I don’t like football. Not even the World Cup. I don’t like Jane Austen either.
It’s hard to admit to not liking something. Especially if that something is liked by almost everybody else. One doesn’t want to be a spoilsport.
The World Cup is the more timely example. On Saturday, everybody I knew was watching the game. Usually, when it’s World Cup time, I make an effort. I tell myself – go on, it’s not just football, it’s an England match, you’ve got to watch it. I sit down with some friends and a luke-warm beer, often in a hideously over-crowded pub, and try to groan in the right places.
This year, I decided that I wasn’t going to give up those hours to pretend to follow and enjoy something that I have absolutely no interest in. While Saturday’s match was going on I was reading in the bath. (It wasn’t Jane Austen)
But, frankly, who cares if I like football or not? Conversations about likes and dislikes are almost always unbearably dull. Take, for instance, the following conversation about seeing a film with a friend. You are both leaving the cinema:
‘So, what did you think?’
‘Yeah I really enjoyed it; I thought it was great.’
‘Oh yeah, me too. Although I found X a bit annoying.’
‘Really? I quite liked him.’
‘Why? How could you like him?’
‘Don’t know, just did. I thought it was all really good.’
People’s opinions, obviously, vary; people, of course, like and dislike different things. It’s almost impossible to go anywhere interesting with a conversation when it’s reduced to this. Saying that you like something is so pointless, you might as well say nothing at all. Why not have a conversation more like this:
‘So, what did you think?’
‘God, I couldn’t believe the bit when X happened. It was so crazy. It was really scary.’
‘Yeah, I know – it was such a weird thing to happen. I totally thought Y was going to happen instead, I was really taken by surprise.’
‘Yes, I think it’s because after B you just sort of assume Y will happen next. I wonder why they made X happen instead?’
You have a discussion and instantly it becomes clear that it doesn’t matter if you like it or not.
So I try to avoid admitting that I don’t like Jane Austen, or football. It’s so boring. I’d only do it if I could launch a discussion from it and talk about it in a looping, digressing, anecdote-filled way. For football, for instance, I could say:
I don’t like watching lots of people chase a ball around in a confined space. I don’t like admitting to the knowledge that England are never very good. I don’t like that collective feeling of failure and gloom that settles over the country after the inevitably second-rate performance. I don’t like the beeriness – the chanting and the fights. Once I was on the tube after a football match and there was a crowd of men all draped in England flags, singing and jumping around and being generally antisocial. And then one of them vomited on the floor about six inches from my feet.
That at least is the bones of an argument and a funny(ish) story to boot. I can hear ten of my male friends wanting to jump in … ‘But…’ ‘But how can you say…?’ ‘But what about …?’ I can even a hear a few girl friends wanting to get in there too.
And I suppose the argument wouldn’t be completely absolutely dull. I might learn a little bit more about the off-side rule, I might be persuaded into having a little more faith in our country, I might admit that it’s quite special for everyone to be bound together in collective hope for ninety minutes. But I don’t think it would be a particularly nice conversation. Either I’d annoy people who really like football. Or someone would agree and we’d spend half an hour mouthing it off, being extraordinary negative and snipey and nasty.
But it’s better than saying, ‘I don’t like football.’ ‘Why not?’ ‘I just don’t.’
I really believe that this theory of the irrelevance of likes and dislikes holds for most things. But what happens if you find yourself in a situation where you absolutely have to say whether you like something or not?
When I worked in publishing, one of the jobs given to us underlings was the awful business of writing rejection letters. We’d have to deal with the pile of unsolicited, unagented submissions that ranged from miscellanies of unusual medical words to sixth unpublished novels about Vikings. We were instructed not to say anything remotely encouraging or even to really engage with what had been written. The last thing you want, I was warned, is for them to write back offering to change it, adapt it, improve it for your reconsideration.
I was faced with a blank piece of paper, which had to be filled by saying, essentially, ‘I don’t like this.’
We were given examples and templates to follow. They went along the lines of:
Thank you for sending me Y to read. It was an interesting submission but I’m afraid it just wasn’t one for us, so I’m going to have to say no.
I wish you the best of luck finding a home for it elsewhere.
To begin with I tried to change this. I tried to write letters enthusing about aspects of the work, saying that I liked it (I often did) but the higher powers didn’t (they never did). Unsurprisingly, these were never allowed to be sent out. I can see that encouraging someone who is probably never going to be published is not particularly helpful. Cruel to be kind, I was told. Small consolation for the guilt as I sealed the envelope on a letter of approximately two sentences saying, bluntly, ‘I don’t like your work,’ knowing that it would be opened by someone who would feel upset and useless and that their work is completely unvalued.
But then, is it really useful to reject something, or someone, and justify it with spurious reasons? The worst break-ups are the ones which go into painful lists of what you don’t like about each other, pulling up examples of past arguments, dissecting disagreements. It’s open-heart surgery without an anaesthetic. Why bother to slice through things, to cut it all open, to rehash all those old fights all over again? You, or the other person, have decided that you don’t like each other enough. Leave it at that. Walk away. Use a euphemism, an excuse … lie. It is far better to say some rubbish like you’re not feeling able to commit to someone at the moment than to say I think you’re a real drip and you never make me laugh and all your friends are losers. Any discussion is instantly too personal, too painful, far too upsetting.
Opinions are the murderers of conversation. Most of the time they should be avoided. But occasionally, when it gets personal, when conversation should be avoided, then it’s absolutely best to rely on their power. If the answer’s no, the answer’s no. No need to make it any more horrible, upsetting or nasty than that.