The other day, I vented to a friend about how nervous I was for an audition for an on-campus improv group. I wasn't optimistic about my chances. He asked what was so hard about improv, and I said that, at least for me, it was hard to get out of the sense of being a spectator of myself.
"So...you're just looking at yourself?" he laughed.
I spectated, then, I guess; I saw my words through what I imagined to be his eyes, heard my own words a little distorted. "Being a spectator of myself." Suddenly it sounded like something vain, like a preoccupation with staring at your own glossy reflection in an imaginary mirror, always hovering above you.
"No, not just like that," I said defensively. "Haven't you ever been in a conversation with someone where you find yourself seeing yourself from the other person's eyes, except it's not really their eyes, it's what you imagine them to be thinking? That's what I mean by spectating."
"At that point, I just give up," he shrugged.
We waved goodbye as he walked away and I went to line up in a crowded cafe for an overpriced cup of watermelon chunks. I kept thinking about being a spectator, though, and its ramifications. I thought about it when I ran into someone I knew, waiting in that line, and one of my first instinct after I walked away from the cafe and the conversation was to look at myself in the mirror in a library bathroom to see how I had looked. It's a peculiar instinct, because I doubt that he or anyone else much cared, or would remember. It was an un-extraordinary outfit--a blue merino sweater that kept riding up, and a striped button-up shirt.
Awkwardness and self-consciousness are states of being that are at least comfortingly ubiquitous--most people can at least relate, even if with only one or two experiences, to a sense of utter mortification. Maybe that's why we can use questions like "What was your most embarrassing moment?" as convenient mediums for fostering bonding. Everyone has an answer.
And in order to have that answer, you need to have a sense of being a spectator; how can you know your most embarrassing moment if you didn't see the moment, even briefly, through the eyes of someone else? Embarrassment is a state that relies on the perceptions of others, and our perceptions of their perceptions too. It is embarrassing to, as one of my friends did, have uncontrolled explosive diarrhea in a dirndl and liederhosen store at the Munich Airport not just because of your personal standards but because of spectators.
Briefly, in embarrassment, you become one of them.
But what happens when this spectatorship is not only trotted out for special and catastrophic events in liederhosen stores, but is everyday? Mundane? Then you stop being "in the moment," and you move someplace far away from the moment. Like the perch above California Memorial Stadium where they fire off the cannon, where you can stand and see the happenings below--but are powerless to play the game.
No one likes feeling the spectator passing judgment. So we drink at cocktail parties until the spectator is swaying in its step, hazy-eyed and hard of hearing. We stay up late to lull the spectator to sleep until it's snoring on our shoulder, and then we can share secrets with our 4AM BFFs. I once read a line, "Secrets are the currency of intimacy," and I remember this now because the link between intimacy and spectatorship is so deeply fraught: the famed American sex researchers William Masters and Virginia Johnson even coined the term "spectatoring" in the context of sexual intimacy and how this behavior, a sort of profound self-focus and monitoring, could preclude enjoyment. Certainly it does for casual conversation.
I have friends for whom this level of self-consciousness seems alien. They exude a certain kind of ease--the ability to throw themselves onto a couch that isn't theirs and sprawl gangly-legged all over it, to curse animatedly and reveal heated opinions in front of people they've just met, to disclose emotions and experiences with the comfort of the assumption that nothing is too sacred to be spoken of. And it's not that they're insensitive (usually); just that they don't seem to need anything to let go of their reservations. And that's sometimes contagious--once I started talking to one of them in a Berkeley bookstore and we found ourselves talking so loudly that a woman marched over and belligerently shushed us, and we fled in a storm of giggles.
I love my memory of that obnoxious moment. It's also the kind of moment that I rarely catalyze for others.
I tried to explain what it's like being with people like that to another friend. "You'd never step on a book, would you?" I asked him. He said no, and I clumsily tried to summarize the difference between him and these other friends with that one thing: "there are some people who will step on books, and some who won't, you know?" My friends who don't seem to have a spectator on their shoulder all the time are the kinds of people who take up space without apology. They probably step on papers and books and maybe, inadvertently, people, too. But all my thinking about spectatorship and how much it ties my tongue has made me consider friendship and community, at their strongest, to be a kind of stepping on and being stepped on and snapping right back up. Of lying in the same bed and rolling closer to each other, instead of staying militantly to your side because you don't want the other person to think you're taking up too much room. If you are, they'll just push back.
And maybe this fearless give-and-take, more than secrets, is the currency of intimacy.