d counsel people and then go and blab their problems to random strangers outside on the streets! They hoped she wasn’t that bad!
One of Becky’s special friends, Sharon, plucked up the courage to say, “Um, I don’t really think you should be telling us so much about yourself and the faults of people you know.”
The tutor misunderstood what she meant and thought she was saying it was selfish to talk so much about herself and she ought to be finding out more about Them instead. So she said, “Sorry. I’d love to know more about you actually. Tell me all about yourself.”
Sharon didn’t want to tell her anything about herself; after all, she didn’t know who might end up hearing it! So she decided to make something up instead. She said:
“Allright. Well one of my first memories is jumping onto a train on my first day of school. I was walking there but got tired, and I wondered if the train might get me there quicker. I had no idea where it was going, but just hoped for the best. So I jumped on the roof, and then thankfully found a trapdoor right down into a carriage and sat there, and as luck would have it, it took me right to the school gates! Then it carefully took me into the school building, and stopped right in front of my new desk. I just stepped out the door and sat down at it. Then it went out backwards. Everyone in the class was really jealous that I seemed to have my own personal train and wondered how I’d got it to do just what I wanted it to. That was especially because it had started raining so the others had all got wet on the way in.
“But it was a special kind of rain. It was such a miserable cold day that some drops froze as soon as they fell on them or onto the ground. Some people had picked up handfuls and still had them. They looked pretty. One boy had left his school bag open and it was full of them. They weren’t unfreezing. Someone tried to eat one and they tasted just like boiled sweets.
“I rushed out and grabbed handfuls off the ground. Lots of them had been broken by then because people with no appreciation of beauty had trodden on them. But they’d broken into all kinds of interesting shapes so they looked even more beautiful! I picked quite a lot of them up, and I’ve still got them to this day!
“Not all my memories of school were that good though. I went to the loo once, and sat down, and the entire thing came off the wall, would you believe it! I tried to get off it, but I couldn’t! So I had to walk back to class with the whole thing stuck to my bottom. No one knew how to get it off, and health and safety regulations said they weren’t allowed to pull loos off people anyway in case they damaged them, So I had to walk around for the entire day with …”
The other students had been grinning, and so had the tutor, but then it seemed she’d finally decided to call them all to order and interrupted Sharon and said, “That’s all very interesting but I don’t believe a word! Listen! I want to warn you all that you might think it would be a nice rewarding career to do a job where you’re doing your best to help people and give them therapy, but it might not be anywhere near as easy as you think. It’s so easy to say the wrong thing and upset people! You might end up being as fed up of everyone as I am!”
Some of the students started feeling a bit worried. But one smiled and said, “Well, at least things haven’t been as bad as they could have been. You’re upset about the misunderstandings that keep happening to you, but misunderstandings can be even worse if you don’t even speak a language well. I heard about a German man who was in a cafe in England waiting for some dinner, and he thought it was taking a long time to come. He saw other people being given bacon and sausages and things, and wondered if he’d been forgotten. He wanted to ask when he’d get his dinner, but he wasn’t sure how. The word for get in German is bekommen, so he thought the English equivalent was likely to be become. So he asked, ‘When do I become a sausage?'”
The students giggled.
Then he said, “Something a bit like that happened to someone I was with once. I went on a sailing trip a few years ago with a few of my classmates at school and a couple of teachers. I don’t know why, but the school thought it would be good for us. The skipper of the boat couldn’t speak English well at all! I don’t know if anyone at my school knew that before we went. He knew quite a lot of words, but his pronunciation was really bad!
“He was giving us some supposed safety information when we first went on the boat, and he was trying to tell us not to worry if the boat started sinking because there were pumps to pump the water out. But instead of pumps, he said bombs! So he said, ‘You don’t need to worry if the boat starts to sink because we’ve got bombs on board!’
“I thought, ‘Oh, you mean we can blow the boat up and put ourselves out of our misery quickly so as not to prolong the agony of dying?’
“Then he said, ‘Let me show you a manual bomb!’ I thought, ‘I’d rather not see the bombs if it’s OK with you! I don’t know what might set them off!’ Mind you, I knew what he meant really.
“The trip lasted a few days, and the last day we were there, the skipper said, ‘There’s no need for spit!’ meaning, ‘There’s no need for speed’. And then sometimes he’d talk about trimming the sails, but instead of trim he’d say dream, so he’d say, ‘We need to dream!’ He sounded like some motivational speaker trying to get us to imagine a better future or something!”
The tutor laughed, along with some of the students. But one said, “I don’t think it’s fair to laugh at that man; he was probably doing his best.”
“Maybe you’re right,” said the student telling the story, thoughtfully. “Actually, I blame the company for what happened, not him. There could have been bad safety consequences if he’d been trying to communicate something important and we couldn’t understand him. They should have made sure all their crew members were easily understandable, and our school should have made sure the company they sent us with did that.
“Mind you, laughing about what he said did serve one purpose: We needed to find Something to amuse ourselves with while we were there, because there wasn’t much else that was funny. Mind you, a few other funny things did happen.”
The conversation carried on.
In the lecture that was supposed to be going on but wasn’t, the students had started discussing how kids could best cope with being teased. Then the tutor had said their conversation sounded more interesting than the lecture she’d been going to give so she might just let them carry on. Then they fell silent, embarrassed that they’d taken up so much of the time talking about other things.
The tutor said, “Oh, well, if you’re not going to talk any more, perhaps I will give what I can still fit in the time we have left of my lecture after all.”
The student who’d started the conversation about bullying said, “Actually, there are still some things I’d like to say before you do. I didn’t quite finish before other people started talking.
“I just want to say that I don’t know how often making friends with bullies can easily be done. When it doesn’t seem easy, maybe another way of dealing with it could sometimes be confronting the teaser.
“When people are teased I think it can sometimes be a natural reaction to feel demoralised and upset that people are being nasty, but some people might not get nearly so upset if they’re taught from an early age to think, ‘What’s the matter with this person that they want to say things like this?’ instead of taking it seriously and thinking there must be something wrong with Them.
“Maybe kids could be taught to ask the person teasing them questions like, ‘What are you hoping to achieve by teasing me? Do you truly believe what you’re saying? Even if there’s some truth in it, why is it worth making such a big deal about? Why are you even using the word as an insult? Or if you just want a bit of fun, why don’t you try thinking up ways you can have fun without upsetting anyone? Or do you think you’d find that very difficult? Or if you’re teasing me because you’re annoyed with me about something, why not just come straight out and tell me what you’re annoyed with me about and we can have a chat about it and maybe sort things out?’
“If the teaser says they’re just teasing for fun, and insists that it’s enjoyable so they don’t want to stop, the kid on the receiving end could maybe ask them questions as if to get to the bottom of just why it’s enjoyable. For instance, if the teaser says it’s fun to see them get all worked up, they can ask, ‘Well why is that fun’, and keep asking questions like that till the teaser can’t think of anything more to say. Or they could maybe say something like, ‘Well that’s just what people do when they’re upset; do you think you look funny when you’re upset?’
“So they can try and keep the focus of attention all about what might be wrong with what the teaser’s doing, instead of getting demoralised because they don’t like the fact that someone else thinks there’s something wrong with Them.
“Mind you, sometimes just laughing things off might work better than taking the teaser’s behaviour at all seriously.”
One student said, “Hmmm! I agree with most of what you say, but somehow I think expecting the mum of that little boy who got teased about his red hair you were talking about to teach him to react like that might be a bit much, considering how young you said he was. I came across a website the other day where people had written in about funny reasons their toddlers had had tantrums. They were reasons like, ‘She couldn’t take her footprints from the beach’; ‘I wouldn’t let him drive the car into town’; ‘I stopped her inflating herself with a bicycle pump’; ‘I wouldn’t let her lick me and she felt as if she just had to lick someone’; ‘he wasn’t allowed to wear his bike helmet to bed’; ‘he wasn’t allowed to put his ear wax back in his ear’; ‘I wouldn’t let her eat a candle’; and, ‘he felt sure the sun was following him’.
“I mean, there might have been a bit more to the tantrums than that, but maybe not much more. So expecting a kid who hasn’t yet got much past the age where kids might have that level of reasoning to put some complicated anti-bullying techniques into operation might be a bit much!”
The students tittered. The one who’d been talking about teasing blushed and grinned and said, “Yes I know that. I wasn’t really suggesting kids that young do what I was talking about; I was talking about kids in general. Maybe at primary school they ought to be taught techniques like the one I was talking about. I didn’t mean I think the mum on the train I was talking about should have taught her little kid to say all that.
“Actually, I can’t really say that mum did anything wrong, because even if I thought the language she used in that little message she put on that forum was over-sentimental and she made being taunted by those boys sound like a disaster when it wasn’t, thinking about it, it doesn’t necessarily mean she was using language around her boy that made Him think it was a disaster so he took it far more seriously and thought it was something to get far more upset about than he needed to. And actually, she asked people on the forum to comment on a photo of the boy to tell him he actually looked nice, and loads did, so that must have made him feel a lot better, and it probably made him take any more insulting things about his hair colour less seriously after that.”
One student said, “That’s good. I agree with what you said about how the mum could have made a joke about the silly insulting things the boys were saying about her son’s hair colour. Actually, when you think about it, kids bully each other for reasons that sound just as daft as the reasons those toddlers were having tantrums, like, ‘she couldn’t take her footprints home from the beach’, as if they haven’t grown up since they were that age; I mean, when you think of some of the reasons people say they were bullied, like, ‘I wore glasses’, or, ‘My clothes were a bit scruffy’ or, ‘I talked a bit slower than they did’, they sound like stupid laughable reasons for bullying someone, don’t they. When people are on the receiving end, they can feel as if those things mean there’s something defective about them; but if they look back later in life, they might realise those things are really stupid reasons to pick on someone. If they’re taught to think about how silly the reasons are at the time, they might not get so upset by being taunted about them in the first place.”
Another student said, “I’ve read that one reason bullies bully people is that they interpret some things as more hostile than they’re intended to be. For instance, if someone goes past a bully’s desk and accidentally knocks a book off it, the bully might leap to the conclusion they did it deliberately and jump up and attack them or something, whereas a more laid-back person might think it was probably an accident. Maybe part of anti-bullying strategies ought to be teaching bullies to try to think of several possible different explanations for why things might have happened and then try and find out which one it is before they react.”
They were all thoughtful for a few seconds.
Then another student said, “That stuff about interpreting things in different ways reminds me of a questionnaire thing in a magazine I did once. It was funny. It was all about whether we had the right balance of Yin and Yang, which I think are attributes given to stereotypical female and male personalities in Chinese folklore or something. Apparently everyone, whether they’re male or female, should have a healthy mixture of Yin and Yang characteristics according to that. They say if you’ve got too much Yin, it means you’re too feminine and that makes you timid and shy and not assertive enough or something, and if you’ve got too much Yang, you’re too masculine so you get too angry and you’re assertive to the point of rudeness and you can be reckless or whatever.
“Anyway, this questionnaire said we could find out whether our Yin and Yang were in a healthy balance so we had just enough of each, or whether we had too much of one or the other. We got points for each question, and the more points we ended up with, the more Yang we supposedly had. For every question, there was a choice of three answers, and answers that were supposedly a sign of having Yang characteristics scored the most points. I would have scored as having too much Yin, if it wasn’t for just this one question, that gave me enough points to put me up into the range where we supposedly had a healthy balance of Yin and Yang.
“The question was about whether if we were working on the computer or some other piece of technical equipment and we had a problem getting it to work the way it should, would we ask someone for help, or go and look at the manual, or just give up on it or something. I put that I’d prefer to look at a manual, and that scored the most points.
“But I’m guessing that it scored the most because the person who wrote the questionnaire thought of it as a sign of Yang things like initiative, independence, confidence and that kind of thing, and they thought asking for help would be a bit Yin because it would be a sign of reliance on other people, or lack of confidence in technical abilities or whatever.
“But actually, the reason I’d prefer to look at a manual and work things out myself is because I’d feel awkward and maybe a bit nervous about asking someone else for help, because I’d worry that they might think I was silly for not knowing how to fix the thing, or they might be busy and think helping me was a burden to them. So really that’s a sign of having Yin for me.
“So it just shows you how people can take things in different ways depending on why they think they’re happening.”
The tutor said, “This is an interesting conversation. I can identify with what was being discussed earlier about feeling differently about things according to the interpretations we put on them in our own minds, and that thing about taking things too personally. My mum forgets my birthday sometimes. Or at least, she says she does. I remember a few years ago, the day after my birthday I told her it would have been nice if she’d said happy birthday to me the day before, and when she told me she’d forgotten, I got annoyed and said, ‘How could you have forgotten my birthday? It’s the anniversary of when you actually gave birth to me! I bet you haven’t forgotten doing That!’
“It didn’t help; she forgot it the next year too. I used to take it personally and think it must mean she didn’t care about me; but then I realised it was probably just that she’d lost track of what date it was that day; she’s always asking what the date is when she writes a cheque or has to write the date on something else. …
“But anyway, I was talking about birthdays being rubbish before, wasn’t I. It was some time ago now, wasn’t it! But anyway, I want to finish what I was saying earlier about why I call myself Miss Ann Thrope and I’m fed up of people, because even the bits of life that are supposed to be the best ones are rubbish sometimes, because so many of us are rubbish at knowing how to enjoy them, including me.
“On my last birthday, my sister came over to see me, and I thought it might be nice, but she ended up getting all curious about an old classmate of mine who’d been injured in a house fire. So talking about that was never going to make for a nice birthday celebration!
“But I’ve realised I’m just as bad! I went to a Christmas party for the people where I worked, and ended up spending ages asking someone about her first marriage that ended in disaster! Thinking about it, she probably ended up feeling the way I did after my sister asked me all about my old classmate who got injured. I think I’m miserable company at parties! Actually I probably am most of the time, and just as likely to say thoughtless things as other people, despite best intentions! So I don’t like myself any more than I like anyone else!”
Then the tutor looked at the time, and realised she had no more time to give the lecture she’d intended to give.
She looked embarrassed and said, “Oh no! I haven’t got any time to give the lecture I was supposed to be giving now! I’m not very good at this, am I! I shouldn’t have said so much about other things and let other people talk about what they wanted to! Mind you, it was interesting and useful. Perhaps I’ll give my lecture next time. Or perhaps I’ll give it a miss and see what else you come up with.”
The students wandered out, wondering what on earth would happen next time.
The students in the lecture that was supposed to be about psychology in old age had been inappropriately but interestingly talking about totally different things including anger, and how people could get more angry than others did about the same situation because they were assuming things about the causes of it that the others weren’t.
The student who was talking continued, “Mind you, sometimes anger’s good in moderation, because it gives people the energy and motivation to do things they might not be bothered to do otherwise, like say if they’re always being shortchanged by someone in a shop, and when they first notice, they might feel angry and want to see the manager and complain, but if they wait till later in the day, their anger might have died down and they don’t complain because they feel nervous about making a fuss and think it might be a little thing to make a fuss about anyway, so they just put up with it and it keeps on happening for months, not just to them, but to lots of other people, whereas it might have been stopped if they had complained when they felt like it because they were angry.”
One student said, “That’s interesting. And I expect that thing about having different reactions depending on how you interpret a situation can work the other way round too; I mean, if someone just assumed the shop assistant must be just bad at maths and couldn’t help giving them the wrong change, they might not get angry, so they might not be motivated to complain – well unless they thought the shop owner should have employed someone better at counting; but if they suspected them of giving them the wrong money deliberately and it kept happening, they Might get angry and complain, and something might be done, so their anger will have turned out to be a good thing.”
There was a pause while they all thought about that for a few seconds. Then one student smiled and said, “My dad gets angry and shouts a lot. I sometimes joke that he can go from nought to 120 decibels in three seconds, and that he can make the windows shake. I was thinking the other day that it would be funny if he was standing by the window and he started one of his shouting fits, and the vibrations from it smashed the window, so the conversation went, ‘What do you mean by saying …’ Crash!”
The students sniggered.
Then one got serious and said, “You know, it’s not just anger where people can feel very different things depending on how they think of things. I read a message on an Internet forum by a woman with a little boy, about three years old, who said something like, ‘My heart broke in two today! I’m devastated, because my son was upset on the train today by two teenage boys who teased him about his red hair. One said he ought to be taken away from me by social services because if I was producing boys with hair that colour I must be a bad mother, and the other one said that if he had a child with hair that colour he’d kill it. People have teased my boy about his hair colour before, and now he’s asking me why his hair has to be red and if he can get it changed. I think it’s really upsetting, because I got teased for my hair colour when I was younger and I know what it’s like.’
“The thing is, I can understand her being a bit upset about it, but to use language that makes it sound as if it was a catastrophe like heartbroken and devastated makes it sound as if it was a disaster, and I thought her attitude might hurt the boy far more than the bullies did, because if he learns to think of it as something catastrophically upsetting, he’s going to be far more upset about insults like that as he goes through life than he will be if he learns to just laugh them off. Just because She was upset about being teased about her hair colour when she was growing up, it didn’t mean her son would be bound to be affected in the same way, especially if she taught him not to take it seriously.
“I mean, when the boys said those stupid things, the mum could have laughed, even if she didn’t really feel like it, and said to her little boy, ‘Gosh, did you hear that funny thing? There’s a boy there who believes there’s nothing wrong with killing a baby, but he thinks that having a hair colour he doesn’t happen to like is a terrible, terrible thing! Isn’t it a strange old world! I wonder if you could be with him for a week, hearing lots of bad things on the news, and he wouldn’t think any of them were bad, but if someone walked by with a hair colour he didn’t like, he’d think it was a terrible, terrible thing!’
“She could make exaggerated horrified faces and speak in an exaggeratedly horrified voice and pretend to shake violently when she said the word terrible, and her son would probably giggle his little head off.
“I mean, maybe it would be better to wait till the boys were out of earshot before she said that just in case they got nasty, but I don’t know.”
“If he giggled his head off, he wouldn’t have to worry about his hair colour any more, would he,” joked one student, laughing.
The students giggled. The one who’d been talking grinned, but said, “Come on, I’m trying to be serious here. I think that if instead of taking taunts of bullies seriously, kids are taught from an early age to look for what’s absurd, illogical or laughable in unkind things that are said to them, they’ll be far happier as they go through life than they will be if they take insults to heart. I mean, I know it’s difficult not to get upset about them sometimes. But I think people will be better off if they realise from an early age that a lot of insults are just stupid, and that they’re not really being bullied because of their physical appearance or whatever; the insults have far more to do with the bullies, and they say far more about what kind of people They are than they do about the person on the receiving end of them.”
One student said, “That sounds good, but I can’t imagine a three year-old enjoying a lesson about how to deal with bullies; imagine it: Their mum comes in and announces, ‘Son, I have to tell you that one day you may well be bullied! I want to teach you how to cope with insults.’ The kid might say, ‘Thanks for letting me know the cheerful news Mum! And all I wanted to do with my day was play with my toy cars! Can’t I do that instead?'”
The one who’d been talking before said with a pained expression but then a grin, “There are probably other ways to teach kids than that!”
Another student said, “I don’t know how much three-year-olds could learn about it, but I think it’s probably a good idea to teach older kids to laugh at some of the things other kids try to insult them with, instead of thinking they’re worth getting upset about. When you really think about some of the things people get called, they sound daft! Like ‘four eyes’ for people who wear glasses. ‘What, you really think I’ve got four eyes? Well that might be nice, but sadly you’ve mistaken the lenses of my glasses for extra eyes.'”
One girl said, “There was a girl at my school who used to call some people cowbags. I don’t know to this day just what a cowbag is supposed to be! But one day she called me one and I said for fun, ‘How many cows have I got in me?’ She wasn’t amused! I think she told me not to be stupid! She probably didn’t get the joke.”
One student said, “Imagine if someone did an experiment to see how daft insults had to get before kids didn’t get upset by them but just laughed at them. ‘Tennis ball nose!’ ‘chewing gum stick fingers!’ ‘Celery legs!’ ‘marzipan head!’
“Some kids might get upset and go home and say to their mums, ‘Mum, do you think my head looks like marzipan?’ ‘Mum, do my legs look like celery?’ ‘Mum, have I got a really really big nose, like as big as a tennis ball?’ ‘Mum, what is it about my fingers that makes them look like sticks of chewing gum?'”
The one who’d joked about the insult ‘four eyes’ said, “It’s funny what kind of words some kids use as insults sometimes, like swat, used for people who work hard, as if working hard’s a bad thing! In a school where most kids don’t think it’s worth working, anyone who does want to work hard might get called a swat and looked down on by some of them, and because when kids are young teenagers I think they tend to assume the other kids in their class know what they’re talking about, they might come to think, ‘Hard work must be bad!’ Or they might think that since kids around them seem to think it’s bad, they’d better try to fit in and not work so hard in future. But maybe they could put the other kids off teasing them sometimes if they treated what they were saying as compliments, even though they knew full well they weren’t meant to be really.
“So when they were called a swat, they could pretend to be really pleased and say things like, ‘Wow thank you; that’s really nice of you to say so. It’s great to know people notice I’m working hard!’
“And if any of the kids laugh in a sneering way and say, ‘That wasn’t meant as a compliment!’ they could still pretend to be pleased and say, ‘Oh you’re too modest! That was one of the best compliments I’ve ever received!’
“And maybe they can keep on pretending they’re really pleased until the teasers get confused and walk off.”
A lot of the students grinned and chuckled. But one said, “I think it’s the contempt in a teaser’s voice that’s partly what upsets someone on the receiving end though. And often it’s not just teasing; other kids might fling their books around and push the victim about and things. I think every school ought to have a good anti-bullying strategy, and teachers should be specially trained to deal with bullying. It shouldn’t be up to kids to have to work out what to do.”
The one who’d been talking before said, “Oh I know. But it’s still good if kids know some techniques they can try to stop behaviour they don’t like.”
“Like martial arts,” said one student with a grin.
Becky said, “My auntie Jackie started learning a martial art when she was at school. Some girls used to tease her and throw little bits of clay at her across the room in a lesson after a pottery lesson they had, but as soon as she told them she’d started learning the martial art, they stopped, as if they were scared she’d already know how to throw them across the room or something.”
One student said, “I’ve heard that some kids laugh at the way they’re insulted sometimes and they end up being friends with the people teasing them. I heard a boy say he was called a chicken at school, and he did an imitation of a chicken in the playground, and the kids who’d been insulting him laughed, and they were friends after that.”
The person who’d started the conversation about bullying said, “I suppose that’s the ideal, isn’t it, making friends with the people who are teasing you.”
“Actually the ideal is to prevent people bullying in the first place,” said another student.
The one who’d started the conversation blushed a bit and said, “Yeah, there is that.”
The tutor said, “This is such an interesting conversation, I think it might be more worth having than the lecture I was going to give you. So perhaps I won’t even try to give it now!”
The students felt a bit embarrassed, remembering that was what they were there for, and silence fell over the lecture theatre.
The psychology students were supposed to be having a lecture, but it seemed the new tutor just wanted to talk about herself, so the students had got the impression it was more like a free-for-all and had started talking about other things too. One had been telling the group about a programme where a dog trainer had said she could teach wives to train their husbands to do more of what they wanted them to the way they trained dogs, and said she’d read stories in a psychology book that gave similar advice to the trainer about what they could do to improve things, just not involving dogs.
Then she carried on, regardless of the fact that it was the Tutor who was actually Supposed to be giving the lecture, though the tutor didn’t seem to mind at all, “I read an article in the paper by someone else who got the inspiration from going to dog training classes to try to train her husband in the same way. Maybe the article Was written in a bit of a degrading way, thinking about it, as one of the commenters complained, but it said some worthwhile things. One of them was that people can get angry because they take a lot of what other people do too personally, assuming they mean to be annoying or something when they don’t really, in the same way people might get angry with pets when they do things they didn’t really know were wrong, like chewing their things, because they assume their pets must have known that kind of behaviour would be annoying but they still did it, even though the pets were really just chewing their things because they thought it would be fun or for something to do or whatever.
“The writer of the article said she herself would get angry and argue with her husband when he would leave sweaty socks and shorts and other clothes on the bathroom floor and things like that, because she thought, when he knew full well she didn’t like it, for him to do it again must mean he didn’t care about how she felt. But she realised he probably just did it because it was a habit and the most convenient thing to do, having a bad memory and a worse sense of smell. Well that’s what she says.
“She said a lot of people take offence with other people where none is intended because they take things too personally, and it can be difficult not to, but trying to remember there are other possible explanations for their behaviour can help.”
Another student said, “I know what you mean. I’ve had to remind myself of that sometimes. And I kept trying to get the point across to this strange man on an Internet forum once, but I don’t think he ever listened. I think he thought I had supernatural powers and could read his mind … at least, that’s one possible explanation for what he said about me.”
The student grinned at the thought, and then continued, “We were having a conversation that turned into an argument or something, and from then on, he kept calling me a troll, absolutely convinced I argued with him because I knew it was going to get him worked up. I said to him, ‘How could I possibly know what reaction you’re going to have to what I say?! It’s not as if I know you so I know from experience what kinds of things upset you. After all, some people get upset by things that other people just brush off. So how can I know which of those you’ll do, or if you’ll do something else?
“He was a strange man though! He kept saying he was sure the world would be a better place if money was outlawed, and that he thought capitalism should be abolished and everyone should be socialists instead, living in harmony. And yet he said he used to work as an auctioneer for a company, but then set up his own business and wanted to use some of the tricks they’d taught him to make lots of money so he could outdo them or something, kind of contradicting himself, saying he believed one thing and doing the opposite. So I made jokes about him, like:
“‘This man’s so Capitalist, he stole his grandmother’s false teeth when she was asleep, claimed they were Madonna’s and sold them at auction for half a million dollars.
“‘This man’s so greedy for money, he took all his neighbours’ gates off their hinges, and then asked if they wanted to buy them back at a “bargain” rate of only ten dollars each.
“‘This man’s so Capitalistic, he started a business and employed 20 workers, and then ordered Them to pay Him wages for the first year so it got off to a good start.
“‘This man’s so greedy for gain, he claimed he owned the whole of Australia and offered to sell it at auction, with a starting price of 7 million dollars.
“‘This man’s so greedy for money, he collects the dust from his house, claims it’s diamond shavings, and sells it in little boxes for a million dollars each.
“‘This man’s so Capitalistic, he bought a bottle of tomato sauce, put the sauce into an unlabelled bottle, claimed it was the blood of Moses that spilled when he stumbled on a stone in the Red Sea after the waters parted, and sold it for 60 million dollars.
“‘This man’s so Capitalistic, he told his mum he was so sick of the sound of her voice he’d be charging her a dollar for every word she said from then on.
“‘This man’s so greedy, when he gives a guest in his home a cup of tea, he charges them a dollar for every 100 leaves in the teabag, or a “bargain discount flat rate” of 6 dollars per cup of tea if they’d prefer.
“‘This man’s so greedy for money, he threw a party, and then said his carpet was so precious he was charging his guests a dollar for every step they took on it.
“‘This man’s so greedy for gain, he hijacked a train, drove it into a scrap metal yard and told them he was selling it for 2 thousand dollars.’
“I think he quite liked the jokes; but he still thought I was being a troll, feeling sure I was putting them on the board because I thought it would be fun to make him all worked up till he showed how annoyed he was. I don’t know where the fun would be in that! I said to him, ‘But there are so many other reasons I could have put those jokes there! Why do you feel so sure it’s just because of one, and think it’s that one no matter what? I mean, I could have just wanted to brighten up my day by writing them; putting them here, thinking it might cause a bit of controversy and banter, could have given me an adrenaline boost that put me in a better mood; I could have just wanted to stop myself being bored; I could have been hoping you’d take them in fun and we could have had a laugh about them! Or I could have just made them up under provocation because I was annoyed and wanted to get my annoyance out of my system in a humorous way, instead of just having a go at you. There could have been so many reasons I could have put them here other than the one you’re sure is the only one!”
Another student said, “That reminds me of something that stuck in my mind from a psychology book about anger I looked at, about how people can get angry because they misinterpret the reasons someone else is doing or saying something. Like if they arranged to meet up with a person who doesn’t turn up, if they assume the person just doesn’t care enough about them to have turned up and is too selfish to have thought to let them know they wouldn’t, they’ll be far angrier than they will if they worry instead that something might have happened to them, or decide to reserve judgment till they’ve heard the person’s side of the story and wait till they phone them up to hear their explanation of why they didn’t turn up.”
Another student said, “That reminds me of a funny story I once read about an angry pensioner. She phoned the police up in the middle of the night one night complaining that one of her neighbours was playing loud music and it was stopping her getting to sleep. But when the police came to investigate, they discovered it was her own radio on full volume in her garden; she’d left it blaring during the afternoon and she’d gone indoors and forgotten about it.
“Just think: If she’d interpreted the situation differently, like thought of the noise as something to be investigated a bit till she found out the source of it instead of just a nuisance that needed to be stopped, she might have opened her window and realised it was coming from her own garden, and then remembered she’d left her radio on there, instead of fuming with anger and thinking it was such a serious offence the police needed to be called.
“Anyway, the neighbours thought it was funny that she’d accidentally complained about herself, and said what happened served her right, because she was always playing her music loud and disturbing them but didn’t care, so now she’d found out what it was like.”
The others in the room grinned. Then the one who’d been talking before said, “Yes. Another thing I learned about anger is that some people stay angry about things till they end up doing something bad, because they brood on what they’re angry about and just get more worked up by it, instead of it occurring to them to think about all the possible ways they can think of of how they might be able to solve the problem that’s making them angry, or all the possible people they can ask for help to solve it.
“And I read that when someone’s about to do something because they’re angry, it’s good if they ask themselves, ‘What am I trying to achieve here?’ If they just want to vent their feelings, going and yelling at the person who made them angry will achieve that; but if they want the problem solved so they can move on and things get better, it can be better to think of something more sensible to do, since yelling at someone will antagonise them and they might react badly, so things can get worse.
“Another thing I learned is that people can get angry because of beliefs and thoughts they have that have shaped their thinking about things as well. One example is if they were brought up believing women should always do what their husbands tell them – I think they might be in some cultures – then they’ll get more angry than most people would if their wife argues with them, because they’ll interpret it in their minds as an act of disobedience, rather than just a difference of opinion. So the exact same situation that wouldn’t bother another person that much might make them really angry, because they’ll think their authority’s being questioned and goodness knows what else, so they’ll be thinking a lot more thoughts that make them angry than the person who just thinks it’s a difference of opinion will.
“And when people’s emotions are stirred up, they can think less clearly anyway, because the brain can’t cope with strong emotion and calm clear thinking at the same time, so people’s thoughts get simplified, so it just might not occur to the angry man that since his wife’s from a different culture, she might not have been brought up believing women should do what their husbands say no matter what, or if she was, she might have a reasonable belief that that’s unfair; so he won’t think of alternative explanations for what’s happening than the ones that are making him angry.
“Or if someone hears someone criticising them and their tone of voice even subconsciously reminds them of someone in the past who used to make them feel small with the critical things they used to say, even the memory combined with what’s being said can make their anger flare up, and they can say hurtful things they later realise weren’t fair.
“If they realise that’s what’s going on, it can help them realise they shouldn’t be getting so angry in the future so they might stay calmer.
“That’s one reason why some psychologists and other people say that when a person’s angry, if they can, it’s best if they just walk away from a situation or do something to calm down before they decide how to react, because when they’re calm, they might be able to think about it more sensibly and end up doing something wiser about it.
“So they say that when a person feels a flare-up of anger, instead of being spurred on to action by it and carried away on a wave of it to do things they might regret, they should think of the feeling of anger flaring up as a signal that they need to wait a while before they respond. It’ll often soon die down, so just waiting for that little while might sometimes mean they’ll end up doing something more sensible than they would have done.”
It was as if instead of getting one big lecture, the students were getting a few mini lectures on different subjects that day. The tutor wasn’t trying to stop them talking.
A strange new tutor had been talking about herself and people she knew instead of giving the lecture she was there to give. She’d just started telling the students about how ineffective nagging her sister to do her homework seemed to be. She continued,
“There are some interesting thoughts there. Anyway, I was telling you about how I thought my sister might have done more homework if she’d been more motivated. I emailed my mum a quote from a good psychology book I first read here once, about how kids can be discouraged from doing homework if a mother, with the best of intentions, criticises them for taking their time to get down to it, for instance if she comes in and finds they’ve only done a bit, and instead of expressing pleasure at the fact that they’ve at least done some, she says something in a disappointed annoyed voice like, ‘You haven’t done much, have you!’, or, ‘Your teacher’s not going to think much of that!’ The mother might think she’s encouraging her child to do more, but really it might feel to The child almost as if they’re being punished for the bit they Have done, or at least not appreciated at all for it; so they might decide it isn’t worth the bother next time and take even longer to get down to doing it.
“But if they’re complimented for at least making a start, they can like the feeling of approval so they can be motivated to do more, hoping to get more of it, and also because they might think it’s nice to please their mum.
“When I emailed that to my mum I didn’t say it was specially relevant to Her, but she got annoyed and emailed me back saying she was quite capable of getting my sister to do her homework herself, thank you. Well I’m not sure about that, considering how unmotivated my sister still is to get down to it! Thinking about it, I suppose my mum could have taken my email too personally and thought it was a way of criticising her, so she just thought about how annoyed she was about it instead of thinking about what it said. Maybe I should have realised she’d be offended; after all, she does criticise people in the way the book says, which, after all, was one reason why I sent her the quotation. She probably thought it sounded familiar. Maybe I should have just suggested something positive she could do instead.”
One student said, “The advice you said that book gives reminds me of a funny programme that was on television not long ago. There was a dog trainer who said she could teach wives to train dogs, and in the process teach them how to train their husbands to do more of what they wanted, in a very similar way to the way they were training the dogs. They would give the dogs little rewards like little bits of food or pats and caresses every time they did what they wanted them to do in response to a command they gave, so the dogs would know that was what they wanted, and like doing it. They didn’t shout at them when they didn’t do the right thing or anything, because then the dog might have got upset and not wanted to do anything.
“The wives tried out the techniques they were using on the dogs on their husbands, – well, they didn’t give them commands in the way they ordered the dogs to do things, but they tried not to nag or criticise them for minor things, in the same way they didn’t hassle the dogs when they got things wrong, and they gave their husbands little rewards like compliments, smiles, hugs and other little things like that a lot more when they did things they were pleased about. The programme was about whether the technique would work. It did. The husbands did change their behaviour over a few weeks, wanting to spend more time with their wives and being friendlier towards them.”
One student sniggered and joked, “So you’re not saying the wives gave their husbands dog biscuits or anything like that? Imagine a husband coming back from work one evening and the wife giving him a bowl of dog food and saying, ‘You’ve been a very good boy today! Here’s your reward!'”
The students and Miss Ann Thrope laughed. Then the one who’d brought up the subject of the programme about training husbands like dogs grinned and said, “No of course they didn’t do anything like that! Mind you, I read that a lot of people didn’t see the funny side of the programme, and complained to the BBC, saying it was insulting to give the impression that husbands can be trained like dogs. But it seems the people who complained somehow didn’t manage to look beneath the surface to the reality that actually it was more about training the women than the men, since they had to remember to do things differently in the hope of influencing their husbands to do more of what they wanted, and the husbands would only do more of what they wanted because they would think it was in their best interests to, because what their wives were doing would be making them happier. Really it was just a quirky way of helping people improve their marriages.
“It was about being kinder really, doing things that wouldn’t cost the wives much to do, like shouting less and complimenting more. Perhaps the husbands should have been trained to do the same for their wives too, but imagine how outraged people would have been if as well as teaching wives they could train their husbands in the same way dogs are trained, it had given the message that Wives should be trained the way dogs are trained!”
The students and tutor chuckled.
The one who’d been talking carried on, “Not long ago I was reading a psychology book here that gave the same advice as the programme, only without the dogs.
“It said compliments for what a person’s got around to doing can work a lot better than criticism of what they haven’t done if you want to motivate them to do more of what you think they’re doing right, which is basically what the programme was trying to teach. The book said that if you criticise, shout, sulk or anything like that, hoping it’ll get your husband or wife to change, you might very well be disappointed, because it might just make them think you’re unpleasant to be around so they start avoiding you. Or every time they think about doing the things you’ve been nagging them to do, those things will be associated in their minds with the unpleasant experience of you criticising and disapproving of them, so they might think about it every time, so getting down to doing the thing you want them to do will come to feel even more unpleasant than it did before. So they might put off doing it more.
“There are times when people need to criticise, but the author says people tend to notice what people do wrong much more than what they do right, as if they just take that for granted, and that’s a shame. She told a story that illustrates that, about one woman who lived in a house with a massive garden, and one day she came back from work to find her husband had mown the entire lawn, which must have taken ages. The only thing was, he’d missed a little bit under some trees. Instead of thanking him and showing appreciation of him for doing all that work, she just said, ‘You missed a bit’. So the author said it’s nice if people can give more compliments.
“The book said that what works to change people better than criticising them is looking out for when they do do what you want them to do and then complimenting them or thanking them for it, or showing appreciation in some other way. There was a story in the book about a woman who was annoyed because her husband didn’t do much to help her with their one year-old daughter. After she’d complained to him about it quite a bit, he grudgingly agreed to do more. He started getting up in the night sometimes to attend to her when she cried, and giving her a bottle a few times a day, and changing her nappy sometimes. But instead of complimenting him for doing more, his wife started criticising him for not doing things the way she thought he should. After a few weeks, he got fed up and told her that since she knew all about how to do everything and he didn’t know anything, he’d just let her do it all, and he gave up trying to help.
“His wife felt unhappy. She went for counselling and told the counsellor what had happened. The counsellor asked her whether her husband had been putting the baby in danger by the way he was doing things and she said no. So the counsellor advised her to apologise to him for having criticised him so much, and then if he helped with the baby again, to resist the urge to criticise him for just doing things a bit differently from the way she’d like them done, and find as many reasons as she could to compliment him. She admitted she hadn’t given him any compliments at all about what he’d done, because she’d been giving so much of her attention to making sure he was doing things the way she thought he should. She realised how important it was to encourage him when he did something to help, even if she didn’t think he was doing things perfectly.
“In the weeks after that, she did her best to remember not to criticise him for doing things for the baby a little bit differently from the way she would when she felt tempted to, and every time he did something to help without being asked, she would show appreciation by complimenting him, smiling, or doing something she knew he would like in return.
“She was really pleased with what happened. The more she encouraged him, the better he became at helping; and the better he became at caring for the baby, the more he wanted to spend time with her, till he was even looking forward to coming home every evening to be with her. That really made his wife happy, and their relationship got better.
“And there was another story about a woman who was fed up because her husband didn’t seem to take any interest in her life, hardly ever asking her about what she’d done during the day or anything like that. One day she complained to him about it, but he just got annoyed. He probably thought more deeply about what she’d said later though, because the next morning in the car, she was going to have another go at him about how unhappy she was with the way he didn’t seem interested in her. She was just about to, when he asked her what she planned to do with her day. She was tempted to ignore the question and just complain about him like she’d been going to. But she’d recently heard about how it’s better to show appreciation when other people do do something you want and it’s more likely to encourage them to do more of it than criticism of what they’re doing wrong, so she decided not to, took a deep breath, and told him about her day. Then she told him she really appreciated him asking.
“They didn’t say much during the rest of the journey, but when they got there, they gave each other a little kiss and told each other to have a nice day, something they hadn’t done for months.
“In the next few weeks, the woman’s husband did try to show more interest in her, and she let him know she appreciated it. It did seem to be encouraging him to carry on.
“That programme about teaching wives to train dogs and to use the same techniques they use when they’re training them on their husbands was just a funny way of showing them how to do the same kinds of things as that.”
“That sounds nice,” said one student. “You couldn’t do that with everyone though, could you, at least not all the time. I mean, imagine if your child was giving your pet cat a fur cut, thinking it might look better with bald patches or something; you couldn’t sit back and just think, ‘Oh well, I’ll just wait till he cuddles the cat without pulling its fur out, and then I’ll congratulate him for being nice to it and leaving its fur in place, to encourage him to do that more often.'”
“No, I suppose there’s a time and a place,” said the student who’d just been talking, smiling.
The conversation continued.
A new tutor was telling the students things that were completely irrelevant to the lecture she was supposed to be giving them. Still, some of them were worth knowing. She was explaining to them why she’d decided she didn’t like people after deciding she wasn’t very good at counselling. They wondered why, and thought there seemed to be something a bit strange about her.
Oblivious to their thoughts, she carried on, “I mean, one thing that happened was that I was talking to one of my old classmates I hadn’t met for ages not long ago, who I’d thought it would be nice to meet up with again when we got in touch and planned it. But I wish I hadn’t done it now. She said she might one day go into counselling. I wanted to warn her that it was a lot harder than she might think, so I told her about a couple of the problems people had come to me with, using them as examples.
“One was that a person came to see me once saying that everything around her seemed unreal, as if she was watching it on television rather than it really happening around her, and she just couldn’t get rid of the feeling. She’d had it for ages, and she hoped I’d tell her how to stop feeling that way. I didn’t know how on earth to help her at the time. I couldn’t remember ever having learned about such a thing on my course here, though maybe they do teach people about that kind of thing now.
“I’ve since found out that it sometimes comes on alongside some anxiety problems, depression or sleep deprivation, and when a person recovers from those, it goes away too. Or sometimes sleeping too much can cause it. Or some medications can cause it, and a doctor can change a person’s medication to one that has the same benefits but doesn’t cause the same problems. Alcohol and some illegal drugs can cause it too.
“I’ve found out that sometimes it’s easy to treat because the way anxiety’s causing it is because it’s making people breathe too quickly and that can cause light-headedness, along with tingling sensations and that feeling of unreality, and slowing the breathing right down can make them fade away.
“Also, accepting the symptoms as likely not serious can help them fade away, because worrying about them a lot can cause the anxiety they can be a side effect of, so thinking about them as probably not a symptom of something serious can calm that anxiety so they can start to fade too.
“Another thing that can make them fade away, at least for a while, is distracting yourself by doing things that bring it home to you that you’re in the here-and-now and make you feel more alive, like having fun. Also it can help to think about the way having fun is making you feel, and the reasons you enjoy what’s giving you pleasure, and to do your best to notice what’s going on around you with all your senses – paying attention to the colours of things, smells and sounds, and trying to give anyone talking or doing other things your fullest attention. Also it helps to be determined to carry on regardless of the symptoms, since they won’t be dangerous, just unnerving.
“I wish I’d known all those things then.
“But anyway, I mentioned that problem to the person who said she was thinking of getting into counselling, and she said, ‘Don’t some people have weird things wrong with them!’ as if she thought I was telling her about it just to have fun talking about the strange problems I’d come across and I was saying the person themselves was weird. Well, maybe she didn’t mean it like that. Maybe it was just me worrying about what she might have thought. But I’d been hoping she’d feel sympathy for the woman, but instead she just seemed to think I was telling her just for fun or something. But I wasn’t telling her because I was trying to make fun of anyone, and I didn’t think the person was weird for having the problem; I was telling her because I wanted her to know counselling might be harder than she thought.
“And I told her about a woman who started talking to me and didn’t stop for seven entire hours. She was sympathetic to Me, as if she thought the woman was inconsiderate; but I wasn’t telling her because I thought the woman had done anything bad; if that was what she needed to do to feel better, that was fair enough. I went away feeling bad because I thought my old schoolmate had completely misunderstood what I’d been trying to say, and I thought it might have been partly my fault for not explaining it well enough, although I did try. So afterwards I thought it probably hadn’t been a good idea to tell her after all and regretted mentioning it.
“And I was telling her our training hadn’t been very good so I often hadn’t even heard of the problems people brought up. I said that when I was counselling them I had to ‘make it up as I went along’. Afterwards I realised she might have thought I meant I made up advice on the spur of the moment, not having a chance to think through whether it was good or not. But I didn’t mean that; I’d meant I had to think through what I’d learned on the spur of the moment and see if I could dredge something relevant out of the depths of my brain. It was hard to be precise about exactly what I meant in the middle of a conversation where I had to respond to what was being said without having time to think about it, and then it would move on so I didn’t have a chance to clarify what I’d meant. I started wishing I hadn’t met my old schoolmate. I decided it had been a bad idea.
“I started being annoyed with myself for not foreseeing that things I said would likely be misunderstood and phrasing things better, and I started being annoyed with other people for probably being so quick to misunderstand things I said.”
“And I can’t even get special occasions right, and I don’t know anyone else who can either! It feels like ages since I had any decent fun! And I can’t remember when the last time was that I had a good birthday or Christmas celebration! On the Christmas Day that’s just past, we went to my parents’ house with my other sisters. They made a nice dinner. But afterwards we sat around not doing much, which seems to be what happens every year, and my older sister and her husband had to choose that very time to lecture my youngest sister, who’s got her A-levels coming up soon, on how she really ought to be concentrating on her homework more. Well she should; she’s never been good at getting down to doing it. But anyway, they went on and on and on and on and on at her in this irritating nagging tone, asking her why she didn’t put more effort in, and I thought, ‘Of all the days in the year you could have chosen to do this, why do you have to choose today, when it’s supposed to be a celebration?’
“Mind you, it turned out that my youngest sister was actually quite enjoying the conversation, since it was giving her a chance to practise her excuses, and she told me she was enjoying anticipating the time when they finished trying to persuade her to change her ways and she would say, ‘Well you’ve made all that effort, but I haven’t changed my mind at all. It can’t feel too good knowing all that effort of talking was for nothing. Still, you learn by your mistakes. You can console yourselves with the thought that you’ll know better next time.'”
Quite a few of the students felt uncomfortable, thinking that what the tutor was saying about her family wasn’t really any of their business and she should keep it to herself. They thought she sounded unprofessional, telling them about them like she was, especially since she’d only just met them.
But despite saying she’d been annoyed with herself for having said things she regretted, the tutor didn’t seem to have any qualms about risking doing some more of that, as she talked on.
“Actually, I’ve always thought that trying to encourage her to change by helping her think through the advantages to herself of putting more effort into studying might work better than nagging her and warning her about the bad consequences of not studying enough. I mean the kind of thing they do in motivational counselling, where they can entice people to change by encouraging them to think through for themselves all the advantages of changing their behaviour and the disadvantages of staying the same, and then encourage them to have a good think about whether those things outweigh the advantages of not changing, and the costs of changing for the better, like the amount of effort it would take.”
One student asked, “What if they decide there are more advantages in staying the same than in changing?”
“I don’t know,” said the tutor.
Some of the students giggled, and one mumbled sarcastically through their laughter, “A great tutor You’re going to be!”
Then one asked, “Is motivational counselling similar to motivational speaking?”
As if he didn’t trust Miss Ann Thrope to give an educated response, another student replied instead of her, though what he had to say wasn’t educated either. He said, “I don’t know. Isn’t motivational speaking where someone tries to buoy you up with enthusiasm to do things, with methods like insisting you repeat sayings they tell you to say as enthusiastically as you can in their meeting, in the hope that you’ll remember them so you can repeat them to yourself all your life, you know, sayings like, ‘If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again,’ while you’re thinking to yourself, ‘Yeah, and if I don’t succeed after that, I’ll give up. Or just maybe I’ll try something else instead’.
“Or maybe they’ll give you instructions to repeat a saying like, ‘I’m going to have a good day today, smile at everyone and enjoy my work’, fifty times before you get there in the morning, telling you that if you say it enough, you’ll believe it. And you’re thinking that in the unlikely event that you ever do repeat it to yourself, you’ll probably put an ending on the saying so it goes more like, ‘I’m going to enjoy work and smile at everyone and have a good day, … unless I don’t’, or, ‘… in my dreams’, or, ‘… unless I’m in a bad mood by the time I get to work, in which case I’ll lounge around for a while drinking coffee, hoping to get away with not doing any more work than I have to.’
“Isn’t that what motivational speaking’s like, Miss?”
The tutor said, “Actually no. I don’t know what you’re thinking of, but a lot of motivational speaking’s much better than that. Well at least I think it is. A lot of motivational speakers give people good advice and encouragement, and tell interesting stories.”
Another student said, “Oh yes, I came across a website with some jokes on it that teach lessons in a funny way, that it said some motivational speakers could tell at the beginning of their speeches to get people interested in them. One made me smile, even though I’ve heard it before:
“A mum heard her son call out one morning, ‘Mum, I don’t want to go to school; I feel sick.’
“The mum went up to his room and said, ‘I expect it’s just nerves, the way it usually is; but you know you always feel better once you get going.’
“Her son said, ‘But I hate school. I don’t ever want to go again. I’ve got no friends. My work’s too hard, especially now we have to do so many tests, and I keep getting things wrong, making mistakes and getting told off.’
“The mum said, ‘Sorry, but you’ve got to go. Try to remember the positives – things aren’t that bad: You’ve got at least a few friends, mistakes are one way we learn and develop, and you can try not to take being told off and criticised so personally. After all, some of the people who tell you off will probably have forgotten all about what happened not long afterwards.
“‘And besides, you’ve got to go to school – you’re the head teacher.'”
The students smiled and sniggered.
The conversation continued.
One morning in Spring when Becky and the other students went into the psychology department, they found out there was a new tutor there, who’d come to work there for several months to replace another tutor who’d left for a while because she was having a baby. The new tutor was a friend of one of the other tutors.
The students waited in a lecture theatre for her to come and give them a lecture. They’d heard she was going to do a mini-series about psychological problems that are particularly common in older people.
When she came in, she said, “Hello. I’m the new tutor. I’d like you to call me Miss Ann Thrope.”
One student looked puzzled and said hesitantly, “But, err, we were told your name’s Monica Bloomsfield; … and isn’t that a wedding ring you’re wearing?”
Then Becky looked a bit puzzled and said, “Oh I think I get it! Miss Ann Thrope – it’s a play on the word misanthrope. So does that mean you hate us all?”
The tutor said, “Well, perhaps it’s not really fair of me to do that. I’m just a bit fed up of people really.”
Becky said, “Then why did you come to work with us? Why aren’t you doing a job where you don’t meet people? You know, like exploring and taking photos of cave paintings in remote caves under the sea for some historical society or something?”
Another student said, “Yes, and we’ve been told you used to do counselling, after doing a psychology degree here about a decade ago. Why did you do counselling if you don’t like people?”
The tutor said, “Well, I didn’t mind people when I started. And it’s not the people I was counselling I didn’t like.”
One student said with a grin, “But hang on, doesn’t being a misanthrope mean you hate All people? Or did you think of the people you counselled as not real people?”
The others tittered. But the tutor said seriously, “No, it’s really only recently that I’ve started feeling as if I don’t like people. And actually, it’s myself as much as anyone else who I’m fed up of.”
The students soon realised it was no joke, as she continued, as if she’d come especially to try to sabotage their enthusiasm for their course: “I want to warn you lot that some of you might think it’ll be good to get into counselling and therapy after you leave here, but it’s probably more complicated than you’ve ever imagined. People can say such unpredictable things, and start talking about problems you’ve just never heard of, and you might just not know what to say!
“I mean, I did a counselling course when I was training for the job I did, and they taught us that just listening while people talked their way to working out their own solutions was good, so in theory it shouldn’t have mattered what their problems were. But so many of them would want advice, or just talk and feel better at the end but then come back feeling just as miserable the next time and the next time, I realised my training hadn’t prepared me to help them at all.
“I’m not saying people should always give advice. I remember a mistake I made once because someone I know got to 60 years old and wondered if she should retire. She’d been unhappy sometimes in her job and I’d quite often heard her complaining about some of the people there, but she said she’d just got the opportunity to do something at work she’d love to do. She didn’t know whether to stay on though because she liked the thought of giving up and having more free time, and there was a man in her office who bullied her who she’d have liked never to see again.
“I remembered her once saying there were things she’d like to do before she fell to bits with old age. I thought it would be a shame if she fell to bits before she could do them, so I advised her to give up her job so she’d have more time to do what she wanted.
“I don’t know how much it had to do with what I said, but she did give up her job. But then she said she was bored and missed the adrenaline buzz of getting up early to rush off to work, and she missed some of the people there. And she still didn’t get around to doing the things she’d said she hoped to be able to do before she fell to bits with old age.
“So I realised that instead of giving her an opinion on what to do, I should have advised her to write down all the advantages and disadvantages of staying at work and the pros and cons of leaving, and then decide for herself.
“It can be so easy to give people advice, but since you probably won’t have the full picture even if you think you’ve got it, trying to influence someone to do something major when it’s not really certain whether they should be doing that or something else probably isn’t a good idea, because you can’t really predict what’ll happen most of the time, I don’t think.
“But when you know about techniques that could help people overcome their problems, it’s only fair to tell people about them, instead of just asking questions till they tell you more and more about their problems, till at the end of the counselling session they’re only thinking about how bad they are, instead of planning what to do about them, or doing their best to think of ways of trying to make the future better than the past. Going away thinking about doing that would mean they felt as if they were making progress with their lives so that would make them feel better. Going away still thinking about their problems might just make them more depressed though. So you could be doing the opposite of helping them when you’re counselling them.
“I hope I didn’t do that, but I might have done. The trouble was, I could never remember the things I learned here about what can help people get over their problems long enough for me to be able to tell the people who could have done with hearing about them about them by the time they came to see me, even when I spent some time reading my notes before they came in.”
Becky said, “Maybe you should have learned how to help people with bad memories; you might have learned how to improve yours in the process.”
“Don’t bet on it!” said Miss Ann Thrope. “I’d probably have forgotten what all the information about how to improve your memory Was by the time I needed it!
“But I bet it’s not just me who had those problems; I wouldn’t be surprised if no matter how much you think you know by the end of this course, you lot end up with them too!”
Becky said, “I wonder if that’s the real reason some counselling courses teach people not to recommend anything to clients but just to listen to their problems; maybe it’s because the person who invented the counselling technique knew how easy it was to forget all the things you learned that you thought might help, so they thought it would be easier for people not to even try to remember them.”
One of the other students chuckled and said, “Yeah, imagine it! People have come up with whole psychological theories, and they’re in textbooks about how to use them, when really, the only reason they might have been invented was because the person who came up with them decided they were the best things to do because they’d forgotten all the things they’d learned about how to help people, and they felt sure everyone else would too!”
The students giggled.
Then one said, “There are some things I keep forgetting. Twice in a row this week, I’ve put my dinner things in the sink in my room in hot water to soak, thinking I’d come back and wash them up when the water cooled down; but then I’ve completely forgotten about them and gone out, and found them late at night when I’ve come back, when the water’s gone cold! Then I’ve been annoyed with myself for not remembering to do them earlier.”
A friend of hers said, “Maybe you need a washing-up alarm. Whenever you put things in the washing up, maybe you could set an alarm to go off half an hour later or something.”
The student with the forgetfulness problem grinned and said, “That could be a good idea, but I’d probably forget what it was for!”
Her friend said, “Maybe you could get something with a really loud alarm, so when it went off, it would make you jump, so you’d be at your most alert, so then you might remember.”
A student near them giggled and said, “Yeah! Imagine you forgot you’d even set the loud alarm and went to a lecture, and it went off just when the tutor walked in the room or something. Maybe everyone would think it was a fire alarm or something and evacuate, except you, who’d know what it really was. And then imagine if you forgot that had even happened and did it again, and then you forgot it had happened again so you did it again, and each time, everyone left the lecture theatre when your alarm went off! They’d start saying, ‘There must be something wrong with our tutor! Every time she walks in the door, some kind of alarm goes off!'”
The students laughed.
Then one asked with a mischievous grin, “So, Miss Ann Thrope, you said you’ve forgotten everything you learned on your course here, or something like that. Do you forget lots of other things too? Is the reason you’re not lecturing us on what we were told you were going to lecture us about because you’ve forgotten what the lecture’s supposed to be about? I mean, I know you’ve got notes, but have you forgotten to look at them? And is the reason you hate everyone because you’ve forgotten all the nice things about people?”
The students laughed again.
Some of the other lecturers might have given the student who said that a good telling off for it. But maybe Miss Ann Thrope didn’t feel at ease enough to do that because she was a bit nervous because she was new, or maybe she felt a bit like one of them because she’d been on their course before, because she just said, “No! My memory isn’t that bad! Allright. Let me tell you the rest of the story.”
Still giving no signs of giving her lecture, she said, “One thing I’ll say first though is that I feel as if I ought to be loyal to my profession and say that I’m sure psychological theories Aren’t just invented to give psychotherapists an easier time of it because they’ll mean they don’t have to remember so much!
“I might have done better at counselling people if I’d been in an office, knowing exactly who was going to come in and what their problems were. But I couldn’t prepare for people’s visits well, because I was working in a drop-in centre where people would come in when they felt like it, and you never knew who was going to come in or what problems they might have. Some people are probably good enough psychotherapists for that not to matter, but I came to think I must be a rubbish counsellor, although some of the people who came to me for help did thank me and tell me I’d helped them a lot.
“But there were a few who started talking but then paused and said, ‘Actually I don’t think this is helping’, and got up and walked out, and that can be really discouraging.
“Sometimes I tried to prepare for what people might want to talk about by reading the notes I made on the course I did here about certain problems, to try and refresh my memory about what can help. But then people with other problems would usually come in, and I’d try to counsel them, and I’d get so engrossed in their problems I’d forget what I’d just learned, so then if someone did come in later with a problem I’d been refreshing my memory about, I’d have forgotten everything I’d read, so I couldn’t help them with any of it.
“But it wasn’t the people I was counselling who made me start feeling as if I hate everyone. It was after I stopped that I started feeling like that. It’s partly just that the more I talk to people, the more I’ve realised how careful you need to be with what you say, if you don’t want to risk being misunderstood or offending people! And when you’re having a conversation with someone, it’s so easy to say something on the spur of the moment that you end up regretting because you feel sure it’s been misunderstood, so you wish you hadn’t bothered having the conversation, and you get irritated with yourself and the other person because you didn’t foresee that what you said might be misunderstood the way it probably was when you said it, and you feel ignorant for having said it without thinking. … Or at least that’s what happens to Me. Even my friends and family get on my nerves, so I don’t know what hope I’ve got of tolerating anyone else much!”
Some of the students began to wonder if the new tutor’s lectures were all going to be taken up with her telling them about her problems, and then asking Them to lecture Her on what to do about them! One or two began to smile at the thought that if that was how things were going to go, perhaps They could give Her an exam at the end of the year, to see how much of what they’d lectured her on she remembered.
The conversation carried on.
The winter weather was horrible during Becky’s first year at university, as could be expected. In February there was snow, and then gales and pouring rain.
Still, it didn’t stop Becky and her friends meeting up and having fun.
One afternoon, Becky said to her friend Sharon, “Hey imagine if one day you heard the rain outside, but instead of coming down as normal, it was coming down in a rhythm. Imagine if a load of raindrops came down at exactly the same time, and then a second later a load more did that, and then a second later a load more did the same, so it sounded as if the rain was marching down!”
Sharon grinned. Then she said, “Imagine if you were out on a cold winter’s evening and suddenly you saw the sun come out and it was shining really brightly. Do you think you’d be really pleased and think it was fantastic that it was warming you up and cheering the place up, or do you think you’d start worrying you were going mad, or that something spooky was happening?”
Becky thought about it and said, “I don’t know. Maybe I’d be really glad when it happened, and only start worrying about it later. What do you think you’d do?”
Sharon said, “I think I’d love it! Hey imagine if a newsreader was about to read the news on the radio and he was sitting by an open window, and suddenly there was a huge gust of wind and the news blew out the window, and when it was time for him to read the news he said, ‘Sorry, but there isn’t any news today. It’s just blown away.”
Sharon grinned and said, “Hey I wonder what we’d have to do to get on the news ourselves!”
Becky said, “Something really dramatic probably. Maybe you’d get on if you learned to inhale raindrops and then squirt them out so far they’d land on a person’s head 100 metres away or something.”
Sharon chuckled and said, “I don’t think I’ll try that one!”
One evening when they met up, Becky said, “It’s nearly Valentine’s Day. Are you going to send anyone a card?”
Sharon said, “No. I’m not really interested in boyfriends yet. Mind you, maybe we could make a card to give someone just for a laugh. I’ve been thinking that that would be fun actually. We could cut it out of a cardboard box, maybe part of an old teabag box or something. Let’s think about what we could write inside it. Maybe things like,
“I love you because your hair is made of straw; your fingers are like mini carrots, and the hairs on your chest are like long grass.'”
Becky giggled and said, “Yeah! And you could say, ‘One thing that attracted me to you is that I saw a scan of your brain once and it looked just like a big block of marzipan. I love Marzipan!'”
Sharon chuckled and said with a grin, “We’d better not give it to someone who’s easily offended! Maybe another thing we could say is, ‘You have a gorgeous nose; it looks just like a tennis ball!'”
Becky giggled and said, “And how about, ‘I love the fact that your arms are long sticks of celery; I’d love to eat them all up, but since that would mean you wouldn’t have any arms left, I know that wouldn’t be fair.'”
Sharon said, ‘Yeah! And we could say, ‘I love the fact that your chin is a potato and your feet are Cornish pasties. I love the fact that your back is like a filing cabinet, full of drawers people can store paper and pens and paper clips and things in, and your stomach is like a beach ball we can take out and play with.'”
Becky said, “Maybe on the front of the card we could write in big letters, ‘I love you because …’, and they’d think it was serious and open the card and find all that.”
Sharon giggled. She said, “Yeah, let’s do that! And maybe another thing we could say in the card is, ‘Your head is a coconut and your legs are giant fish fingers!'”
They did make the card. They got someone to push it under the door of the room of one of the students on their course who they were quite friendly with but who wasn’t in the group of friends they went around with. They thought it was a laugh because they sat near him in lectures that day, and he asked them and others if they had a clue who could have sent him this weird Valentine’s card, showing it to them. They didn’t admit to it but made unhelpful suggestions for fun, like, “Maybe it was one of the lecturers. Have you noticed you’ve had a better grade than you expected for anything? If you have, maybe one of them’s in love with you … although if everyone’s got better grades than they expected, maybe it means they love us all!”
“They couldn’t keep straight faces when they said things like that, but the student who’d been given the card thought that was just because the card was amusing and they were laughing at what they were saying. To their knowledge, he never found out who’d really sent it. But perhaps he often enjoyed puzzling over it.
In March, there was a worrying time for a while when a friend of Becky’s from her media studies course called Clare confided in her one day, saying, “I think my little brother might have ADHD. We’re thinking of taking him to a therapist to see if we can get a diagnosis. He has really bad tantrums, where sometimes he even breaks things.”
Becky said, “Lots of children do that though. What makes you think your brother’s got something wrong with him, apart from just being an ordinary boy? … I mean, apart from having the kind of tantrums that an ordinary boy might have?”
Clare said, “Well, I think his are worse than most. His school have complained because he sometimes throws books and things around the classroom!”
Becky said, “That’s not good! What makes you think it’s ADHD that’s causing it though? I mean, there might be lots of different things that could cause tantrums like that.”
Clare said, “Well apart from his tantrums, he seems to find it hard to concentrate on his homework, as if he just can’t pay attention to it. He’s always wanting to get up and do other things, like play on the computer or with his toys, or just lounge around on his bed.”
“There can’t be many children who wouldn’t prefer to play or do nothing than work!” said Becky.
Clare said, “I know, but you can hardly get him to sit down to do his work for more than a few minutes in one go! And work’s not the only thing he doesn’t pay attention to. When he’s watching something on television, if you call his name, he’ll just ignore you.”
Becky said, “Aren’t there jokes about how males often do that, but it really depends on what you’re saying to them? If you ask them to take the rubbish out, they won’t hear you, but if you say, ‘Would you like me to get you a bag of chips?’ they’ll hear you and answer right away? Maybe you ought to experiment with doing that kind of thing with your brother!”
Clare smiled, but said, “Maybe, but I still think something’s wrong. He makes daft mistakes in his homework that you just wouldn’t expect someone of his age to make, as if he just isn’t paying attention to what he’s doing. And he’s really really forgetful. Sometimes I say something to him, and he seems to have forgotten it the next minute, and he’s always forgetting where some of his school things are in the morning, so getting him ready for school can be a bit stressful.
“And those aren’t the only things. He’s always fidgeting and tapping, and gets annoyed if he has to wait for anything, like if he has to queue for anything – he’ll always try to push in at the front. We’ve been told that at school they’ve told him off for it a lot but he still does it.
“I know most of those things might not seem much on their own, but when you take them all together, there really does seem to be something wrong. I think the reason he has such bad tantrums is because he just gets really frustrated when he’s made to sit down and concentrate on schoolwork or wait his turn, or the teacher keeps telling him off for the mistakes he makes and when he can’t remember things, and that kind of thing. I’ve heard all those things are symptoms of ADHD, so I’m pretty sure he’s got it.”
Becky said, “Can you think of any ADHD symptoms he Hasn’t got though? Have you ever read a full list of symptoms that it’s common for people with ADHD to have?”
Clare looked slightly embarrassed and said, “Well no, I’m just going by things I’ve picked up from television programmes.”
Becky said, “One common symptom is impulsiveness. Does he do things that could be dangerous sometimes without thinking first?”
Clare thought for several seconds and then said, “Well, when he has a tantrum, there’s no knowing what he might do!”
Becky said, “Have you tried thinking of as many other coditions as you can that match the symptoms he’s got? The things you describe could be symptoms of a number of things, not just ADHD. Do you think it’s possible he could have a learning difficulty? It might be worth your family going to the doctor and seeing what they think. That could explain his memory problems; and you think he makes the mistakes he makes in his homework because he’s just not paying attention, but what if he really genuinely can’t do the work?”
Clare looked worried. She said, “I hadn’t thought of that. Maybe we ought to take him to the doctor and ask about that.”
Becky said, “Does he have any other symptoms besides the ones you’ve told me, maybe things you assume must be unconnected with his attention problems and tantrums so you think they must be to do with something different? I mean, one possible thing he might have, and I don’t want to worry you, but I know the symptoms of lead poisoning can include irritability that makes children more likely to have tantrums, and learning difficulties. It can give people stomach aches too and they can sometimes be sick and not have much appetite. Is there anything in your house that could have given your brother lead poisoning that you know of, like pealing old paint, or does he play a lot with toys that might have been made in developing countries? Some of them don’t have good regulations to stop manufacturers using harmful substances like lead in things. Does he put toys and things in his mouth a lot?”
clare said, “That’s bad! But it’s interesting. Actually, he does complain of tummy aches sometimes. Sometimes we’ve wondered if he’s just been trying to get out of school by pretending not to be very well.”
Becky said, “Well, I wouldn’t be surprised if it is that with a lot of kids, although sometimes it might be caused by butterflies in the stomach because school makes them nervous, especially if they’re being bullied.”
Clare said, “Maybe. My brother has been sick sometimes as well, but we wondered if he’d just been scoffing too many sweets at school. And we’ve wondered that at mealtimes sometimes too because he hasn’t wanted to eat anything and has tried to leave the table, and just got agitated and started yelling when my parents have told him to stay there. But maybe he just didn’t have any appetite for food.
“And he does suck some of his metal toys, sometimes when he plays with them, and also when he’s trying to do his homework. I don’t know if he thinks it’s some kind of comforting thing or it stops his mind wandering or something.”
Becky said, “I think you should take him to a doctor then to see if he could have lead poisoning, or to ask about what else he might have. I think quite a few things might cause the symptoms he’s got. And I think there are lots of medical conditions where a lot of people who have them don’t have every symptom, and people can have some symptoms that aren’t typical so they’re not well-known. So it’s not always easy to tell what someone’s got. So don’t just go by what I say. Since we’re not qualified to diagnose a disease even if something sounds like a particular one to us, it must be best to get a medical opinion, although doctors can sometimes misdiagnose things too.
“But lead poisoning can be diagnosed with a simple blood test, so it won’t be a long complicated process to see if he’s got that at least. And if your brother has got lead poisoning, I think there are medications people can take that bind to lead in the body and then come out the opposite end from the one they went in, taking it with them.
“If he has got lead poisoning or something else, they might still give him ADHD medication if they think it’s the best thing to control his ADHD-like symptoms while he recovers, I don’t know. But hopefully the doctor will know what to do for the best.”
Clare told her family what Becky had said and they took her little brother to the doctor’s. It turned out that he did have lead poisoning. The doctor gave him treatment for it though, and he completely recovered. They got rid of the toys that had caused it.
Clare told Becky she was really grateful she’d suggested that the problem might be lead poisoning, and really pleased her brother was getting better.
Becky had a nice Christmas. A few days after Christmas Day, a friend called Jane from university invited her to visit her house for the afternoon, where her family were going to play games and then have tea.
Jane had a brother two years younger than her and a sister of about fourteen. They were there, plus her parents, and her mum’s parents, who Jane called Granny and Grandad. They were a merry lot.
They liked to make up zany games to play. They called the first one they played School Challenge. They took turns to challenge the rest to think up questions that were the same but could be asked in two completely different subjects they chose. Jane started. She asked, “What test question could be asked in both psychology and maths?”
They all thought about it for a minute, and then Jane’s mum suggested: “How about, ‘If 85 % of the population of Britain was depressed, how many psychologists would it take to give them all two hours of therapy in a week?'”
They smiled. Then Grandad said, “If 85 % of the population of this country were depressed, I think it would be time for mass emigration to a sunnier climate!”
They chuckled. Jane’s brother said, “The trouble is that people live in most sunny places in the world already.”
Becky joked enthusiastically, “Perhaps they could swap with us! We could all go and live in their nice sunny climate and they could all come here.”
They laughed. But Jane’s mum said, “Not all sunny climates are nice all the time though; in some they get tornados and things, and there are venomous snakes and things.”
Jane’s brother said, “We could swap with Spain! I think it’s nice there, isn’t it?”
Then Jane’s sister said, “But what if there was a horrible law of nature that said that if there were enough British people in one place, it would automatically go cloudy and rainy above them a lot of the time wherever they were in the world, because the climate here would follow the people who normally lived in it wherever they went!”
Granny said, “That wouldn’t be so bad in a place where there was normally drought.”
Becky said, “Imagine if even the places with the worst droughts would go rainy and cloudy if ever there were a thousand or more British people there at the same time! People in those places would beg us to come out to make it rain. Their governments would pay us. Imagine if a thousand British people were employed to constantly go around the world so it would rain; they’d spend a few months in Africa touring the deserts and other places that don’t get much rain, then they might go to the Australian desert, and then to other places; and if they always went at the same times of year, there would get to be new rainy seasons at those times of year there. So schoolbooks would get to say things like, ‘Australia has a rainy season in June.’ But then if the British stopped going and refused to go back, the books would have to be rewritten.”
They smiled. Then it was Becky’s turn to suggest a question. She said, “What about a question that could be asked in both chemistry and English literature?”
“Ooh, that’s mean!” laughed Jane.
They thought for a minute, and then Jane’s dad suggested, “What did Charles Dickens say when he accidentally split the atom while going about his daily business?”
They laughed, and Granny said, “um, ‘Ouch!'”
Jane’s brother grinned, and then said, “Hang on, would it even be possible to split an atom by accident while going about your business? How do you split an atom anyway?”
Jane’s mum scratched her head in thought and then asked, “Hey, wouldn’t splitting the atom be physics rather than chemistry? Or would it be both? But yeah, how would you split one?”
Jane said, “I expect you’d need a lot of specialised equipment. I can’t imagine Charles Dickens needing to use it.”
Becky joked, “I don’t know; who knows what he got up to while contemplating what he was going to write next!”
They all laughed.
Jane’s brother had a turn next and said, “What question could be asked in both biology and computer studies?”
They thought for a minute and then Becky said, “How about: If a computer was invented that was just as intelligent as a human, would it need a human brain to help it work?”
Granny said with a smile, “It wouldn’t want mine for a start! I don’t think it works quite as well as it used to.”
Becky said, “Hey, just imagine if they could make artificial brains for people whose brains were wearing out, just as they make artificial hips and things. Imagine if a person had their brain filled with computer chips! Imagine what they’d be able to do then!”
Jane’s sister said, “Wow, maybe they’d be able to do thousands of calculations in seconds, like some computers can!”
Grandad said, “Yeah, and maybe someone would have to press a button on their heads to shut them down when it was time for bed at night!”
They played the game for another half an hour or so, and then they played another one, where people had to say things that could be answers or punchlines, and the others had to think of questions or jokes that could fit with them. There was usually a few seconds’ pause while people thought, but no one thought it mattered.
Granny started. She said, “A sock, a loaf of bread and a maggot.”
Jane’s mum said with a smile, “What did the cleaner find when she opened the doctor’s fridge?”
They laughed, and Jane’s mum told them all that when Jane’s brother was about five, one day she’d found one of her shoes in the fridge. She felt sure he must have put it there, though why, she had no idea.
They all giggled. Then it was Jane’s brother’s turn. He said, “The chemist went red in the face and said, ‘Don’t be so rude!'”
Jane’s sister laughed and said, “Oh I’m sure I’ve heard something like this. A mother and her son went into the Chemist and she asked, ‘Please, have you got something that can stop a child wetting the bed?'”
They laughed, and Granny said with a grin, “Oh, wouldn’t it be awful if chemists really did behave like that!”
Grandad’s turn was next, and he said, “A pigeon on drugs.”
Jane’s mum said, “What gets high in the sky and then comes down with a bang?”
Then Becky had a turn and said, “A newspaper from 1895.”
Grandad said, “What did my local chip shop used to wrap chips in when I was a child?”
Jane had a turn and said, “A haggis on the head.”
Jane’s mum teased, “What did Jane always like going around with when she was a child?”
Everyone burst out laughing at the thought.
They carried on playing that game for a while and then they played a couple more. Then they had a nice big tea, with quite a lot of cakes and other yummy things.
But in the middle of it, Becky made a complaint. No, it wasn’t about the tea. Or any of Jane’s family. She said, “A few times, I’ve asked for things for Christmas from a couple of people in my family, and ended up with things that are almost the opposite in some ways from what I asked for! One thing was when a couple of years ago I told one person I wanted a mixture of sweets, and said I especially liked jelly babies. They just got me a big box of jelly babies, which was nice enough, but I’d asked for a mixture of things, so to get me one single thing was almost the opposite of what I asked for!”
They sympathised. But then Jane’s granny said, “Well, at least you got something you enjoyed. Imagine if you’d just got a load of empty sweet packets instead as a joke present! My dad had three brothers. He didn’t like one of them. One Christmas, he got a present from this brother shaped like a football. He was really excited, thinking it was one. But when he opened it, he found it was a cabbage! His brother had given it to him for an unkind joke!”
Jane’s brother said, “Hey imagine if footballers trying to play an FA cup final were given a cabbage instead of a football. Imagine if they all loved raw cabbage so they just stood around in a huddle sharing it between them and eating it, and when they’d finished they asked for a real football but were just given another cabbage, so they ate that too. A hundred thousand people might have gone to watch them, and millions might be watching on telly, but all they might see for half an hour would be all the footballers standing together chomping on cabbage. And imagine if whenever they finished one and asked for a real football that time, they always just got given another cabbage and decided to eat that, so for the entire ninety minutes, they were just standing together eating cabbage, till they got through about ten of them!”
Jane’s sister grinned and said, “Eek! Wouldn’t that make it a bit windy on the pitch? I mean, wouldn’t eating that much cabbage do one or two odd things to their digestive systems?”
They laughed, and Jane’s granny said good-naturedly, “Oh stop it!”
Jane’s grandad said, ” I suppose if people went to watch an FA cup final and just saw the footballers standing together eating cabbage, that would be the opposite in some ways of what they’d hoped for; I mean, they’d have been hoping to see them running around scoring goals, and instead they’d see them standing still. … And if the amount of cabbage they’d had really did do unspeakable things to their digestive systems, they’d possibly get the runs afterwards, when hopefully no one was watching at all.”
They laughed, and Jane’s granny told him off, while laughing herself, saying, “Grandad! You should know better than to say things like that, especially at the tea table!”
Then Jane said, “Sometimes in the kitchen in my student halls of residence, I open the fridge, and someone’s left some vegetables in there for longer than they should have done, and they’re beginning to go rotten. Maybe they bought them and then couldn’t be bothered to cook them, or maybe they’re eternal optimists who keep thinking they’ll last longer than they will. It’s not very nice. But it makes me think: You know that slogan ‘A dog is for life, not just for Christmas’ that they started publicising because a lot of dogs were being abandoned not long after Christmas, after some people seemed to think it would be cute to get kids a puppy for Christmas, not thinking about how it might be when they turned into big dogs who might be naughty and a handful to manage, and need expensive vet’s treatment because they’d need vaccinations and they might get ill, and they’d need to be taken for walks every day even in the cold and the rain and the snow and high wind and so on?
“Well they could publicise a slogan that would be more-or-less the opposite of the puppy one: Maybe they could put it in adverts on the telly or put it up in vegetable aisles in supermarkets, that said, ‘A cabbage is for one or two weeks, not for life!’ Imagine someone thinking they could keep a cabbage for the whole of their lives!”
Then Grandad said, “That’s a bit like what Becky said earlier about getting presents that are in some ways the opposite of what you want. I can feel an idea for another game coming on: Suggest Christmas presents that are almost the opposite of what a person asked for, though not in an obvious way. I can think of one already: Imagine someone asks for one of those bread making machines, because they like the taste of freshly-made bread much more than shop-bought bread; but the person they ask for one thinks, ‘Oh, they like bread’, and buys them a loaf of bread instead, thinking that’s what they want.”
Jane said, “I actually read on the Internet that someone really did get a loaf of bread for Christmas once. I was looking at a web page about the worst Christmas presents people had ever got. I think someone else said they got a bag of onions. Some things are nice to have in your ordinary everyday grocery shop; but at Christmas, you want something a bit special.”
“Well, it could be worse,” said Jane’s grandad with a grin. “Imagine if someone was going shopping and asked you if you wanted anything, and you asked if they could get you a loaf of seeded bread, and they came back with a loaf of bread without seeds in it, and when you told them you’d wanted bread With seeds, they said there was no need to worry, and went and got some seeds from their greenhouse and said you could just sprinkle those on your toast.”
Jane giggled and said, “I don’t think that would be very good for you!”
Her sister laughed and said, “No, imagine if it was a variety pack of seeds, and you ate them, and a flower garden and a vegetable plot started growing inside you, and you ended up with carrots growing out of your ears, tulips growing out of your mouth, a pea pod hanging down from each nostril, daffodils sticking out from your eyes, and a Brussels sprout sprouting out of your belly button!”
They laughed, and Jane’s mum said, “Somehow I don’t think they’d make it that far! The seeds would probably just give you a tummy ache. Seeds really need to be cooked before they’re allright to eat.”
Jane asked, “How come birds can eat them without cooking them? It seems they must have stronger stomachs than humans! So much for the idea that we’ve got the advantage of millions of years of evolution!”
“Yes, but we’ve got lots of other advantages,” said Jane’s dad with a broadening grin. “I mean, it’s just as well birds can eat raw seeds, because they can’t cook. And that doesn’t just mean they’re bad at it; they literally can’t do it. I mean, can you imagine going outside and seeing a family of little birds making a seed pie and putting it into a little solar-powered oven you saw some scientist birds inventing the other day?”
They all giggled.
When it was time for Becky to go home, they gave her some cakes to take with her. One had nuts in. Jane’s mum said, “There you go. Maybe one day you can make one of those yourself, and pretend you’re a really clever squirrel, who’s not only learned to gather nuts but learned to make cakes with them too.”
Becky giggled. She’d had a lovely day, and she went home happily.
When she went back to university, she felt a lot more cheerful than she had when she left for the Christmas holidays. She met up with all her friends again and they had more fun times.
Becky was with a small group of her friends and a couple of other students, one of whom had just been talking about how people aren’t necessarily looking for honesty when they ask others if they enjoyed a thing they’ve given them or done for them, so it can be best to just mention anything nice about it that comes to mind, instead of answering the question directly. She continued,
“It’s not easy to do, because, at least in my experience, when you get asked a question, the brain just instinctively starts trying to think of the answer to that particular question, and if it’s a yes/no question, the brain will be asking itself whether the answer’s yes or no, instead of thinking about it in a different way, like, ‘What can I say that’s nice?’ And if you don’t like a thing much, it’s hard to suddenly think of things you do like about it on the spur of the moment when you’re put on the spot and didn’t expect the question. But maybe it’s possible for people to train their brains to instantly translate the question, ‘Are you enjoying this?’ into, ‘What about this situation can you be grateful for?’ I don’t know, but I think it’s worth a try.
“Maybe it would be easier if people go around thinking of what they can be grateful for as they go along, so they’ve already got an answer if someone asks them if they’re enjoying themselves and they’re not really. Mind you, that might not be all that easy when people are concentrating on doing other things. It might be worth a try though.
“I mean, I was on holiday with my parents once and I wasn’t enjoying myself most of the time but there were a few things I liked, and my mum asked me if I was enjoying the holiday, and instead of answering the question she’d asked, I commented on one particular thing I’d liked, and we had a bit of a joke about it and then moved on to a different subject; so the fact that she didn’t say, ‘Yes but have you been enjoying the holiday as a whole’ proves that she wasn’t really all that interested in the answer to that particular question but she just wanted to hear something nice or appreciative.
“Mind you, that doesn’t always work. I remember I went out for an evening with someone who’d invited me to a church service where I think a couple of people were being baptised or something, and afterwards, there were a lot of nice nibbles to eat. I thought the church service was boring and I got fed up of it, but I did like the food. It was nearly time to go home when someone asked me if I’d enjoyed the evening. I knew they might be disappointed if I told them I hadn’t liked the church service, so I thought that at least I could praise the food. So I told them I’d really liked the food. Unfortunately, I got the impression they went away thinking, ‘You sound like a shallow greedy pig! All you care about is the food! Don’t you realise something much more important went on here tonight?!’
“So you can’t win them all! I don’t know whether I’ll ever work out how to get things right all the time. I’m still trying to work out what’s best really.”
One of the friends asked, “So if one of Us did something for you and then asked if you’d enjoyed it, would you still try and make it sound as if you did, even if you didn’t?”
The especially talkative student said, “Oh no, I know I can just be myself and say what I think with you!”
She grinned mischievously and said, “No, if one of You lot asked me if I’d enjoyed something I hadn’t, I’d say, ‘No it was rubbish!'”
The others giggled, and a few said sarcastically, “Thanks!”
One of Becky’s friends said, “This stuff reminds me of something that happened to Me once. I read in a book recently that when a woman asks a question like, ‘Does this dress make me look fat?’, they likely don’t want an honest answer either. I don’t know how true that is, but I remember I had an argument with my mum one day, because we were in a shop buying my school uniform a few years ago and she wanted to buy a dress, and she tried one on and asked me, ‘Do you think this dress makes me look fat?’ I’ve heard some people say that when a woman asks a question like that, it’s best to lie and say no. But I didn’t want to do that. After all, if she’d bought it, other people might have thought she looked fat in it and slagged her off behind her back about it. I just assumed she wanted an honest opinion. So I said, ‘Well you’re fat anyway, so I don’t suppose the dress could do anything else, but some dresses would do more to hide it.’
“She got angry and said, ‘So you’re accusing me of being fat? You can be very rude sometimes!’
“I was annoyed, because I’d only been doing what she’d asked me to do. I think the annoyance made me raise my voice and sound annoyed, and I said, ‘I was only telling you what you asked me to tell you! If you didn’t want me to tell you if you look fat, why did you ask if you look fat?’
“My mum said angrily, ‘Don’t talk so loud or the whole shop will hear!’
“If anyone in it hadn’t heard what I said but heard her say that, they must have wondered what juicy thing they’d just missed! Anyway, because she’d told me to talk more quietly, I whispered the next thing I said in an angry loud whisper, but so she’d hear it, I put my face close to hers.
“She didn’t like that! We argued for a bit longer, and then she told me I was being no help whatsoever so I should just go away. So I did.
“A few days later, I overheard her complaining about what I’d said to some other people in the family; but she didn’t tell them everything that happened; she just told them I’d said she looked fat, and that she was upset because I’d put my face right up close to hers to say it. She made it sound as if what had happened was that I’d just walked up to her suddenly out of the blue, shoved my face in hers and bawled, ‘Mummy, You’re fat!’
“I was annoyed about that. Really, when I’d put my face up close to hers, it was just like a sarcastic flippant gesture, exaggerating what she’d told me to do, like once when me and my sisters were kids and we were having a play-fight in the car on the way to somewhere, and she said, ‘Keep your hands to yourselves!’ So we stopped play-fighting, but then she offered us a sandwich each. I said I’d like one, but because she’d told me to keep my hands to myself, when she held it out, I leaned my head forward with my mouth open for her to put it in that. She wasn’t amused! She asked me why I’d done it and I said, ‘You told me to keep my hands to myself!’
“Anyway, a book I was reading said that when a woman asks if she looks fat, she’s not really asking for an honest opinion; chances are she’ll just want reassurance that she looks attractive, or at least not ugly. It said the best way to answer a question like that is to say something like, ‘Well, you might not look like one of those fashion models in magazines, but they’re airbrushed to make them look better than they really are anyway; to me, you look nice! I like you all the better for looking natural.’
“Mind you, there might be women who Do actually want an honest opinion, because they want to buy the thing that makes them look their best. Maybe you could say something like, ‘I think there are other dresses that would look more flattering on you’, … that’s if they haven’t already bought it when they ask you!”
One friend said, “That sounds a bit like something I heard, about how when most people ask how you are, they’re not really all that interested in knowing; they might be asking because they think it’s polite, or to start a conversation, or because they assume you’ll say you’re well and they’ll be happier for hearing that, or they’re trying to be friendly, or whatever. I’ve heard people say that most people don’t answer honestly when they get asked that question, because they assume the person asking doesn’t really want to know, or they don’t want to tell them or something. And if you do say you’re not feeling that good, if someone asked the question when they weren’t that interested in knowing the answer, they’d probably think it would look heartless if they said, ‘That’s a shame. Bye.’ So they’ll probably think they have to ask why you’re not feeling good out of politeness, or they might ask out of a spur-of-the-moment curiosity, but then decide they’d rather not know when you start telling them.”
One friend said with a smile, “Imagine if someone asked you how you are and you said something like, “I’m not feeling too good; I’m really stressed out at the moment because I’ve got more work than I think I can handle, and I bruised my arm last week and it still hurts when I touch it; and I’ve got painful blisters on my feet from where I went for a walk yesterday in new boots; and my parents keep arguing and it makes me feel depressed, and I got a bad haircut from the hairdresser and it annoys me every time I look at it, and I’ve just been diagnosed with asthma by the doctor.’
“They might go away wishing they’d never asked, and say to people, ‘Never ask her how she is; she’ll tell you all her problems and you won’t get away for the next five minutes!’ That’ll prove they didn’t really want to know the answer when they asked the question.”
One friend said with a smile, “If you didn’t want to say you were fine when you weren’t or tell them what was wrong, maybe you could try confusing them instead for fun. Like when they ask how you are, you could say, ‘I’m feeling a bit purple today; well actually, not purple as such; more a mixture of blue, grey, pink, orange, green and purple.’ It would be funny to see their reaction!”
Another friend smiled and said, “Yeah, but instead of going away and telling other people not to ask you how you are, they’d be telling them you were mad!”
The friends giggled, and one said, “That reminds me of a story someone I know told once: She said a cleaner in the place where she used to work was reading the Bible before she came to work one day as she always did. She was reading something from one of the psalms in the Old Testament. I don’t know who it was really referring to, but it says God will cover you with his feathers to protect you from harm. She interpreted that as a promise for everyone who believes in him.
“She was on the way to work when some muggers stopped her and demanded she hand over her bag, grabbing hold of it. She said, ‘You can’t do this to me! I’m covered with feathers!’
“They ran away, shouting to each other, ‘She’s mad!’
“She came into work excitedly telling everyone.”
The friends laughed.
Becky felt calmer for hearing the things her friends said.
Then one said, “Come on, let’s go for a pizza.”
They went out and had a nice afternoon. Her friends managed to cheer Becky up, and soon she was feeling much better.
When she came back to university after the Christmas holidays, Becky found that everyone was being nice to her again, as if they’d all put what happened behind them. Soon she was quite happy there again, though she never shared any confidences with her personal tutor from that time onwards. Relations between them did improve though, and soon he was praising her work to her mum and other tutors.