Formals are interesting because they can be a study in psychology. You have a group of people who show up in a specific place, and pretend that they can stand each other. There is a lot of bluster and pageantry, because everyone is dressed up in haute couture or tuxedos.

If your day job involves staring into a microscope or mixing compounds in a bowl to see how they react to each other, the conversations tend to slide to the awkward side when your purpose is to shine and look good. If you usually only have to nod to fashion by ensuring your pocket pen guard is okay, then formals become exhaustive.

Mark’s faculty had a formal yesterday, and as the spouse I was required to attend. Although I don’t have a tuxedo, I showed up in the full regalia of suit and tie. Me in a suit and tie is not that good of a combination. I look mostly like the bone- and skin-creature that I am; all elbows and knees. Also, my mop of hair is an anarchy, and not the ordered and conquered patch it needs to be.

My start of the year formal will take place next week, and I will require my man to attend that, and I had to attend his. What else is marriage about than to give and take? In a way, my formal will be the mirror image of this. A lot of people dressed up in clothes they feel deeply uncomfortable in.

Yesterday’s formal meant drinking a little bit too much wine because approaching someone for a conversation inevitably lead to an awkward silence when it became clear we had nothing to talk about. They wanted to talk about maths and discoveries and science and nerdy things that they love. I was excluded from that because of my shallow knowledge of the subject. It’s like talking to someone about books and authors, and realising that they only have a razor-thin understanding of the works.

In the end I sat reading on my phone until my man rescued me and promised that we could go home, and I feel a little bit guilty about that. I could have gone myself because he enjoyed the formal. These were his friends and colleagues and fellow students, and his usual awkwardness in crowds didn’t manifest itself.

But I did find the whole thing a bit curious, because at the end the formal was all about people conforming to a role that history and tradition dictate. These awkward people were square pegs trying to fit into a round hole. Isn’t it so typically English to subject yourself to silly traditions and rituals like this? There is a fair bit of understanding hidden in that which I can try to pick apart. Somehow.

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