Friday, July 24, 2015

The Awkwardness of Idle Chit Chat

A couple weeks ago I was at church sitting by myself in the middle of the pew minding  my own business because I prefer to mind my own business. But mostly because when I'm out in public it's kind of way too overwhelming for me when there are lots of human beings that I do not know surrounding me who run the risk of attempting to communicate with me. I call these people 'strangers' because I feel strange when people I don't know try to talk to me.

I don't know why it's easier for me to stand in front of a thousand people baring my soul than it is to spend twenty six painful seconds commenting about the height of corn to someone I've never seen before, it just is. It's how I'm wired. (And for sake of context I live in Wisconsin. Corn is a very important topic to us here.)

Anyway, I'm sitting peacefully by myself - in the middle - away from all other human contact - when I become aware that a stranger has sat at the end of the pew. Immediately I thought crap. Because now I was going to have to shake hands when it came time for that ridiculous meet and great portion of the service. 

Here were the thoughts going on in my head at that moment:

What if my hands are sweaty?

What if my hands are cold?

What if she says Good Morning and then when it's my turn to say Good Morning back to her I accidentally spit on her?

What if she assumes I'm new here? Do I tell her how long I've been coming here? I can't do that; it'll make her feel awkward and then I'll feel awkward and then we'll just sit and stare at each other wondering who makes the next move.

What if she's a hand lingerer? You know, those people that shake your hand but then hold on to it for a few uncomfortable seconds longer than is necessary and you're just wondering what the heck is happening and why some stranger won't let go of your flesh which makes your hand sweat even more?

What if she comments on how sweaty my hand is? Or worse - just wipes hers off on the side of her dress the second she dismounts the shake?

I think I'm having a heart attack.

Is it hot in here? 

I should really go.

But that would be even more awkward because it's rude to get up and move the second someone else sits down and I would hate it if someone did that to me.

Oh, who am I kidding? I'd love it if someone did that to me! I'd have the whole row to myself and wouldn't have to shake hands.

Maybe I could just slowly slide down to the floor and roll out under the pew...


And this was all in the first three seconds of the woman sitting down. 

My absolute worst fear was realized when she turned to me and started speaking. 

As if I knew her.

But maybe I did.

I don't know. I suck at remembering who people are.

So, as her mouth is moving I'm sitting there in shock thinking:

Do I know her? I don't know her? Why is she talking to me? Does she think I'm someone else? Oh my goodness. She thinks I'm somebody else. This is going to be painfully embarrassing when she realizes I am not who she thinks I am. But maybe I did meet her? I swear I don't even recognize this person. I would make a horrible witness. The police would ask 'have you ever met this person before' and I'd have to say 'I have no idea; my brain doesn't work the way other brains work.' Why does she keep talking? I don't even understand the words she's saying to me. Is she speaking English? What language is that? 

And by that time her mouth stopped moving and she's looking at me. And I recognized that look. It's the one that says THIS IS THE POINT IN CASUAL CONVERSATION WHERE YOU RESPOND TO WHAT WAS JUST SAID.

Except I can't respond to what was just said because my social anxieties DROWN OUT WHATEVER WAS BEING SAID.

And that starts a whole other round of self-speak:

Oh no. Oh no! Oh no no no no no! It's my turn. She is expecting me to say something. Or react. Or nod. Or what? What?! What do I do? What does she want me to do? Do I have to answer a question? Do I say something about the weather? I know! I'll pretend I'm deaf. That's it. That's what I'll do. I'll shrug my shoulders and shake my head while pointing to my ears.... except.... what if she knows sign language. I bet she knows sign language. And then she'll know I'm not really deaf and then I'll simply die of embarrassment right here in the church. I read a book once where the lady's husband died in church. Right during the sermon. He kind of just leaned over on her and she thought he had fallen asleep so she jerked her shoulder up to wake him except he wasn't sleeping, he was dead, only she didn't know that until after his body fell forward and he hit his head on the back of  the pew in front of them. That would actually be a nice place to die, in church. Except it would really depend on the sermon. Because who wants to die during a sermon on hell and how awful it is. Now that would be awkward. "I don't know, the preacher was talking about the descent into hell and she just went and keeled over." Actually, that's pretty funny. That would make a great Saturday Night Live skit.... "Hell from beneath is moved for thee to meet thee at the coming! - CLUNK!" Oh man. Don't laugh. Do not laugh. For one, it is not that funny. Thinking about dying in church during a sermon about going to hell is actually weird and strange and normal people do not think about things like that. And, two, this stranger is still waiting for a response. You cannot respond with something random like dying in church. What is wrong with you?!

By this time the stranger realizes I'm socially inept and will usually turn away. Or I will and pretend I am a statue who doesn't understand English. Because I can acknowledge when it's time to accept defeat. And also when I need a break before I hyperventilate.

I guess the reason I'm telling you all this is because not everyone is blessed with the ease to make idle chit-chat with people they've never met before. For some it's actually excruciatingly painful. And it has nothing to do with you and everything to do with how we're wired. And we're painfully aware of that, too. 

So, be gentle. Don't be so quick to pass judgement or write someone off because they're not able to casually converse with you. Don't assume they're stuck up; they might just be stuck.

And if you know someone like me and you still really want to try to talk with them, here's a hint:

Start with, "You don't know me - I just really wanted to say hi to you" and then STOP and WAIT PATIENTLY because our minds need to catch up. Here is someone who wants to talk to me, I still don't understand why, but I now know I do not know them. You'll know we've caught up when we can appropriately respond with an (albeit awkward) "Oh. *nervous chuckle* Okay. Well. Hi?" And then you can move on to the next step.... "My name is Jane Doe.... "

Think of it as someone taking their first steps in physical therapy. We aren't going to take off running with you. First we need to stand up and get steady on our feet. Then we take one step. And then another. It's slow moving. 

Because once we get to know you, you won't get us to shut up.