People Are Their Stories

When I was younger I used to do a – rather strange, I agree – social exercise: every morning, on my way to the University, in the subway, I tried to guess what other people are doing. Like who they really are, what they do for a living, if they’re married or not, if they have kids or not. If they’re happy, or healthy, or good pals. I tried to guess all that just by looking at them. (Ok, I wasn’t rally looking. It was more like staring.)

Every morning, after reaching my subway station, on my way up, I used to recap what I thought I learned. Some days I was sharing my subway cabin with teachers who had twins, with fatal women, with athlets and mechanics. Other dyas it was about assistants, doctors, drivers, painters, you name it. I used to build an entire universe of personalities based on my 10 minutes observations.

I used to think this was a very good social exercise, a relationship booster. It took me around 20 years to realize it had nothing to do with relationships. It was, instead, a very good thing for my imagination. Or creativity. Or the ability to give shape to my fantasies. But it never really helped me to improve my social life. On the contrary.

It was only a few months ago that I realized what exactly was missing.

The Cabeceo

Six months ago I started to learn tango. (I’ll skip the background for this entire tango thing, although it may make for a nice story. In fact, I’ll save it for another post. I do want to write a post about my tango journey, at some point.)

Tango is a rather formalized activity. Among other things related to the tango etiquette, one of the most interesting is called “the cabeceo”. Simply put, a “cabeceo” is an invitation to dance. You look at a woman, wait for eye contact, nod slightly and try to make sure she’s not looking at someone else, behind you, then go for it. You get up, she gets up, you meet somewhere half way, embrace and start dancing. All this without saying a word.

Doing “the cabeceo” is an art in itself. Because you may send out the wrong signals. Or you may get the wrong signals. After all, people have their own ways of looking and one may simply stay more on a subject than others. And you may mistake this small delay as an acknowledgment. And you get up to meet half way, and, guess what, nothing happens. It was a confusion. Happened to me more than once.

But the most frequent source for failed “cabeceo” is male curiosity. As a man, you just want to find out which woman could be a good match for you. You look at how they’re dressed, at the posture. You unconsciously browse through them trying to isolate the pretty ones, the most experienced or the most suitable for your current tango level. And, at some point, you just forget you’re actually staring. And, voila, you send out the wrong message.

The Staring

As I was practicing my first “cabeceo”s, at my first milongas, I suddenly remembered my social exercise on the subway. It was almost the same setup. All I had to do was to guess who’s gonna be the best dancing match for me. Simply as pie, right? After doing this exercise for years on the subway, I must’ve been some kind of a specialist by now, right?

Wrong. I mean, I did the “cabeceo” right, but I was completely wrong at guessing the background. At guessing who the woman really was and how she’d react. Some partners looked cold and superior, but once I started to interact, it proved they’re warm and open. And some looked open but they were kinda shallow, or not really talkative.

It took me a while to realize that all I was doing during my so-called exercise was to project my inner images onto my potential partners. Just as I was imagining an entire universe of personalities from my 10 minutes subway rides, without ever trying to prove my assumptions, I was building strings of potential behaviors for my potential dancing partners. The difference? Now I was somehow “forced” to prove my assumptions. To interact. To dance.

And it was only after I started to enter the other person universe, to engage, to answer, to talk and to listen, that I realized my exercise wasn’t good for social skills. At all. It may have boosted my creativity skills, but social skills are not about that. They’re about getting up and enter in the other person’s story.

People are not their pictures. They’re not their Facebook avatars. If you stop at the “picture” level, if you don’t get up and enter their story, you will never know them. You will assign them some pre-made labels, and judge them based on that, ignoring the fact that you’re actually talking to… yourself. Because they’re just projections of your own universe.

The Opening Line

People are not statical images. Beautiful women, all dressed up and lined up waiting to be invited to dance tango, well, they’re nothing more than images. If you really want to turn them into tango partners, you have to quit staring, get up and find out their stories. You will most likely be surprised. Sometimes, even amazed.

I don’t do the “cabeceo” anymore. Instead, I just get up, put my eyes on the woman with whom I would like to dance, get close to her and ask: “Do you want to dance tango with me?”

In time, I found out that this is a pretty good opening line for some amazing stories.