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.