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Journalist, Author, Columnist. My Twitter handle: @seemagoswami

Sunday, August 29, 2010

The ugly truth

When it comes to romance, beautiful people tend to gravitate towards others of their kind

Would you sign up for a dating site that announced proudly that it was meant for the “aesthetically challenged”? Which was called TheUglyBugBall.co.uk and abbreviated to the very appropriate-sounding acronym TUBB? And which declared proudly on its home page, “If you are one of the millions of people who don’t like what they see in the mirror, then this is the place for you!”

Well, when they put it as charmingly as that, who could possibly resist?

And certainly, there seem to be lot of people who have posted their pictures – some frankly ugly, some less so – on the site but for the life of me I couldn’t figure out if it was for real or just one big wind-up.

Take these sample quotes from the home page: “instead of fishing in a small pool of prettiness and getting nowhere, dive into an ocean of uglies and have more choice”; “a recent TUBB survey also proved that they (ugly people) try harder in bed”; or even “once with an ugly partner it is unlikely that anyone will try and take them from you meaning you can let yourself go completely once you are together”.

I mean, this has to be someone taking the mickey out of those with self-esteem issues? Surely, all these people who sign up looking for love, romance (or a particular favourite:`anything’) on this site cannot be serious?

But when you think about it, the site is only saying upfront what the rest of us don’t have the courage to acknowledge (except maybe in the privacy of our own hearts and minds). The truth is that pretty people like to date other pretty people. Good-looking folk tend to marry other good-looking folk. Beauty gravitates towards beauty.

Look around you. The odds are that you will find that the couples around you are well-matched in terms of attractiveness. The beautiful women tend to be paired with handsome men. The merely pretty have to make do with those who could be described as attractive. And those who aren’t at all physically appealing end up with other aesthetically challenged people.

Rare is the ugly man who gets a very beautiful woman – unless, of course, his bank balance is very, very attractive indeed. And on the whole, ugly women don’t score with handsome men no matter how rich these women may be.

By now, of course, most of you are probably fuming at the suggestion that all our romantic choices are based on something as frivolous as appearances. What about true love? What about the possibility of falling for someone because of who they are, not for how they look? Surely not all of us are as shallow as that?

Of course not. But scientific studies have shown that even small babies – who really should not know any better – are pre-disposed to respond favourably to pictures of people who are conventionally good-looking as opposed to those who are not. So, let’s accept that most of us are more responsive to pretty faces. Once you accept that, then it is just a question of finding your own level of prettiness/ugliness and operating within that comfort zone.

And however much we may protest, there is no denying that we are conditioned to seeing good-looking people paired with other equally good-looking folk. In fact, such is the incongruity of seeing pretty people paired with ugly ones (on the rare occasions that we do) that we cannot refrain from commenting on it.

“What does she see in him?” “Surely he can do better?” We’ve all said this kind of stuff (even if it’s only to our own horrible selves) at some point or the other when confronted with an incongruous pairing of beauty and ugliness. We are inclined to be suspicious of such pairings, which seem to go against the natural order of things. However we try and dress it up, this discomfort is a sure indication that we take the beauty-goes-for-beauty principle as a fact of life.

One reason why people were so suspicious of the Clinton marriage was because they couldn’t conceive how a man with so much natural charisma as Bill, who could have had any woman he wanted (and frequently did) could have chosen to marry the plain, bespectacled Hillary. Could it be love? Nah. No chance. It must some diabolical political imperative that kept them together.

I think the Prince Charles-Camilla love story arouses so much antipathy for the same reason. If Charles had left Diana for another fragrant English rose, the British public and media would probably not have reacted with such visceral rage. But what nobody could fathom was how he could leave the lovely People’s Princess for a frumpy, dumpy, middle-aged woman with no pretensions to beauty or glamour.

And so it goes. We marvel at the fact that the dashing Pierce Brosnan of James Bond fame is married to a woman who is double his size. We wonder why Kajol fell for the saturnine Ajay Devgan. We find Aamir Khan’s taste in women rather quirky because he doesn’t go for the usual model types.

Let’s face it. We are used to seeing beauty paired with beauty. To seeing pretty people getting off with other pretty people. To seeing couples at the same general level of attractiveness. Because, on the whole, this is how the world works.

Which is why maybe, just maybe, a dating site for the ‘uglies’ is not such a bad idea.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Hang up now!
Is our addiction to mobile phones getting out of hand?

Last night I went out to dinner with some friends. There we were, eating, drinking, chatting and generally having a good time. Except for one of us – who shall remain unnamed out of sheer generosity of spirit – who spent all his time checking his mobile phone for messages and then typing out long replies, completely ignoring the real-life person sitting opposite who was trying to conduct a conversation.

After about an hour of this, I couldn’t resist any longer. When he next began tapping out a message even as another friend was in the middle of telling an interesting story, I piped up indignantly, “I’m sorry, but clearly the people you’re messaging are more interesting than all of us right here. Perhaps you should be having dinner with them instead?”

To his credit, the gentleman was suitably abashed at being called out on his bad behaviour. He turned a deep red, muttered unconvincingly about how it was his daughter on the phone. He then put his mobile away ostentatiously, promising that he would not check it again in the course of the evening. And yet, when he thought that nobody was looking, I caught him checking out the display surreptitiously, to
make sure that he hadn’t missed on any calls or smses.

My irritation – and that of my friends – notwithstanding, in the cold light of day I have to admit that none of us can afford to be overly judgemental about these things. And I am the first to confess that I am as much sinned against as sinning. In fact, it was only a week ago that an old friend, with whom I was catching up over lunch, accused me of being a Crackberry addict because I kept checking on the delivery of some urgent emails I had sent out.

So, I guess I shouldn’t be holding forth about the trespasses of others. But you know what, I can’t resist.

Honestly, what is it about mobile phones and us? Why are we always looking at them anxiously, worried that we may have missed some important call during the nanosecond when we weren’t looking? Why do we seem unable to ever disconnect? Why can we never switch off completely? Why have we developed such a symbiotic relationship with
our phones that we appear unable to exist without them? Why are we so addicted to our mobiles that we suffer withdrawal symptoms on the rare occasions we are parted from them?

I still remember the feeling of utter helplessness that engulfed me when I lost my mobile while on holiday a year or so ago. It felt as if I had been disconnected from life itself. Nobody knew how to get in touch with me. Having lost my phone book, I didn’t know how to call anyone. After casting about desperately, I was reduced to emailing people to send me their phone numbers. And all the time, I was in
agony, fretting about all the important calls that I was undoubtedly missing, convinced that there must be some work or family emergency just when I had been rendered incommunicado.

So, don’t get me wrong. Yes, I understand just how important mobile phones are to all of us. You can call the airport from the car to check on the status of your flight. You can keep tabs on your kids no matter where they are. In a medical emergency or in case of anaccident, you don’t have to go around looking for a phone booth to summon help. Your elderly parents can get touch with you at all times.
And after a late night out as you take a taxi home, it is a reassuring feeling to have a mobile phone in your purse so that you can call a friend if anything untoward happens.

I know all this, and yet the tyranny of telephones is beginning to get me a bit miffed. Is it really necessary to take calls when you are in a business meeting? Do you have to have loud conversations on your mobile in a restaurant where everyone else is trying to have a quiet meal? Must the loud ring of your phone disturb everyone else in cinemas, at the theatre, or even during a book reading? Can you not
switch your phone off even when you are visiting a sick friend in hospital?

Surely, life went on even before the mobile phone was invented? We managed to catch flights on time, make restaurant reservations, keep in touch with friends and family, even check our email, long before the mobile became an essential tool of modern life.

So why do people act as if they can’t figure out how we ever coped in its absence? After all, it was only a decade ago that we managed perfectly well without it. Could we really have become so dependent in this short space of time?

I guess the short answer to that is yes. But sometimes it makes sense to do without something you feel is essential to your life – if only to prove to yourself that you can. So maybe it is time to ditch the mobile phone – one hour at a time.

I’m sorry, but I’m not ready to go cold turkey just yet. And I’m guessing that nor are you.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Raindrops keep falling...

In India we love the rain about as much as the British detest it

I was in London a couple of weeks ago and all the talk – rather predictably, I guess, given the British predilection for discussing the weather – was about how the rains were going to make a complete wash-out of September. The summer was effectively over, according to the weather forecasters, from now on it was going to be rain all the way.

The sadness and disappointment was almost palpable, as everyone agreed glumly that it was time to put away those sundresses and shorts and bring out the brollies and boots (not that you can ever quite put them away in England, which is famous for showing you all four seasons in the course of a single day). The days of balmy sunshine were over; from now on it was going to be wet, wet, wet.

As I nodded along sympathetically at my English friends, I couldn’t help marvelling at the very different attitude we in India have to the rain. We long for it during the long summer months when temperatures climb into the stratosphere. We count the days down to the arrival of the monsoon on our shores. We get rather stroppy if it doesn’t arrive on time. We measure every inch of rain to make sure that we have got our entire annual quota. We keep a jealous eye out for other cities, which may have got a little more of the downpour. And a bad monsoon can make us very bad-tempered indeed (not least because of its effect on our economy).

Oh yes, we love the rain – about as much as the Brits abhor it. You could well say that this is because those poor souls have too much of good thing, with it drizzling down every single day (at least, it certainly feels that way). And because we have to suffer through a long, hot, dusty summer, we long for the relief that the rains bring with them.

In a sense, perhaps, for our new-fangled urban ways, we are still an agricultural people at heart. And the sight of rain is an indication that we will have a good harvest this year. Remember the rain song in Lagaan, as the whole village turns out to celebrate the advent of the first monsoon showers in the village?

In India, our attitude to the rain is much like that of a small child looking out eagerly for a much-awaited treat – and then jumping with joy when it finally arrives. No matter how old you are, if you are an Indian, there is a certain sense of joy and abandon attached to the rains.

As a kid I remember stripping down to my chemise and underwear and heading straight up the terrace when the first rainstorm hit. All the children of the neighbourhood would congregate here, yelling and screaming with excitement, as they were soaked to the skin in the downpour. And once enough rain had accumulated in puddles, we would make little paper boats and sail them, having impromptu competitions to see which one of them lasted the longest in the water.

Even now that I am all grown up, there is still something irresistible about the idea of going for a walk in the rain, quite unprotected by an umbrella or a raincoat. Nothing quite matches the feel of rain water as it drops down in tiny droplets on your head or streams down your face or even gathers around your shoes making them squelch so satisfactorily.

This probably explains why rains are such a staple of romance in India – both in real life and in the movies. Young lovers walk along the beach in Juhu as it pelts down; honeymooners book themselves a cottage in Goa during the monsoons; and Hindi film heroines all the way from Mumtaz to Sridevi to Katrina obligingly slip into see-through chiffon saris before dancing in the rain with their co-stars.

Of course, it’s not all about young love alone. Rains have a special significance for families as well. Some of them drive down to the seaside or by a lake to watch the rain come down. Others hunker down to play indoor games like antakshari or dumb charades. Some spend time listening to the many songs that celebrate the season. And then there are those who make the most of rainy days by snuggling down in bed with a good book and a piping hot cup of tea (much as the English would make the most of sunny days by basking in the garden, with a glass of gin and tonic or a tumbler of Pimms within reach).

Needless to say, a whole school of cuisine has been built around the monsoons. In the north, the first sign of showers has the matriarch of the house setting on a pan of oil to deep-fry some pakoras. In Bengal, the rain is the signal to cook some khichuri with lots of ghee floating on top. In Gujarat, it’s time for some daal vada with chillies and salted onions for added oomph. And in Maharashtra, they bring on the gavati chaha (grass tea) and sabudana vadas.

As for me, the rains are just the perfect excuse to take a day off, sit well back on the balcony, and simply watch the sky pour down. The cup of tea is strictly optional though I wouldn’t say no to pakoras if anyone asked me nicely.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Go on, live a little

It’s time we let go of our fears and enjoyed what life has to offer

Have you noticed how all of us seem to live in fear all the time these days? We are scared of getting swine flu; we are frightened of getting on to airplanes in case they fall out of the sky; we are terrified of becoming old and decrepit.

We are scared of getting fat, getting wrinkles, or getting cellulite. We are terrified of failing at our jobs, at our relationships, or at our diets. We are frightened to death of being judged by those around us and found wanting. And we are petrified of failing to meet our own self-imposed standards of perfection.

Hell, it’s got so bad that we live in fear of everything you can think of: all the way from carbon emissions and UV ray exposure to carbohydrates and full-fat cheese.

Well, you know what? We don’t need to live like this. In fact, if we keep the big picture in mind, none of this should matter very much – and very little should matter at all.

It shouldn’t matter if our homes are not in the prescribed five shades of beige. Or that our clothes would never pass the scrutiny of the fashion police. Or even that we are at least five kilos above our ideal weight.

It shouldn’t matter if your neighbours have a nicer car, a bigger house, or even better-behaved children. Or that they go off on vacation twice a year to various luxury hot-spots while you can barely manage a trip to Jaipur. Or even that they serve vintage champagne when they entertain while you can only afford rum punch.

Even if all or any of the above is true, you don’t have to live in fear of being judged. You don’t need to be terrified of being perceived as inadequate. And you certainly shouldn’t be scared that you can never measure up.

It’s more important to enjoy what life has to offer than to torment yourself with what it has withheld from you. It’s much more empowering to live for the moment than live in fear of what the future may bring.

And it’s certainly much more fun to indulge yourself than suffer a life of eternal self-deprivation.

Okay, so it’s not a prescription for a perfect life. But it will certainly be a happier one if you just learn to let go and live a little.

In case you’re game, here are some suggestions that might come in useful.

• Embrace your ordinariness instead of always hankering for being regarded as something special. It doesn’t matter if your drawing room sofa is a bit tatty and the carpet a little worse for wear. It doesn’t matter if you can’t afford to serve a three-course sit-down meal. You can still have your friends over for an earthy biryani washed down with Diet Coke (and some Baskin Robbins ice-cream to follow).
• Learn to accept failure just as you celebrate success. One is an inextricable part of the other and neither can exist in isolation. And there is a real danger that a fear of failure will prevent you from ever risking success.
• Don’t let healthy living become a fetish. It’s a good idea to watch the calories and put in some exercise to stay fit, but don’t let your fitness regimen rule your life. Don’t spend all your free time on the treadmill. And don’t become one of those bores who claims to have a wheat/dairy/gluten allergy and sticks to eating nuts at the office party.
• Keep a sense of perspective. Don’t slip on your sneakers first thing in the morning and head out for a run. Just for once, linger in bed for a little bit, snuggle up to your spouse or your kids, have a leisurely breakfast. It’s probably better for your heart than that all-bran cereal or all that aerobic exercise.
• Slow down and savour the moment. That first sip of your cappuccino; the smell of freshly-cut glass on the lawn; the smile on your mother’s face when you remember her birthday; your daughter’s delight at her first pair of high heels. It’s the small things that make the biggest difference.
• It doesn’t hurt to get down and dirty once in a while. Tuck into those golguppas and papdi chaat at the neighbourhood market. Eat some aloo parathas from the dhaba down the road. Tuck into some jalebis from that roadside vendor. Such occasional – and otherwise forbidden – treats are the best way to build up immunity to all those super-bugs going around.
• Give yourself permission to be less that perfect. There is a reason Demi Moore and Madonna look the way they do, even into their 40s and 50s. They invest a small fortune in cosmetic surgery, they spend hours every day in the gym, and have personal trainers and live-in chefs to keep them toned and trim. You can’t achieve that look of honed perfection unless you’re some sort of genetic freak. So, don’t kill yourself trying.
• And yes, go ahead and order dessert the next time you’re out for dinner. You know you want to.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Running in heels

Is it too much to ask for uniformity when it comes to uniforms?

Most people find this a bit strange, but I’ve always had a particular fondness for uniforms. There is something very liberating, it seems to me, in never having to worry about what you should wear every morning. No agonising about putting together an ensemble that works; no anxiety about repeating an outfit too often; and no worries about getting accessories to match. You wake up in the morning knowing exactly what you are going to wear that day, right down to your shoes and belt.

What’s not to like? You don’t have to think about your wardrobe choices so your mind is freed up to concentrate on things that matter. There is no heartburn because other people around you are dressed so much better. There is no danger of being jealous of their designer togs or superior taste. And there is no question of updating your look every season to stay on the right side of the fashion police.

Even though as school-kids we’ve all done our best to subvert the prevalent dress code – hitching up our skirts, loosening ties, leaving buttons undone, and worse – I now tend to look back on my uniform-wearing days with nostalgia. In fact, I’m even a tad jealous of those who get to wear uniforms on a daily basis at work, which takes out all the stress of getting ready every morning.

Of course, in some curious way, we all devolve uniforms of our own in the course of our professional lives. In fact, such is the stereotyping that results that sometimes you can tell what a person does simply by seeing how he or she dresses.

Handloom sari, kohlapuri chappals, big red bindi and oversized jhola mark the NGO types. Khadi kurta-pyjama, with or without waistcoat, denotes the Indian politician. Tight white trousers, printed chiffon top, oversized sunglasses and designer handbag is how you can tell the ladies who lunch. Black or navy suit, white shirt with monochrome tie is the accepted dress code in the financial sector.

And so it goes. In one way or another, we all have a uniform we consciously or unconsciously adopt in our working lives. But some of us are lucky enough to have one imposed upon us, which takes away all the angst of working it out for ourselves.

In that sense, uniforms are the great equalisers of the work place. And even when they do denote rank or mark out hierarchies, they do so in an entirely transparent, almost democratic way. Nobody can show off how much money or style they have because everybody has to dress in exactly the same way. In a uniform, we are all equal.

Or so, I thought anyway, until my illusions were rudely ripped away on a visit to Delhi’s swanky new airport terminal, T3, widely touted as the largest of its kind in India (or is it Asia? Sorry, I never can keep up with all the hyperbole). But I can confirm that it is certainly very large – in fact, it is very, very large indeed. So much so that you could easily have to walk a couple of kilometres from the check-in counters to your boarding gate.

But while that is punishing enough, remember that while you will only make this trek once, the airline ground staff will make this journey several times over in the course of a single shift. But while the men will stride swiftly in comfortable, flat, rubber-soled shoes, the women will have to do this in heels.

Yes, heels are mandatory for all women who work as ground staff on airlines. So, they have no choice but to mince along on their heels, trying hard not to wince as their knees and backs groan under the pressure, even as their male counterparts whiz past them in their sensible shoes.

To add insult to incipient injury (I wonder whether the airlines will step up and pay their medical bills when their backs and knees give up on them) the women also have to suffer the rigours of an Indian summer in tights, while the men go around in loose trousers. And in the winter, when the temperatures drop, they have to freeze in their skirts while the men are nice and snug in their pants.

Hardly uniform, it is? In fact, it is a tad inhuman, if you ask me.

Honestly, is it too much to ask that when it comes to uniforms there should be some uniformity? After all, our women police officers get to wear the same uniform as their male colleagues. Nobody asks them to slip on the high heels just because they are women. So, why ask female airline ground staff to do so? They have to run around just as much as the men. So why force them to do it in heels? Where is the justice in that?

Ginger Rogers famously boasted that she did whatever Fred Astaire could do – only she did it in high heels. And more power to the likes of her. But surely we have come far enough that women don’t need to prove their worth by accomplishing the same tasks as men – only in more difficult conditions?

Which is why I think it is time we asked for a level playing field – and a nice pair of flat-soled shoes in which we can briskly stride across it.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Battle of the sexes

We all know what women hate about men – but what do men hate about women?

(This one is on popular demand. The men are clamouring for gender neutrality after my column on what women want - so here's an old piece I did in Brunch about what not to do if you want to please your man!)

We are all very familiar with the list by now: of all the things that women hate about men. Not just about the men in their lives, but about men in general as well. And strangely enough, this list remains much the same, even if the women themselves vary vastly. It doesn't really matter if you're talking to a teenager in London, a mother of two in Mumbai, or an octogenarian in Ohio, their complaints about men are startlingly similar.

Top of the list, of course, are all those everyday irritants that make men impossible to live with. They leave the toilet seat up; they never pick up their clothes from where they left them (in a pile on the floor, if you must know); they leave sodden towels lying around; they never close any cupboard that they have opened; and they are incapable
of turning the lights out.

And that's just the small stuff. Then come the biggies, the kind that can wreck relationships if you don't watch out. They don't listen to anything; they are incapable of having a serious conversation; they never want to discuss their feelings; they don't understand the feelings of the women in their lives. I could go on, but I'm guessing
that you've got the general drift.

But surely, just as there are some (well, several actually) things that women loath about men there must be stuff that men hate about women as well? I would certainly think so. But because men, on the whole, are such uncommunicative creatures, we never really get to know their pet peeves about the opposite sex.

So, in the interest of promoting greater understanding between the sexes, I decided to conduct some strictly unscientific research among the men of my acquaintance to find out what they hate about women.

Here are my findings, in no particular order of importance:

• Women talk too much. And they talk all the time. Just when you've settled down to watch television they will start nattering about something about the other and insist that you turn the volume down to listen to them. They will burst in on you in the bath to discuss some pressing matter that can't possibly wait. They will nudge you awake in
the middle to the night to share what is bothering them.

• Even if you put aside whatever you are doing and listen to them, they insist that you are not really paying attention (and it doesn't help if you can repeat everything they have said back to them). You are just pretending to listen, they complain, your mind is somewhere else (on the game being telecast live, perhaps?). Really, there is no pleasing some people.

• If you manage to convince them that you have been paying close attention (perhaps by turning off the television?) they find something new to complain about. Now it's not that you don't listen. Now it's about how you don't understand. And there is no way to convince them that maybe, just maybe, you do.

• They constantly seek approval. If they are getting dressed, it's "Do I look fat in this?" or that old favourite "Does my bum look big in this?". And there's no right answer to questions such as these. If you say no, then you are implying that there are some outfits in which they do look fat and big-bottomed. And if you say yes…oh my God, all hell will break loose. There will be sulks, they will be tantrums, and you will never be allowed to forget what you said.

• This seeking of approval thing doesn't end there though. They want your opinion on everything: what jobs they should take/quit; where to send the kids to school; what birthday present to buy your mum; whether to invest in shares or real estate. Except that it soon becomes clear that they don't really want your opinion at all. They
have their own opinion on such matters and your role is simply to agree with them.

• They nag all the time and about everything. Why haven't you shut the cupboard door? Why are your clothes on the floor? Why don't you use a coaster under your coffee mug? Why haven't you opened that fixed deposit yet? Why can't you help with the children's homework? Why do you think that my bum looks big in this? Why don't you love me anymore? Why aren't you listening to me? Why, why, why?

• And then, when nothing else works, they cry. For all this talk about equality of the sexes, women are not above getting the waterworks going if it helps them get their way. And as we all know, men are like putty in the hands of a weeping woman.

• But what men hate most about women is that they simply can't win with them. Come over all chivalrous and they accuse you of treating them as the weaker sex. Be all tough and macho and you are told off for being a chauvinist pig. Stay strong and silent and they say that you're not in touch with your feelings. Be all weepy and sentimental
and they despise you for your weakness. Honestly, it's enough to make a grown man cry.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

What women want

It really doesn’t take much to make them happy – you just have to know what does

This column is dedicated to all those men who keep complaining that they have no idea when women want. To those men who despair of ever making their wives/girlfriends happy. To whom the mind of a woman is a closed box with No Access written in large red letters on the side. And most of all, to those who get it wrong despite trying their very best to please.

Take it from me, it doesn’t take much to make a woman happy. And contrary to all that guff you read in women’s magazines, it’s not all about oversized bouquets and boxes of expensive chocolate (though sometimes these may be very welcome). A woman’s happiness is tied up in a set of intangibles that vary through every stage in her life. And to know what these are, you need to pay pretty close attention to her.

But if that seems like a huge ask, here are a few pointers to nudge you in the right direction.

• What is the best compliment you can pay your woman when you are out with her? Telling her that she looks like a million bucks? Assuring her that her bum looks terrific in those pair of jeans? Well, yeah okay, that may be one way to go. But you know what they say: talk is cheap. If you really want your woman to feel like a million bucks, stop shooting sidelong glances at the other women who pass by through your peripheral vision. Stop checking out the derrierre of the lady riding the escalator ahead of you. Don’t open doors with a flourish for the babe in a tight mini-skirt. In fact, don’t even clock her existence. Have eyes only for your woman; and see her blossom and shine as she glows with the confidence of someone who knows that she is loved and desired.

• When the woman in your life is telling you about the problems in her life – at the office, with her parents, with the maid – all she wants you to do is listen and act like you care. She doesn’t want to be told that she is “making a mountain out of a molehill”. She has no desire to be asked to “just calm down and relax”. And she certainly doesn’t want you to go into problem-solving mode and tell her what exactly she is doing wrong and how she can resolve the situation. All she wants is that you pay close attention – i.e. switch off the television, get off Twitter, shut the newspaper and put down the volume on the I-pod – acknowledge that she has a genuine problem on her hands, and sympathise with the difficult situation she finds herself in. That’s ALL you need to do. So long as she feels that she is being listened to – rather than just heard – she will feel validated.

• Okay, so you are not the greatest of shoppers, and choosing a birthday/anniversary present for your woman is probably your idea of hell. But no matter how stressful gift-shopping may be, on no account must you delegate this task to your secretary/personal assistant (mostly because the woman in your life will always find out – and then all hell will break loose). This is one job you have to do yourself. If you are not confident about your taste, take the birthday girl along to choose something. But on no account must you buy her anything that you could end up enjoying yourself (so no flat-screen TVs, no Jacuzzi for the bathroom, or even expensive lingerie). The gift must be personal, something so luxurious that she would feel guilty about buying it for herself, and frivolous enough to suggest that you still see her as a fun person rather than a staid mother of two. Most importantly, you must also arrange that she can return the gift if she doesn’t like it and choose something else in its stead. And if she does – don’t look sulky. Just smile and say that this is what you had meant to buy her in the first place – before the salesgirl steered you in the wrong direction.

• When it comes down to it, remember that it is the little things that matter. Greet her with a kiss rather than a demand for a large drink when you arrive home at the end of a long day. The great toilet seat battle has already been waged and lost, but don’t rub salt in her wounds by leaving wet towels/clothes on her pristine new bed linen. Send her a text message in the middle of the day to tell her that you are thinking of her. Take the kids off her hands for a couple of hours on Saturday so that she can enjoy a manicure without them wrecking havoc around her. Be nice to her parents. Rub her feet as she lies in bed, exhausted after looking after a fractious one-year-old. Surprise her occasionally – whether it is with breakfast in bed, a single red rose, a CD that reminds you of the time you went dancing in Goa, or a weekend away without the kids. But most of all, just show her that her happiness matters to you. At the end of the day, that’s all you need to do to keep her happy.

See, I did tell you, it really doesn’t take much.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Share and share alike

We provide a plethora of information about ourselves on social media sites – but does anyone really care?

Was there ever a time when we knew so much about so many people at any given time – and cared so little? And by people I don’t just mean friends and family or even chance acquaintances who tag you on Facebook, but complete strangers whom we would not recognise if we bumped into them on the street outside. And yet we are privy to their most personal details, their most intimate moments, their deepest thoughts, their most heart-felt emotions. We may not know what they look like, we may not even know their real names, but their private passions and secret demons are laid bare for the scrutiny of all those who care to look (or read).

In some sense, the anonymity provided by the Internet has a certain liberating effect on all of us. If we don’t have to blog under our real names, if we don’t need to post pictures of our own faces, then we need not be inhibited by fears of embarrassment or humiliation. So long as nobody knows who we really are, we can expose our worst selves to the world without worrying about the consequences.

And that probably accounts for the kind of vitriol you seen spewed on the Net every day. People have no compunction about calling you names, prying into your private life, making pornographic propositions, and worse. And yet, I’m pretty convinced that if I met any of these angry, four-letter-word spewing folk in real life, they would be downright charming and lovely to my face (whatever they may think about me in the hidden recesses of their mind). But there is something about the facelessness of Net encounters that brings out the worst in people: which encourages them to explore the dark sides of their personalities; gives them license to indulge in behaviour they would not dream of in the real world.

But I digress. And to tell you the truth, by now the abuse leaves me cold, some of the name-calling is downright amusing and the pornographic elements are a bit of a yawn. What really intrigues me about social media on the Net is the kind of over-sharing of personal information that has become so commonplace that we scarcely notice it any longer.

Let’s not even venture into the downright freaky territory where a woman tweets her relief about having a miscarriage while in a board meeting at work – because now she needn’t worry about getting an abortion. Or even the surreal world in which a mother tweeted about her two-year old son’s accident – he was discovered lying at the bottom of the pool in their backyard – while he was still being revived. She then updated her page five hours later when he had been pronounced dead.

Frankly, it beggars belief that anyone could even be thinking of updating their social network pages at such a time. But clearly, we have become so hard-wired about sharing every aspect of our lives on these platforms, that nothing appears to be sacred – hell, even private – any longer.

Of course, there is an element of showing-off in the postings on these public platforms. People update their Blackberry profiles to add the name of whatever exotic location they find themselves in. Facebook is littered with photographs of other people’s glamorous vacations, dinner parties, childrens’ birthdays and the like so that the rest of us can exclaim over their picture-perfect lives (and wonder why we can’t afford to take off for a couple of weeks to the French countryside). And then, there is Twitter, where you can update everyone about everything from your last meal in a three-star Michelin restaurant to your journey back on Jet Airways First Class (complete with Twitpic of your private cabin).

But mostly it’s just mundane stuff that nobody in their right minds would give a toss about. Does anybody really care what you ate for breakfast; what your boss said to you at work; that your husband forgot your birthday yet again; that your cat has a fever; or that you are craving vanilla ice-cream as you type this.

Even your good friends would be hard-put to evince interest in this stuff, let alone relative strangers whom you hook up with on social networking sites. And yet this stream of consciousness style outpouring of personal – and sometimes very private – information continues to spew forth.

It’s almost as if people can’t help themselves. If something – anything – happens to them, it doesn’t seem real unless it has been shared with their virtual community. Rowing with your girlfriend? Tell her what a witch (or something that sounds awfully like that) she is on Twitter so that all your friends can weigh in on your side. The husband didn’t get you a nice enough present on Valentine’s Day? Shame him in front of the whole world. Bought a new pair of Manolo Blahniks? Post a picture so that your girlfriends can go green with envy.

But as I look at all these updates, the many tweets and posts, the photographs without end, I wonder who they are really meant for. Do any of us really care about the lives of those around us? Or are we so busy showing off about our own that we couldn’t care less about theirs?