I really like the people I already know. In fact, almost all of them.
I really don’t enjoy the process of meeting new people, though. It’s not the people. It’s the meeting.
I like learning about new people….reading about them, hearing stories about them, watching documentaries about them. Not just famous people, but anybody who’s not like me. I find other people’s lives and backstories so interesting. In fact, the less known they are, the more intriguing it is because it’s almost like a little-known secret story. I don’t retain the information, but I enjoy it. I have a couple of friends who never forget a detail about a person’s story. I envy that ability. Then again, I can hear a story ten times and it’s always new to me. Movies are the same way. And books. Handy. Sometimes.
But put me on a plane, and I become mute. I’ll offer a pleasant smile to a seat mate, but my lips stay closed. That’s not my normal smile, but my teeth would signal too much willingness to visit. And my eyes dart away before the glance becomes meaningful. And I fake that I’m sleeping or reading or experiencing a headache. Anything to look closed off. I’ve toyed with the idea of claiming “No English”, but never had the nerve. Instead, I just close down. Like people on an elevator who stare up at the blinking numbers for 30 floors, avoiding eye contact like an army of drones, just waiting for the door to open on their floor so they can escape wordlessly. Except it’s six hours. Or ten. No matter. The longer the flight, the more determined I am not to strike up a conversation doomed to last that long.
Truthfully, when I travel alone, time on the road gives me a chance to recharge my social batteries…by not being sociable. I need my “alone time” and sometimes it’s hard for me to get. So I get it “between stops”. Plane rides, commute time, feeding the chickens or mowing the lawn.
But only part of it is about re-charging batteries. The other part is about preserving and protecting the batteries in the first place. Put me in a social setting – like a party where I don’t know every single person already – and I clam up and desperately search for the person for whom I came to this event. Either that or I search for a convenient route to escape. I thank God if there’s a food table to cruise around or a puppy to talk about. But even small talk about those things fades fast. Kids can be helpful, until they respond badly to your attempt to engage them. The worst is when they flee to a parent as though you’ve threatened them, hiding behind a leg or burying their face in their mom’s shirt. Rejection. From a kid. And all I said was, “I like your Spiderman shirt.”
Most people who know me find this surprising. I’m generally classified as outgoing and sociable. But contrary to what people think, I have some deep fear of failing at ice breaking. I hide it deep down inside. I feel like I’m back in the first grade on the first day of school and all the other kids seem to know one another. Once I find a familiar face, I’m good to go. I can be downright clingy if the poor soul I latch onto is the only person I know. I’m like the kid you sit next to on the bus to camp who ends up wanting to be your roommate and then your pen pal and then to go to the same college and name her kid after you someday… Woah. The earliest form of stalking.
The good news for the stalkee is that I will eventually just leave the party. I have an escape route planned, and when you excuse yourself to get another glass of punch, I’m out.
If it’s my turf, I’m better. Not great, but better. And if they’re my friends, I really cannot shut up. That reinforces everyone’s impression that I am socially confident. Of course I am. It’s my party.
I admire guests who can “work a room”. Casually and confidently approaching whomever and striking up a conversation that goes somewhere. I recently attended the memorial service of my dear friend’s father. So many wonderful things were said about this remarkable man. It was said that if he spotted a person who was alone, he would go out of his way to cheerfully approach them and strike up an easy conversation with them. What a wonderful gift. A gift to be able to do that, but also a gift to give someone at a moment they probably really need it. It made me wish I’d been at more parties with my friend’s dad. I could have benefited from his charity, and I may have learned a few tips, too. He might never have gotten rid of me.
This space I’m describing – between the moment I walk in the room and don’t see a familiar face, and the moment I see a friend – is absolutely eternal to me. In reality, it may only last five minutes. Or two. Or one. But when you’re dying inside and wanting to flee, it doesn’t have to last long. It’s like having a popcorn hull between your molars. It’s a sliver of a thing but it feels like a boulder in there that’s about to split your teeth apart.
Fears are that way. Irrational. Huge. Stuffed inside, but very real.
The fear of speaking in front of a group of people is known to be the number one fear among people. Ironically, I do it for a living and I love it. I can speak in front of any size group – three or a thousand, even without preparation – and it’s no problem. In fact, I eat it up. How can that capability co-exist with the social fears I described? My explanation: control. When I speak in front of a group, I’m calling the shots. Heck, I can pretend I’m talking to one person or no one. There’s not much of an exchange….at least initially. And by the time there’s interaction with the audience, I’ve had a chance to warm up. The audience is like one big person and the ice is already broken. It works for me.
But put me at a cocktail party, and I want to die.
So my strategy is pretty simple: stay home and surround myself with family and friends. Talk to chickens and goats.
In that setting, I can relax and pick the popcorn hulls out of my teeth.