Imprinting

It was one of those awkward situations men and women get into as they find ways to work together.

There was a new woman in the neighboring department, mid-twenties, rather tall, slender, straight posture, with brown hair, a round head, very large dark eyes, baby fat in her cheeks.

I enjoyed looking at her. At the same time, there was something familiar about her.

One afternoon as I was walking past one of the conference rooms, I saw her in profile as she looked at her laptop. Her hair was piled in a bun on the back of her head.

Her height and posture, the shape of her head and face, and now her hair piled in a bun. Something clicked, and I knew who she reminded me of: Koizumi, a character from the Japanese animation Love•Com.

I broke stride, and she turned her head and saw me looking at her. I smiled as best I could and got out of sight.

This was embarrassing. I'm married and pushing sixty. My hair is turning white. It's not an insult for me to admire a young woman, but it's not good for her to see me gawking at her.

The next day I found myself approaching her in the corridor. I wanted to look everywhere but at her. Nuts.

It wasn't her fault. With an effort, I met her eyes. She said to me, "How are you?", tipped her head, and smiled nicely. I blinked and said, "Fine." We went our separate ways.

That was better. Still, I had a problem. As it happens, I've been in this situation many times over the decades. In the process, I've learned the difference between imprinting and a relationship.

Imprinting is a term from animal psychology. It describes, for instance, what happens to baby ducks when they hatch. It's as though baby ducks are born with an image of Mother and attach that image to whatever creature is nearby when they hatch. Usually they imprint Mother on their biological mother, who was sitting on their egg. However, when psychologists hatch the eggs, the baby ducks imprint Mother on the psychologists and follow them around instead.

Something similar happens between men and women. Like all men, I was born with an image of Woman. That image is overlaid with a lifetime of experience of actual women. My mother, my sisters, the teacher I had a crush on in kindergarten, the German teacher I had a crush on in high school, the high school actress, my first girlfriend, my wife. Any number of women I've seen in classrooms, at work, in civic organizations, on the street. Paintings, photos, movies, ads, anime characters. All cumulative exposures on the same negative -- Woman.

So sometimes when I see an actual woman who matches that cumulative image, I imprint Woman on her. It's completely involuntary and almost entirely impersonal.

Love at first sight? No. In a situation like this I'm responding to Woman, not to the actual woman. How could it be otherwise? The actual woman is a complete stranger. And almost invariably, my feelings shift as soon as I establish any sort of relationship, however businesslike, with the actual woman.

It's as though imprinting Woman on a stranger begins an internal process that can only be closed by engaging with her in reality.

Next day I again saw her in the corridor. This time I walked up to her and asked who she was, and introduced myself, and shook her hand, and found out who she worked for, and told her where I worked and what I did, and said I'd see her around the meetings. As this empty little interaction went on, I saw first excitement, then a little disappointment, even irritation, pass over her face.

As I walked off, I thought a little sadly, "Well, that disposes of that."

And did I tell her she reminded me of Koizumi, from Love•Com?

Of course not.

If I had, she probably would have asked a judge for a restraining order.

15-Mar-2010