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

Saturday, November 29, 2014

The social contract

Is it better to embarrass people in the moment or let them be mortified later on?

Last night I was at a very fancy sit-down dinner hosted by some extremely fancy people. Ours was a round table of 12 and seated directly across me was an elegant woman of a certain age, positively gleaming with discreet jewellery. Her make up was perfect, her manners were divine, and her conversation sparkling. But I couldn’t really focus on any of this. My attention was riveted on her mouth, which revealed a substantial piece of spinach stuck between her teeth every time she spoke.

It was too large for anyone to miss, and not small enough to ignore in the hope that it would dislodge on its own. And yet everyone on the table, including me, acted as if it wasn’t there. To be perfectly honest, I did wrestle with the issue in my mind: should I draw her attention to it and risk embarrassing her in front of everyone? Or should I just ignore it and let her discover it when she was back home, in front of the bathroom mirror, getting ready to brush her teeth? Gosh, how mortified she would be to discover that she had gone through the whole evening flashing a spinach-enhanced smile at all and sundry! What was better: embarrassing her now or allowing her to feel mortified later?

I must confess that this internal dialogue quite put me off my dinner. The risotto turned to ashes in my mouth and even the finest Burgundy didn’t make the slightest impact on my palate. I could have been drinking dishwater liquid for all the pleasure I got out of it.

So, how do you think it ended? Yes, you’re quite right. I funked it. I pretended to be oblivious to the spectacle of spinach teeth, following the example of everyone else. But later that night, I was consumed with regret. I’ll tell you why.

A few years, when I worked for a Calcutta-based newspaper group, our office was in old-style office off Parliament Street, where there was a communal ladies loo in the corridor leading to the balcony. One day, as I emerged from the loo, animatedly talking on my cell phone, I heard a female voice calling after me. I turned around a little irritably, wondering why she was interrupting my conversation. “I’m sorry ma’am,” she said, “But your skirt…”

I turned around and blushed: the hem of my crinkled Anokhi skirt had gotten bunched up in my underwear. And if I had walked into my office like that, I would have had a ‘Rachel moment’ (for those freaks who never got into Friends, I am talking of the time Rachel is a bridesmaid at her ex-boyfriend’s wedding and walks down the aisle with her poufy pink skirt bunched up in the underwear at the back, with her ass hanging all the way out) of my own. And then, there would have been no recourse except to quit the job and move town.

The same thing happened more recently at an airport. This time a kindly airport ground staff person pulled me aside as I exited the loo to tell me that my kurta was wedged in my tights (Yes, now that you say so, I can see a pattern here. Note to self: check self in full length mirror, both back and front, before exiting any loo in the future.) On both occasions, my gratitude to these kind ladies was boundless. Which is why I was consumed with guilt about not having summoned up the courage to tell the truth to Spinach Lady (as she will always be to me from now on).

But sometimes the reason we don’t point out something is because of people’s fragile egos. Recently, I have having coffee with two of my female friends when a celebrity (of sorts) whom we all knew vaguely came by to say hello. He sat down to have a chat. But no real conversation was possible because all three of us were fixated on a piece of food stuck to his luxuriant moustache. None of us had the guts to say anything – though we did give each other significant glances – and the poor sod probably went through the whole day with his facial hair doubling up as a food-catching device.

Speaking for myself, I have one simple rule when I go out. I call it the lift check. This consists of baring my fangs at my bemused husband and raising my eyebrows in an unspoken query: Do I have lipstick on my teeth? Yes, sometimes he messes with me by saying that I do even when I don’t, but still, it is well worth the aggravation to prevent any embarrassment later in the evening.

But what of those who don’t have spouses, friends and families to point such stuff out. They need all our help, don’t they? For my part, I have sworn to myself that the next time I have an elegant spinach-laden lady sitting in front of me at dinner, I will bite the bullet and break the news to her. Maybe a small scribbled note sent across via the waiter will do the trick.

On the whole, however, it is not a good idea to trust in the goodwill of people like me. Instead, try this. The next time you exit the house or the bathroom, make sure the skirt/kurta is where it is supposed to be. And when you’re at the table, use the reflective surfaces of a knife or fork to make sure your teeth/moustache/chin is food-free. You can always thank me later.

1 comment:

Suman kher said...

I love the way you pick up topics and turn them into lovely blog posts! When I come across something like this, like the dupatta of a woman hanging out of an auto, I generally keep quiet. Mostly because I don't want to embarrass people. But looking at your bathroom incidents, I think I am going to consider it a good deed to save someone from social embarrassment.