Tuesday, March 5, 2013
Socially awkward penguin:
or: a very long-winded discussion by a hyper-analytical person about the discomfort (and the joys) of interacting with strangers.
At an event on the weekend -- a lovely event, so bear that in mind -- I found myself seated at a table of strangers. This can either be the best thing in the world or the WORST THING EVAR GO AWAYYYY. Though in the innermost recesses of my self I'm kind of shy, it's probably more fear of intruding in another's life than actually shyness. So it doesn't entirely stop me from striking up conversations, and once those initial icebreaker conversation-starters are over, I can talk to pretty much anyone. I like people, so it's fun.
Being stuck on a table with strangers makes it even easier. You don't have to walk across the room maintaining eye contact the whole time. No, for some reason, your hosts or the event planner have decided you and they and they and they would make an interesting social mix for a few hours, so half the work is already done. Someone's next to you, they're not going anywhere, so why not get to know each other?
It sounds logical, and sometimes this goes off without a hitch. But other times the experience is so unbearably, uncomfortably awkward that I feel myself thinking CANNOT COMPUTE. HOW DO HUMAN? It's obvious to you, then, without me explaining it, that last weekend's event was going in precisely that direction.
I was kind of on the end of a long table. Seated near me was one young couple, but my seatmate on the other side never showed up. Hmm. An empty seat already precludes one half of the conversation options. Past the vast gulf of the empty seat was another couple; after a brief hello, they got chatting to the people on the opposite end of the table, and turned to face them or each other. So I did my best with the people I was seated near, starting with something in common, our mutual friends. They smiled politely, and answered my questions, but they did not offer anything in return, nor did they ask me anything. After a respectable amount of time had passed, I sat back to allow for the customary polite pause (also to gather my arsenal of other possible conversation starters). They filled it by speaking to one another a little in low tones, but mostly just looking around. When the gap got to the point of awkwardness, I started again, but again came up against a brick wall. The ball never bounced back in my direction and I sat there like an obnoxious puppy just waiting for someone to pick it up and throw it.*
Since the people I was so unsuccessfully trying to relate to seemed pleasant enough, my usual tactic kicked in. Obviously it must be my fault.
I don't know if this is a human trait, a feminine trait, or one uniquely embarrassingly mine alone, but I tend to blame myself for social catastrophes. Maybe I'm being annoying. Maybe I'm not interesting enough. Perhaps I smell like the garlic bread that was offered for hors d'oeuvres. I'm weird. My face is communicating unfriendliness. I've accidentally said the magical word that released a cone of silence over the person I'm talking to! And so on.
If you have ever been in this dark pit of social despair, you will know the feeling. In your desire to communicate warmth and friendliness, you sit there with what you hope is a gentle yet winning smile, meant to suggest that you are up for conversation but will definitely not glom on to anyone like a barnacle. Rather, you will preserve a healthy, polite distance. What's more, you are hoping to catch the friendly glance of anyone as an entree into the conversation, but you don't want to stare outright because that would be weird.
All up, that is a lot to communicate with a facial expression that's barely there. And of course, after about ten minutes of this, you have a visage-related existential crisis. You forget how to smile at all and start to wonder if you are grinning like a homicidal psychopath, not only scaring anyone away from you currently but also scarring them with an image that will later haunt their dreams.
Yeah. So that was my position after about half an hour of failed mingling. I began to think despairingly of how many more hours of this I would have to endure, and contemplated shrinking myself down, Antman-style, and making an escape.
The only alternative was to bridge the gaping void of the empty seat to my right and reach across in decidedly uncool fashion to leap into the smallest possible chance of a segue with the other couple. If one of them so much as blinked in my direction, I was going to do it. My chance came, and it was awkward -- and then suddenly we were talking about all sorts of things, and she and I had heaps in common, and her husband was a dear, and we nattered delightfully about subjects both light and heavy, and at the end of the night she gave me her contact details and a hug.
The difference couldn't have been more defined, but it's only today that I worked it out fully in a way that makes sense. I wasn't being a socially awkward penguin, and neither were they, particularly. Rather, they just couldn't be bothered. And -- here is where the lightbulb binged into blinding, obvious light -- that has nothing to do with me. Yes, if I was rich or glamorous or a celebrity, maybe they would have been bothered, but I don't have to feel bad about their inability to try. The difference between the dead conversation and the living interaction was that in the latter, both parties were willing.
Why am I saying all of this in an excessively-long blog post? Perhaps just as a reminder to myself and to you that all any of us can do is our best. Communicate friendliness and warmth without being creepy. If it doesn't go anywhere, it's not necessarily your fault. And who knows what backstory the other person is dragging along with them? Don't feel bad if the social engagement comes to an awkward, screeching halt. It takes two to... convo.
*so many cliched (and mixed) metaphors! Woo. Go me!