In theory they should be simple, like mapping terrain:
Here’s where you are, here’s where I am.
Here’s how far you can come and here’s how far I am willing to go.
There are levels of difficulty and there are certain rules.
Level 1: easy.
Example: ‘hi. howareyoufinethanksyouhowstheflatdogjobcarteethmyitscoldwellgreattocatchupseeyousoon‘ (breathing and pausing optional) . Suitable for supermarkets, coffee mornings, car-parks, school runs and most public spaces.
Status: Appropriate for general public.
Level 2: tricky but do-able.
Example: ‘yeah we’ve had a rough time of it lately with job/marriage/family/health but mostly sorted now because (wait for it) God’s got a plan‘. Suitable for home networks and coffee shop corners.
Status: Appropriate for close friends and family.
Level 3: the stuff of nightmares.
Example: ‘no I’m/you’re not fine in fact I think I/you/we might cry/swear/get angry and I/you/we don’t know where God is or how to get through it or what to say or do with our arms/face/hankies/heartbreak‘. Suitable for locked bathrooms, New Year’s Eve and a fridge-lit kitchen at 3am.
Status: Inappropriate (with exceptions for Mr Teddy, Mr Cheesecake and paid professional).
It goes without saying that most of life is level one with flashes of level two. And providing your circumstances and blood sugar remain stable, it’s all good. Now we can be friends or enemies or acquaintances or strangers or lovers or whatever. But we know where we stand. This my friend/colleague/mate, is civilisation.
But what of those who don’t follow the rules? The weak ones who can’t keep it together? Embarrassing displays of emotion. Honesty. Mess. Cross the rubicon of level three and you go beyond normality and polite society. Anarchy. Loss of control. Dependence. Need. And maybe – maybe, real life.