Saturday, January 27, 2007

Too chicken to make your acquaintance

In Janet’s journal entry yesterday, she questioned the wisdom of trying to change one’s personality to achieve certain goals. That’s an issue I’ve had some experience with. As the rest of the introverts out there know, sometimes we feel pressured to be more outgoing.

I’ve struggled my whole life to be more social. I can fake it for a few hours if there’s an important enough reason to do so, but it wears me out. Socializing with family or close friends is fine. They know me well enough to understand that my being quiet is just part of my personality and doesn’t mean I’m not having fun or not feeling well. They know I’m listening, and they know that if there’s something I want to say, I’ll say it--as long as I don’t have to talk over somebody else to be heard.

Interestingly, at work or in the classroom, I’ve always had plenty to say and haven’t been the least bit shy about expressing myself. I’ve spoken in front of groups, appeared in a couple of plays, and sung solos in the school choir, all with minimal jitters. My explanation for this paradox is that those situations are all role-playing in one way or another. On the dais or on the stage, my role is clearly defined. As a worker or a student, I also know exactly what’s expected of me. Usually, if I know what’s expected, I can deliver it.

But at a party or some other kind of social gathering? When I'm there as the real me? I don’t know my lines and I have only a vague idea of my role. I expect that whatever comes out of my mouth will be the wrong thing and that all of the people I’m meeting for the first time will judge me forever based on that one event. I’ll smile and be polite, but I’ll be cautious about revealing anything about myself. It's too scary.

My heroes at social occasions are the people who introduce themselves to me, the ones who ask questions I can answer and draw me into an honest-to-goodness conversation, not just small talk. Those people make me comfortable, and I'm grateful for their presence. The sad thing is that I rarely meet the people whose company I'd enjoy most, because they're sitting quietly in a corner, too, waiting until someone approaches them.

So, getting back to the subject of trying to change one’s personality, I’ll give you an example of one time I did try:

In the late ‘80s, my job in human resources led me to become involved with a group of HR people who met regularly with the head of the local Department of Labor to discuss staffing needs, employment issues, etc. At one point I was a district chairperson of the group (not a position that was highly coveted, I assure you). This was easy for me; I knew what I was expected to do when it came to leading a meeting.

There came a time, however, when a large event was scheduled with the chairpersons of all the districts in the state and a lot of DOL bigwigs. The problem was that it was a banquet meeting, and I would be sitting with nine total strangers at a round table for nearly an hour before the meeting began. Even worse, there would be a "get-acquainted social" after the meeting.

I steeled myself for the occasion well in advance. I told myself over and over to go forth and be social, to stick out my hand, introduce myself, pay attention to people’s names, all those things that are so difficult for me. "You can do this," I said to myself. "It’ll be good for your career to get to know some of these people."

The luncheon wasn’t bad. Because of the huge floral centerpiece on the table, I really didn’t have to interact too much except with the people immediately adjacent to me. The lady on my left was part of a group of three women who came to the event together, so she had others to talk to. Fortunately, the guy on my right picked up the conversational ball and tossed it to me, and I felt fairly comfortable while we chatted and ate our lunch. Lunch, by the way, was a tasty dish containing chunks of chicken in a creamy, bright-yellow sauce.

As lunch was ending, I learned that I'd be expected to sit on the dais during the meeting. They hadn't mentioned it before because I wouldn't have to speak, but I’d be introduced. And so, for the next 45 minutes, I sat looking out at an audience of people while the Secretary of Labor and others spoke about things they hoped were important enough to justify the cost of the event. Occasionally, as they spoke, I’d catch the eye of someone in the audience, and I’d acknowledge the eye contact with my brightest smile.

The speeches ended and it was time for the social hour. My insides were trembling, but I worked that room. I made my way around, introduced myself, shook hands, and "networked" with a lot of people. Mostly I smiled--my warmest, glad-to-meet-you smile. All the people were polite and pleasant. They looked me right in the eye–-sort of--and introduced themselves back to me. To my surprise and delight, they didn’t linger and act as if they expected to chat. They moved along rather quickly. I realized, with relief, that if that's all there was to it, I could do that.

I met a lot of people in about half an hour, enough people that I felt I’d conquered the challenge. With my spirits lifted, I excused myself and made my way out of the banquet room to go back to work. Just before I left the hotel, I ducked into the restroom, then washed my hands. I touched up my lipstick and did the quick smile-in-the-mirror thing to check it.

At that moment, I had a flashback of all those people I’d smiled at from the dais and all those people I’d introduced myself to afterwards. Right then, all alone in the hotel restroom, I smiled at my reflection and saw a big chunk of chicken, coated in bright-yellow sauce, wedged between my two front teeth.

The social-networking part of me was born and died in the course of a single event. Fortunately, my sense of humor--and a deep and abiding appreciation of the absurd--lived on.

17 comments:

  1. Oh, my God, Velvet! But at least your skirt wasn't tucked into your pantyhose.

    I think I do pretty well in social occasions. I just would rather sit and watch and speak when spoken to. At one family gathering at my niece's house, I skimmed her bookshelves, picked out a book and sat in a quiet corner and read. Nobody minded. I think my "problem" is that it's very hard for me to follow or participate in a conversation with more than one or two people (two if I know them well.) It exhausts my eyes to have to lipread different people for very long. It's just easier for me to be a wallflower.

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  2. Janet, my skirt wasn't tucked into my pantyhose THAT day--but that happened to me, too, at my office when we lived in New York. That could be the subject of a whole 'nother blog entry.

    I used to think I was doing fine, too, just sitting and watching and speaking when spoken to--until a woman approached me one day and, after chatting for awhile, said, "You know, you're not at all stuck-up like everybody thinks you are." I was floored! I thought I'd been politely invisible, and they thought I was too stuck-up to talk to them. I've worked harder at being sociable since then, but it's still a mighty struggle.

    I think that's why I enjoy blogging so much. I can lurk and get to know people before sticking my neck out. Conversely, the people who read what I've written and don't like it generally just move on, with no embarrassment on either side.

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  3. annie in little rock1/27/2007 8:24 PM

    I enjoyed your story very much, never suspecting what you were leading towards. It did sort of remind me of the time when I has to work a room with a heel broken off one of my high heel shoes.

    I know I'd be happy to sit in a corner and just talk away the hours with you, Velvet.

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  4. Velvet, I too have experienced the "stuck up" comment, when I really just am a wall flower at heart. I can make speeches and appear on stage too. It's a weird dichotomy.

    You know it always amazes me how many people KNOW you have something in your teeth or lipstick on them and NO ONE will say anything to you. I always speak up praying the Universe will return the favor. Recently, in the airport, I saw the lady with her dress in her pantyhose...very sedately dressed other than her purple thong now visible through her pantyhose. I stopped her and told her and SHE GOT MAD AT ME!

    Anyway, you are a delight. You always make me giggle.

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  5. I've suffered through the skirt in the pantyhose and the toilet paper on the heel. Introverts unite! I too have no problems leading meetings, giving speeches or visiting endlessly with family and friends. Social occasions require a hot bath and cold compress afterward. Great story.

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  6. I am not a party girl. I'd rather spend an evening at home with 2 friends at the most. Get 3 friends together and I'm a bit uncomfortable. The role I'm expected to play is comedy relief even if I don't feel like it that's what is expected of me.

    I too prefer to know what my role is and when I'm comfortable playing it then I will but the pressure to perform when I don't want to leaves me a bit resentful. I'd almost prefer chicken in my teeth to feeling like I sold myself out.

    (Lord, that was not an encouraging comment from me was it?)

    Austin

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  7. The greatest conversationalist is one who can listen. It is an art that most adults and children do not have. You learn by listening and not talking...so Velvet now we know why you are so smart! Those talking are telling what they already know...the listener is learning with their ears and eyes.

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  8. Thank you Velvet!

    I am in such a foul humor this morning and this story was just the ticket back to balance.

    Two of my peeves: luck & what people think.

    I think the truth about luck is that things are pretty random. I've had unbelievably horrible things in my life as well as unbelievably good. At the same time. I once thought I enjoyed incredible good fortune, but no longer. I think some things just happen. For any reason or no reason at all.

    I seem to fall into the same intro/extro type behavior as do all your loyal readers. And I too have felt the sting of someone's surprise that I wasn't a horse's ass - like "everyone" thinks? Gee whiz... you're a sweetheart for telling me.

    I kind of think the correct reply to something like that (only in your head) is "I didn't think you were a bitch, but you sure seem to be!"

    three kitty in a mood

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  9. Interesting how many of us introverts are finding blogging a healthy outlet. I'm good at switching roles, have to be to work a crowd at an art event. I teach comfortably, can do public speaking and even theater. But like you, the role switch is exhausting to me and I can't wait to get back home. The car salesman finally left his office during our 3.5 hour endurance contest last week...Mike said I was making the guy feel stupid while he tried to chat us up about meaningless things. Carmon

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  10. Annie, your comment reminds me of the time when I was 18, on my first job, and I stupidly leaned back on the narrow high heels of some beautiful baby-blue pumps. Both heels snapped off at the same time, and I was stuck until the end of the day in those broken shoes.

    I'd enjoy a long chat with you, too.

    Holly, I wondered the same thing: Why didn't one person have the courage to tell me? I can't believe the purple-thong-lady got mad at you. I'd have been thrilled that you saved me some embarrassment.

    Kat, I forgot about toilet paper on the heel. I've seen that a lot, but it hasn't happened to my. Does toilet paper sticking out the back of my waistband fall into the same category?

    Austin, your comment might not have been encouraging, but it offered affirmation, which I like even better.

    Sister-Three, I do a good job of listening as long as the conversation is interesting. Otherwise, my mind has a tendency to drift away and go play by itself. I'm always afraid I'll be asked a question and get caught.

    Third-Cat, I think luck is mostly random, too, but I understand that some people avail themselves of more opportunities than others. For example, the lottery may have been won by someone who only bought one ticket--that's the random part. I, on the other hand, will never win it because I NEVER buy a ticket. (I sure hope your day gets better.)

    Carmon, I think blogging is the answer to an introvert's prayers. We finally get to say all those things we have trouble working into a casual conversation.

    As for the car salesman, you go, girl!

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  11. Enjoyed your story Velvet and I can so relate like most of the bloggers about being an introvert. When I am in a situation where you have to make small conversation I try to always remember that people love to talk about themselves so I always ask ask something about them. That usually keeps the conversation going for a while...lol.

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  12. Robbin, encouraging people to talk about themselves is good advice, and I've seen it work. I just need to get over the fear of being perceived as nosy. One time I was in a relationship for four years with a man who'd been married three times. Can you believe that in all that time I never learned the names of his ex-wives--because I never asked?

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  13. Wow! That's unnervingly like me - have we met before?

    I can get up and do presentations in front of hundreds of people - meet foremen to Managing Directors at work when I need to (and have done).

    But put me amongst 10 strangers to "socialize" and I'd rather walk on hot coals. I hate small talk.

    Even when the in-laws come round, when I've done the necessary so as not to look anti-social, I'll end up n my study with a book. God, that sounds like Janet as well!

    Long live introverteesism, er, introvartusm, er intro...oh what the hell - this is why I don't go out much unless I'm forced to!

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  14. Loved the story velvet and as always your sense of humour sees you through. Another person who doesn't always do well when meeting strangers.

    Most people I meet briefly, think I'm *stuck-up* because when we next pass in the street etc., I can never recognise faces and totally ignore them (being rather short sighted). lol
    Sandy

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  15. TC, LOL, I'm a sucker for a British accent, so I'm sure I'd remember if we'd met before. Of course, even if we'd been in the same place at the same time, we might have been hiding out in different corners.

    Sandy, who knew there were so many of us? I don't recognize faces either, but it's because of my brain, not my eyes. Unless somebody's face is really distinctive--or unless I spend at least a few hours with them--I could look them in the face and swear I've never seen them before.

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  16. Oh, Velvet, you make me smile! All I can think is - look how good you made everyone you talked to feel - they were SO happy it was you and not them with the chicken in the teeth! I think we've all had some sort of experience like that. Makes us human - and humble. :-)

    I don't prefer crowds, but if I have to do them, I WILL enjoy myself. Decided a lot of years ago that I was tired of being miserable in situations I had to be in, but didn't want to be in. And decided the choice was MINE how I felt.

    I truely do live by "I cannot change people, places, or things. The only thing I can change is my ATTITUDE about people, places, and things".

    And at 57 years old - I don't give a lot of thought anymore, to what anyone thinks of me. The people that love and like me - don't much care how I act, dress, or behave. And the people that don't like or love me - I don't much give a fig WHAT they think about me. Makes it easy for me.

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  17. Jackie, you've made some good points. The older I get, the less I care about what people think of me, but the more I care about my own comfort, and the more I'm willing to say no to things that make me uncomfortable. I know what you mean about choosing to change your attitude, and I can do that, too. Changing my attitude keeps me from being completely miserable in situations I can't avoid. Unfortunately, introversion is an orientation rather than an attitude, so avoiding those situations will always be my instinctive first choice.

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