Confessions of Social Novice

from "that quiet girl"

Love the One You’re With

One year in my late teens, I got a job for the holidays in a popular clothing store.  I’m not sure why they let me work there as long as I did because my attempts at fashion were as awkward as my conversation skills and knack for creating uncomfortable silences (a fusion of misapplied fashion rules and strangely inappropriate bouts of theatrical inspiration.  How can I make this jeans and blouse ensemble evoke Les Miserable?  I want it to say “cute girl at the mall” but “tragic French novel” at the same time).

I did not make any friends, but I had a flair for thorough cleaning.  My favorite time in the store was when all the customers had gone and the other associates were in the back rooms and I had the job of tidying the floor before closing.  It was a fairly spacious floor, and I could not wait to run the vacuum over that carpet until it looked like a scene from a post apocalyptic movie where all human life has vanished.

Looking back I realize that my coworkers most likely did not appreciate my obsessive compulsive vacuuming.  After my other duties, around 10 at night, I would start at the farthest corner from the door and vacuum the entire room – sloooowly – even if it was already clean, dirt or not, in careful rows up and down the floor. It took close to an hour.  Coworkers closing with me would come out and ask if I needed help  – No thanks! – or exclaim at how thorough I was – Thank you!

Well, I obviously did not take the hint.  The carpet and I were very self satisfied.  In my mind I was showing them up with my superior standards for thorough tidying and rather than be put out or offended, they were an admiring audience.

Those days are past.  I don’t remember anyone’s name or face except my manager’s, and that was only because I was forced to face her for twenty minutes during my interview in which I had to sell her a stapler.  What I realized long after was that the issue was not the choice between people and inanimate spaces, it was between being sociable and being thoughtless and self-absorbed.

So eventually I did move on from vacuumed carpet love to some real human interaction.  But I still lacked social perspective.  My typical style was to choose a favorite person and then obsessively shadow her or him, ignoring everyone else or curtly showing complete indifference to all the other people I thought were boring.  Not surprisingly these one sided relationships failed because I was left out as those I had chosen to socialize with invariably preferred to socialize with those I had rejected and once I saw the difference between their open, easy way with each other and my stiff, too serious stalker vibe, I retreated into my lonely corner.   So I learned the hard way that if I were not to be rejected that I would need to stop rejecting others.  I would have to find a way to make conversation with even the most unlikely of comrades in my day to day life.

I would need to talk to them and not exit as soon as they approached me.  I would need to smile and  ask them about themselves every time we met.   I would need to seek them out and chat them up.  Daily.   But you can’t choose to anoint some people with your friendship and treat other as if they are invisible.  The only time that works is if you are anointing someone just as self-absorbed and exclusive about their friendships, and believe me they aren’t very good friends, and besides I’ve never make the cut. Yes, sometimes I would rather be vacuuming meditatively, but relationships come first because they are all connected.  Throwing out one means throwing out the whole barrel of monkeys.

But what I found was that I actually like people more than I thought I did.  More on that later.

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Order of Operations: How to Begin and Not Feel Awkward

Sometimes I’ve wanted to visit someone or approach someone to hang out or chat but didn’t know what to say or how to begin.

What really worked is this:  Get a notebook and write down possible topics daily.  Anything you would willingly remember goes here (human interest stories you read or see, anything humorous and even slightly out of the ordinary).

Next,  locate your natural circle and stop feeling self-conscious.   These can be anyone close to your age you see weekly or daily.    You are expected to talk to these people anyway.  They are probably wondering what your problem is if you don’t.

Now where to start:

The immediate situation  –  This is setting the table and sitting down to the meal

After the” how are you?” the other person might actually answer.  If not just comment on what is most current and common to both of you.  (So I am definitely not looking forward to getting up an hour early to go to the employee meeting tomorrow, but definitely looking forward to a doughnut.)

Move to a piece of light information or humor – This is so important!  You need to establish that talking to you is fun and brightens the other person’s day.  Don’t start with complaints or whiny comments or pretentious statements (So I was reading Moby Dick the other night…Have you heard of it?)

Humor –  Find some small piece of humor to share.  This should be a quick story about something that happened to you or something you saw.  Think  5-6 sentences.  It CAN be gossipy!  Go ahead if it is not mean spirited.  Example:  I might mention sneaking a cup of chocolate when someone we have in common is not looking and then noticing that the chocolate was removed later.  Here is how I would tell it.

(Lead in/hook) So you know that hot chocolate they always have in the lobby?

(Story) Well I took my cup up there one day and got some  (Make sure to animate.  Use facial expressions.  What are you feeling?  Show people how to react by reacting that way yourself.  Smile if you want them to smile.  Laugh if you want them to laugh).    I just kind of snuck in there.  I didn’t think it would be a big deal, but I noticed the other day that they aren’t putting it out there anymore!

(Close) I think it’s been moved to a secure location!  (Hopefully now you’ll get a laugh!)

Daily Life –   Enjoying my new Kindle  . . .  My dog is starting obedience school  . . . My son is singing a solo in the church choir tonight. . . . Finally got my exam back and didn’t bomb, etc.  You will chat about these things for awhile, asking questions and giving more detail.

Common Interests/Recent News (even if you aren’t sure, throw it out there)  Did you see the game?  Here about that lion that they found wandering around outside the zoo last week?

Plan – The other side to all of that is that it helps to be ready for what others will talk about.  If you take a few minutes to think before you seek someone out for a chat, you can usually map out how the conversation will go and plan how you’ll respond.  I knew a person who often tried to chat with me (squeezing juice from a turnip!), who would always start by asking if I had seen a show we both liked.  After several awkward moments of “Yes!” (silence. . .chuckle), I started pre-thinking some comments or questions as follow up.  Then when I got that down, I took it up a level and discovered that if I noticed quirky things, if I didn’t comment on the obvious but shed light on the odd, I could actually be funny.

~ Good Luck

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