Brains are funny things.
One morning recently, as I went about my usual preparations for work, I was, as is not surprising, thinking about work. To be specific, I was thinking about a “difficult” client at work. Through a process of association, my thoughts wandered on, and I found myself thinking about my previous job, and a regular client I’d dealt with in that role, a few times each year – each “time” comprising of contact over a period of a few months while I organised her event.
I had about 3-4 lengthy “transactions” with this client each year, over about 5 years. Each “transaction” involved negotiating about dates for hiring a venue for a week, negotiating over the charges for hire and staffing, chasing up deposit payments, organising the staffing and ticketing services, and reconciling the client’s financial account with my employer when their season was over. In short, we had a lot of contact. I recall some days telling my colleagues that I’d already had 10 emails from her, and that was probably before lunch time.
In my first few encounters with this client, I was much newer to my role and therefore far less experienced in these kinds of negotiations overall. She came across as being unorganised, rushed, and a bit pushy, wanting the hugest event possible, for the smallest amount of money. She also liked to hold out on putting down her deposit, and would come up with excuse after excuse as to why it wasn’t paid yet, until the time came where, with the blessing of my Director, I cancelled her entire hire at extremely short notice.
In another scenario, doing this to a company planning a week-long event, only a few weeks out, would have been highly stressful but by this point I’d learned to speak politely but forcefully to this client. I would lay out terms really clearly from the start, continue to repeat those terms, remind her pedantically that I’d told her extra costs would apply if she changed her schedule, or that I’d already given her a deadline for payment, and therefore be really clear about who was responsible for the action that we had to take. I learned to judge just how much to concede to her and how to do it in such a way that she was very aware of where we stood. I was always polite, respected her right to negotiate, and apologised on any occasion where someone else in my organisation made errors (which sometimes happened. I may not be perfect but I can promise you, the errors were never mine in regards to this client).
By the time I left that job, I had probably dealt with this particular woman over 3 – 4 major hires per year, over about 5 years. We are talking about many phone calls, thousands of emails, and (a crucial point as you will soon discover), seeing one another in person at least once for each of those hires, so about 3-4 times per year.
I imagine by the time we’d dealt with one another for 5 years, we each thought of the other person with a sense of resignation. She needed our venue and we needed her hire, so we had to make the best of it.
That’s what I was musing about as I gargled the other morning. Suddenly, I realised that this stream of thought was accompanied by a sort of background screen-saver I hadn’t been taking any notice of – a picture of this client in my head. The funny thing, and the reason that it suddenly struck me, was that the mental picture of her in my head was not really her! It was the image I had formed of her years ago, prior to ever meeting her in person.
Every now and then, I’m caught out like this, only realising when the real person steps in front of me, that I’ve built up a picture in my mind of someone I’ve been dealing with by phone and/or email. Usually it’s wildly wrong. I’m guessing that everyone does this, but I’m not sure. Perhaps it’s just me. I do it unconsciously, and often I don’t realise until they arrive and stand in front of me, 9 times out of 10 looking nothing at all like the person I’d imagined. It’s fascinating to wonder what factors my imagination grabs hold of when creating its own little image of the person in question. I think the name is very significant, but other factors, including accent and even profession, are also in the mix.
Take this client, for example – the one I’d met at least 5 times. She had an American accent, a very American first name (let’s call her Cindy), and a greek surname, (let’s pretend it was Onassis). From my very first dealings with Cindy Onassis, she’d come across as unorganised and with unrealistic expectations about what she could do on a tight budget, and therefore likely to create a lot of extra work.
Without realising it, I created a picture of her in my mind. By the time I first met her, I’d – partly unconsciously – determined that the person I was dealing with was a woman in her mid-to-late 50s, probably overweight, with a permanently harassed air. She’d have shoulder-length hair which was naturally grey, but dyed a coppery-red, tied hurriedly back in an unkept, messy pony tail. She would always look slightly flushed, and slightly out of breath, and untidy strands of dry, frizzy hair would always be falling out of her ponytail, suggesting that she was always rushing to meet a deadline and didn’t have time to worry about her appearance. If pressed for more detail, I could have added that she would almost certainly wear a white polo-necked t-shirt teamed with some navy tailored pants, although when it came to her shoes, I drew a blank.
So it came as a shock when I first met her in person, to see how far removed from the physical image in my head she was. For a start, she appeared to be of Philippino background, and consequently her very dark hair was not frizzy and dry, but sleek and shiny. She wore it in a nondescript, longish bob, sometimes tied back. She was shorter than me, meaning that she officially qualified as “small” – and was not overweight. She was probably about 40 years old at most. I cannot specifically recall what she wore on any of the occasions that we met, but I am going to say it was something practical, probably jeans, sneakers and a jumper or denim jacket (my memory, or my imagination – I’m now unsure which – wants to shout “double denim!”).
If anyone had been able to read my mind on our first meeting, they would have heard me say, “Um…hello, who the hell are you, and where is Cindy Onassis, she’s supposed to be meeting me here?”
Basically, I discovered today that, some 6 or so years after first meeting someone, my brain is capable of “remembering” her as the imaginary version I’d created before meeting her, instead of the real version I met at least 5-6 times.
No-one would be surprised to hear that our imagination colors our memories. Here’s a very common example. Currently, I’ve misplaced, or lost, my work keys. I discovered this when I arrived at work on Tuesday morning. Immediately, I replayed in my mind, the scene of myself leaving work on Monday night. There I go, walking out the door, putting my work keys into my bag. But the reality is that they are not in my bag or anywhere in my car, so reason tells me that I have question that memory. Is that memory of me walking out the doors at work with keys in my hand, actually me pulling my house keys out of my bag? Or, has my imagination kicked in and allowed me to remember walking out the door with my keys when in fact I left them on my desk?*
I’m sure that our memory sometimes recalls things that were only ever imagined, mistaking something that took place only in the imagination – like my imaginary image of that client – for a memory of a real event. For example, although I can still remember seeing it, it’s possible that there was not really a dark, menacing knight in shining armour standing outside my parents’ bedroom door in the middle of the night, back in the first house I lived in until I was four.
Um…hello…who the hell are you? I’m here to find my mum and dad, let me through!
*Update: the keys were found tonight, inside a box of muesli bars in the kitchen cupboard. Before you diagnose early dementia on my part, there is a perfectly logical explanation – the open box of muesli bars was in my bag, and the keys must have fallen into it while I was driving home from work. If you don’t believe me, you’re probably not the only one.