It is hard navigating through these mid-life years with humour and irreverence, but now I need to negotiate some additional hurdles – namely social etiquette and punctuality. I fear I have been reprogrammed to become quite rude over the past two years.
I am now noticing my inability to be punctual, my struggle to be ‘present’ – and when I do actually show up – my ability to exit an occasion without outstaying my welcome. I blame all of this on Zoom and Teams rather than the menopause. I can no longer read body language. I no longer have any spacial awareness. I no longer have the bandwidth to deal with too many animated conversations.
For nearly two years we we were able to attend meetings and family catch ups without leaving the house. It was not the same, but eventually we got used to it and we got used to blaming any ‘rudeness’ on poor tech. I had it drummed into me from an early age that it is the height of rudeness to be late for anything for it disrespects the person(s) you are meeting. I have wasted many, many hours of my life arriving excessively early for things. My first boss used to lock the meeting room once a meeting had started, opining that, ‘if you cannot arrive on time, you cannot expect to be listened to’. Now I really struggle to factor in the necessary travel and parking time needed to arrive at any appointment punctually. I am now so reliably late for everything that you can set your watch by me. At school the other morning I found myself jabbing my keyboard, wondering why the staff briefing had not popped up on my screen. It took me 10 minutes to remember that we had now agreed to meet in person again, and by the time I had legged it to the meeting room, the brief briefing had long finished being briefed.
When I do eventually get to any meeting, I find it difficult to stay ‘present’, to stay tuned in. When I was meeting on Zoom – either work meeting or family catch up – I probably had a glass of wine/coffee/both positioned strategically off screen and I might have doodled or written notes to stay focused. I could turn my camera off if I needed to answer the front door, take a comfort break or speak to the cat. No-one seemed to be offended by this for we were all navigating in the same direction and we were all in a forgiving mode. Not now. New rules, Now we are back face-to-face, shaking hands (or are we??) and having to cope with everyone wanting to speak at the same time. I find it overwhelming. I find it noisy. There is so much more body language to read – the screen has become full length – and because of this I need a revision session on paralinguistics.
I also seem to have lost the ability to make a discrete and inoffensive exit from a meeting without drawing attention to myself. I have forgotten how to seamlessly leave for the powder room without the gaze of the whole meeting being alerted. On Zoom you just turn off your camera/hit ‘end meeting’ and people rarely notice you have momentarily vanished or logged off – if they do, you just blame a bad connection; back in the real world, I find myself grappling with doors that refuse to open quietly and people who refuse to let me interject long enough to say, ‘it has been lovely, I am so sorry I have to go…’ or leave with a cheery goodbye. I swear meetings in this ‘post-Covid’ world are carrying on much longer; at first I thought it was general excitement about seeing each other again in the flesh, but now I believe it is just terror that we cannot remember how to exit a meeting room adeptly without causing offence.
I spent yesterday attending my aunt’s funeral with my mother and brother. I am blessed with nearly 30 cousins, and an occasion like this is always going to demand a large venue. My mother was probably the oldest guest present and despite a four hour car journey she was happy to hold court when we all met for tea after the service. She was fine; I found it exhausting. I just could not read the situation and I could not match names to bodies – at least Zoom does this for you. I realise that over the last two years I have lost the ability to multitask socially, namely to chat, drink a cuppa and hold a piece of cake simultaneously. Even circulating the room was difficult for me yesterday – if I was not tripping over my own feet (navigating the additional hoops of dress code away from the desktop camera) I was tripping over someone else. Newsflash, I can no longer carry a cup of tea across a crowded room while wearing heels. I have become a clumsy liability (note, this is in addition to any menopause muppetry).
Eventually I could sense that even my indomitable 95 year old mother was tiring and I had one eye on the clock for we had a long drive ahead. I circled the room – graciously I like to believe – sharing goodbyes and thanks. I then drove my car close to the front door so that mum had easy access and I gave her a 15 minute warning about our departure time. When I returned to reap the rewards of my carefully executed plan, mum had managed to persuade my brother to fetch another cuppa, had accepted a fresh plate of cake and had decided that she would then circulate the room to say her own goodbyes. We left 90 minutes later. As we drove away mum sat back in her car seat and said, ‘people just do not know when to say goodbye these days do they? What an exhausting day’.
I think I will just have to reset. We are trying to do this with the students at school who seem to have discarded any respect for punctuality along with their Covid masks. I have some sympathy for they now have to factor in a rummage around their bedroom for school uniform and a walk or commute to school before they can arrive at a classroom on time. When we were working remotely they could hit the alarm button, log in and be oblivious to the weather outside or their need to prepare for a bad hair or skin-outbreak day. Before the funeral yesterday, even mum used Zoom logic to argue the case for not troubling ourselves that there was a large hole in her cardigan: ‘It is on the elbow dear, people are now so used to looking at you from the neck upwards, no-one will notice. Pretend I have just got my camera switched off and then it won’t worry you.’
Perhaps this is the answer – to pretend that people are only regarding you from the neck up; anything below your neck – or indeed, anyone else’s – should not cause offence. This approach will at least allow me to concentrate on what people are saying, without being troubled by any contradiction in their body language. The time saved in trying to read too much body language, might allow me to be more strategic about punctuality. Perhaps I can decide to say goodbye to only one person before I leave a room – I will pretend that this person is spotlighted. If they refuse to allow me to close the conversation I will just walk away/drop to the floor (and leopard crawl away) and email them an apology afterwards – a snail mail equivalent to the chat bar. ‘I had to go – didn’t want to be late for my next meeting and I needed to change my jacket; fascinating talking to you but you just didn’t draw breath long enough for me to say goodbye.’ Love your Crocs btw’.