May i speak first?

Last week, when i attended my creative writing class, I made an interesting observation about human psychology (well, put it this way, it seemed interesting to me). It was not the first time i had made this observation. All through my growing up years and later as an adult, it was something i observed with great interest and contemplation. This is what i noticed….In any given situation where a group might be interacting, every single person is loath to speak up or act first. Let me explain a bit further. We had all been given a homework task of building up a character sketch of the protagonist that we were writing our novel/short story about. And we had been told that we would have to read out in front of the entire class. Now, i know for a fact that the very words ‘read out in front of the class’ is something that strikes terror in the hearts of most (me included). The natural stream of thought goes thus: ‘what if i make a fool of myself?’ or ‘what if everyone starts laughing at what i have written’ or ‘what if i got it all wrong?’.

Years of having watched people’s reactions to this simple request ‘Who will go first?’ emboldened me and i raised my hand and said ‘May i speak first?’. This does not mean that i am lion hearted or fearless. Rather the contrary. I am petrified of stepping into the limelight. But the one trick i have learned from my favourite hobby of ‘people watching’ is that once you have indeed spoken first, you can simply sit back, relax and watch the others squirm with unease at the thought of who will be next. The person who reads/speaks/acts first has an advantage over the others. He/She is like an island and does not have to worry about living up to anyone’s expectations. As no one else has read/spoken/acted yet, there is no yardstick formed to evaluate his/her performance (wink wink).

The moment our instructor had put forth the question, i took a quick glance around the class room. The age group of the students varied…ranging from mid twenties to late fifties. And yet, the one thing we all had in common was that each of us was reluctant to read first. Some squirmed in their seats, doodling on their notepads furiously…some looked up at the ceiling to avoid the instructor’s steely gaze….some coughed nervously and cleared their throats….and yet no one spoke up…Our instructor looked resigned and said ‘Well, if none of you volunteers, I will have to pick who speaks first’. That was enough motivation for me. I raised my hand to indicate i would bite the bullet. The scary bit was that i had actually not finished my homework. I had written a very vague character sketch during my train ride into the city centre, stopping after every few words to look out of the window where the passing scenery held much more fascination for me than the homework notebook in my lap. But i knew that it did not matter. Human psychology is such that i knew no one would be listening to what i was reading with their full concentration. A part of their brains would be busy ticking and considering if they should go next. I could have read the Wizard of Oz from start to finish instead of my character sketch, and very few would have noticed the difference :-). Secure in the knowledge that most of the class was more worried about the fate of their own homework than about the lucidity of my prose, i read my half-baked writing in a loud voice. Now, even i could have concluded that as writing goes, mine was a very poor performance indeed that evening. The character sketch was weak, i had not spent enough time honing the craft ( a train that stops at every station, coughing out passengers and then swallowing just as many passengers again is not the ideal setting for writing fiction) and my handwriting was so haphazard i had to peer at it closely to figure out what i had written. I felt a terrible urge to giggle. Because from the corner of my eye i could see the worried glances of my class mates. They were not paying the least bit of attention to me. Their biggest worry was who would be the next victim.

Once i had finished reading the measly few lines that i had scribbled, my instructor and i looked at each other for a long moment. I smiled…she smiled back….’Thank you Nim. That was nice’ she said kindly (hats off to her….she was nice enough and wise enough to keep her counsel about the true nature of my writing, which was quite dismal). I sat back with a sigh of relief….done and dusted….now the fun would begin. Thankfully, she now turned her gaze on the rest of the class and said ‘So, who’s next then?’. Everyone looked pained and trapped. Once again the shuffling and staring at ceilings and doodling on notepads began. Reading/speaking/acting second or third or fourth or last is always more painful than acting first. There is less pressure when you go first, and a complete avalanche of pressure descends when you leave your contribution to the tail end of the queue.

It’s not about being brave or fearless. It’s more to do with understanding how people think and act and using it to one’s advantage. Much nerve-wracking tension can be avoided by asking one simple question: ‘May i speak first?’

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