Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Society, Socialising and Salamanders

Right, I've been asked why a lot of my posts recently have focussed specifically on Axolotls. This is a fair point, and as is my want, I will answer it in a long rambling fashion.

I've been to a lot of conferences recently, and throughout my adult life. I've also joined numerous societies and groups which, invariably at some point, involves being put in a room with a large number of strangers and instructed to 'meet people', or 'mingle'. Normally, if booze is available (particularly if it's free), this happens of it's own accord, as long as people are patient.

At first, groups of people who know each other stick together rigidly, usually in a circle so as to present no weak point to a potential interloper. Some of the looser knots are just people who met earlier that day, or on the way in to the room, or even if some brief eye contact has been made and now all parties feel obligated to mingle. But two or three drinks in, guards will drop, one group member will spot a friend in another group and a connection will be made, potentially causing both groups to merge. Someone will pick up someone else's drink and a laugh will be shared, and friendships will form. Two groups will meet randomly and realise that together they have a chance of taking and maintaining the best seats, or the table with the crisps, or just keeping even more interlopers from joining. But this keeps happening until the gathering is one seething, chaotic mass with no structure or leader.

It's basically the whole of human social development, occurring over a few hours, accelerated by alcohol. I believe this is why alcohol is often described as a 'social lubricant', although nobody yet seems to be picking up my habit of calling alcohol 'conversational KY jelly'. Give it time.

However, if the gathering is big enough, or the organisers want to speed up proceedings further than simply by supplying alcohol alone, there will be some sort of enforced-mingling game (EMG). Enforcing is actually never really used, but it feels forced, so...

A recent conference of Science Communicators included the EMG of swapping tables between courses, although this only works during a sit down meal. This was fun for all concerned, apart from the waiting staff, who got progressively more confused until one ran out screaming obscenities and trying to dispense plates of an admittedly standard chicken based dish to passers by in the street. Still, this provided more fodder for mingling conversation, and how we laughed as the police tackled him to the ground.

My most memorable EMG was several years ago, where I joined a University society doing student radio. I wasn't there long, never going back after this particular social. That's one drawback of these things, you end up talking to people you would never have talked to otherwise, and sometimes these things serve to show you exactly why that is. I would never normally choose to socialise with these ascending-autoposteriosphinctoral* media wannabes, why start now?
The EMG used in this instance was a more simple one; on arrival, each person was given a name badge with one half of a 'famous couple' (corresponding to the gender of the individual) on it. You were instructed to seek out the other half of this famous couple and when you did, you had to, quote, "do what that couple would do". Asking for clarification from the organisers, this (quite obviously, going by their patronising tones) meant 'talk to each other'.

I know many couples. I'm even in one. As far as I'm aware, 'talking to each other' is below the absolute minimum level of interaction required in order to be classified as 'a couple'. At this point, I was getting alarmed as to exactly what sort of 'social event' I'd attended.

I was assigned 'Kenickie' [sic?], which thanks to my younger sisters constant watching of the bastard film growing up, I knew to be the second lead male in 'Grease'. I guessed I had to find 'Rizzo'. The place was already pretty full, and quite dark, so this was hard. But I did notice a lot of other halves of famous couples.

I saw 'Fred Flintstone' talking on a mobile phone (to Barney I assume), 'Mr Darcy' on the dance floor looking like a gyrating tit, 'Cleopatra' (18 stone at least), 'Romeo' (squeezing the arse of a woman who definitely wasn't Juliet), 'Victoria Beckham' (blatant Pikey, so at least she was accurate, HA HA HAAAA). But you get the gist. These were the ones I recognised, most I didn't really get, so couldn't say if they were ironic opposites or not.
But after a while, I got the impression that whoever had organised this game hadn't really put much thought into it. I saw three girls representing the Corrs sisters. A 'coupling' I'd never thought about before apart from pretty much constantly during my teens and probably for the next few days now that I've brought it up again. I also saw a Linda McCartney and a Heather Mills, and even a Loretta Bobbtit.
Then I saw someone which made me realise that whoever had been given the task of making these badges had resented it greatly, that's the only explanation. On the way to the toilet, I passed a woman looking pretty pissed off. I couldn't blame her, on her badge was written 'Maxine Carr'.

Remember the instruction, 'Do what that couple would do'.

Poor girl, not only did she have to wear that badge, she was going to be alone all night. Seriously, any normal bloke arriving at a party and being told 'You've got to wear a badge saying that you're Ian Huntley', he would probably turn and go straight home. And if he doesn't that's worse, he'll be avoided by everyone there, especially by any young woman who'd been labelled Maxine Carr.
You can see why I didn't go back.

Anyway, Axolotls? I'm getting to that.
We had a psychology conference last week (PsyPAG 2009, for those interested, look it up). Good times. During the wine reception for 150 people, there was an EMG I'd not encountered before; People Bingo.
Good idea really, says the guy who is pretty sure the people who organised it will read this. You go round the assembled crowd and get people to sign boxes on a scorecard, in each box is a general description of a person. "Has an unusual Tattoo", "Enjoys Teaching", "Has a child", and so on. You find a person that fits a description, get them to sign it, fill your scorecard, get a prize. Fair enough.

At one point, some asked me if I’d ever broken a bone. There was a box that said ‘someone who has broken a bone’. I said I hadn’t.

She said ‘But it’s the only one I haven’t filled’. The implication being, I think, that if I was any sort of half-way decent human being, I would voluntarily and manually break one of my bones there and then, in order to provide a slight convenience for a total stranger. I thought about it, but still had to walk home, so chose not to. What a selfish prick I am!

Anyway, I kept getting asked to fill in the box “someone who had had an unusual pet”. I myself had an Axolotl for a brief period, which everyone agreed was quite unusual. Actually, that’s a lie. Pretty much everyone refused to believe they exist. They still had me sign their card, but assumed I’d made the whole thing up.

Here’s the thing. Axolotls are salamanders, originating in Mexico (hence the vaguely Aztec name). They are very fascinating creatures, being neonates they can spend their entire lives in a larval state, only maturing into land-based salamanders if exposed to sufficient iodine. They are also cool in appearance, and amusing to look at, and make good pets if you don’t mind feeding them strips of raw liver with a pair of tongs on account of them being meat-eaters with crap eyesight. They have many other cool properties.

The part that bugged me wasn’t that so many people, all future doctors if they weren’t already, genuinely didn’t know of the axolotl. No, the worst part is that so many people actually believed that I would invent an exotic salamander in order to get the attention of strangers. They genuinely laughed when I said I had one as a pet. (Where did I keep it? In a pond in my secret garden, next to the Unicorn Barn?). Admittedly, this is the sort of thing a 5 year old would say in order to give credibility to some bullshit story. Thing is, I’m not 5, I’m 27, and I thought I was more credible than that.

So, in order to rectify this gross injustice to both myself and Alan (my Axolotl, I didn't name him) and the Axolotl species in general, please join my facebook group and further the cause


And spread the word!

There you go, from social development of human culture to Axolotls in one seamless rant.

No I'm not bored.

* = The technical term I invented for someone who is 'up their own arse'. They never know what you're saying, so use it freely.


Social Network sharing gubbins