There is a scene in the movie (and book) Emma where she is at a picnic. Someone at the party begins poking fun at a dodgy old lady in their company. Emma, being the witty heroine she is, joins in with gusto and brings the poor elderly woman to tears. Emma’s best friend (who she is in love with) chastises her, “It was badly done Emma, badly done indeed.” And I feel the most miserable second hand embarrassment in that moment every time because I have been there.
Almost 10 years ago now, I was working at a bakery and there was a very sweet girl there. She was kind of a hippy, most of us were. But she had this way of talking, slow and like she was stoned but she totally wasn’t. She also had a way of phrasing things that made what would have been a normal conversation a little strange and awkward. These things combined made her very fun to imitate.
So one night, I was working late with two of myclosest friends and this girl. (Let’s call her Kelly). Kelly and I are cleaning up behind the counter after the store closes and she is talking my ear off in the slowest most awkwardly phrased way possible and I’m soaking it up because I am just ready to relay all of this to my friends. They are clearing out the bagel bins so I go over to work there on the pretense of helping or asking a question. I immediately launch into my imitation, mocking Kelly and laughing at my own wit. When their faces go white and I feel the hair on the back of my neck stand up. And I know she is behind me but I’m begging my friends with my eyes to tell me it’s not true. But she’s there and I turn around and I have nothing to say. I have absolutely no excuse for my behavior. All I could think to say was, “Well, speak of the devil I was just telling the girls about our conversation.” And I felt the deepest sense of shame.
You would think that this would have cured me of all gossip. After that how could I not have learned my lesson. But if you have known me for any length of time you probably know that I have not learned my lesson. In fact you may have shared this horrid experience with me. And when I see someone I have just been talking about standing behind me, listening to what seem to be my “true thoughts” about them, all I can think is how untrue everything I just said is. I might not have been saying anything slanderous but I’m certainly not saying anything loving. And my one wish in that moment is that I could take it all back and instead say what a truly great person they are and how glad I am they are in my life.
Like Emma I set out to be the life of the party. To prove my wit and worth. But inevitably every word that I utter to make myself feel like a better more socially acceptable person robs me of the spice, brilliance, and joy that person brings to my life. So, this is an invitation, to stop me if I start to make a fool of myself again. Maybe it’s a little bit of warning too so you don’t have to go through it. If you hear me start to mock anyone, just whisper “Speak of the devil” and maybe I’ll remember that they could be standing right there.