You are not talking about anything private; maybe you are talking about a film, or a friend’s divorce. Will the presence of a stranger affect the content and tone of your conversation?

I have a coffee shop question for you. You are sitting in a café with a friend, talking about this and that, and a stranger comes and sits at the next table. It could be anyone: a gorgeous girl, a Bollywood celebrity, a gym-toned hunk. There is a moment’s pause, while you and your friend take in the presence of this new person, and then you continue talking. But you are aware that this stranger, who is alone, can hear every word you say. You and your friend are not talking about anything private; maybe you are talking about a new film you saw, or a book you read, or a friend’s divorce. Will the presence of the stranger at the next table affect the content and tone of your conversation?

There is a YouTube clip floating around on the interwebs that has been linked to a lot recently. It features Robin Williams and Stephen Fry chatting with Michael Parkinson. In it, Fry, who had just written a book on bears, comments on how animals are different from humans: “When you wake up in the morning, a bear does not say, ‘Oh god, I was a very bad bear yesterday. I’m guilty.’ They don’t feel guilty that they possess organs of sexual generation. They don’t feel they should wear clothes. They just spend 100 per cent of every minute of every hour of every day being a bear. And a treefrog spends all its time being a treefrog. We spend a lot of time trying to be somebody else. You know, trying to be like the person next door, the person on television, the person in the movies... we're trying to be somebody else. Animals, supremely, are themselves.”

(If I may add to this, it could be said that animals are Buddhist. They are always living in the moment. They are mindful. I know people who go to Vipassana courses to attain just this quality. I did once, many years ago, and for the last eight days of the 10-day course, I basically thought about sex. But the first meal I had after the course, at an Italian restaurant, was the best I’ve had in my life. The restaurant had nothing to do with it. My 10 days of focussing on the senses were responsible. My taste buds took in every damn nuance of the dish I ate. I was in the moment — though I suppose in a different way from a bear having a meal, which probably just goes through the routine motions programmed into it. Also, bears are vegetarian, which puts a limit on prandial pleasure. And this is precisely the kind of pointless parenthetical digression that humans, and not bears or treefrogs, indulge in too much.)

Fry’s point, I suppose, was that what sets humans apart from other creatures is that we are social animals in such a way that we allow other people to define our self-image. We care too much about what they think of us. This is absurd.

The stranger at the next table. Would you speak differently, or say different things, because someone you had never met before and would never meet again was listening? Does the approval or admiration of strangers matter to you?

I reached middle age recently — it is a mental state more than an age, I know, but I got there anyway — and got down to thinking about all the things I didn’t like about myself. At 20, I had been an obnoxious, insufferable, arrogant fool, but I wouldn’t dislike that guy so much if I hadn’t changed in many ways, so that’s okay. But there is one quality I still have and don’t like and would love to discard: the anxiety about how other people perceive me. This damn anxiety is common to us all; it’s probably the most prominent part of the human condition. We dress up before going to social gatherings, comb our hair, apply make up or shave or suchlike, preen preen preen — and then spend all our time at these gatherings behaving like the person we’d like others to believe we are. Everything we say or do in public is, at some level, for the consumption of others. When we are truly ourselves, whatever that is, if such a thing is even possible, it is because we are fatigued from the pretence, and let our guard down.

So my middle-age resolution, which I have the rest of my life to break repeatedly, is that I want to be comfortable in my own skin. I don’t want to care about what others think of me. And if I am in a café chatting with a friend, I don’t want that conversation to be affected by a stranger at the next table. Even if my friend is an imaginary friend.

The Stephen Fry video. The reason people have been linking to it is that Robin Williams killed himself recently, and this is one of the YouTube clips where he is at his funniest. I also found it incredibly sad. In the first part of this interview, Williams speaks to Parkinson, and brings the house down. In the second part, Fry joins Williams, and you’d expect this half to be mainly about Fry and the book he’s promoting. But Williams keeps interrupting him, wisecracking constantly, not letting Fry complete many of his thoughts. It’s almost like at some level he is saying, “Look at me. I’m here too. I’m so funny. Don’t you love me?” Fry is graceful about this, and even jokes about Williams’s ‘logorrhoea’, and Williams has the wit to laugh at himself. You sense his self-awareness here, and also his sadness. (This interview was recorded in 2002.) I think Williams knew, as most comedians must, that humour is an anaesthetic. That’s all it is. And there must be times when it isn’t enough.

Amit Varma is a novelist. He blogs at indiauncut.com

Follow him on twitter @amitvarma

(This article was published on September 5, 2014)
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