I hate most social gatherings that involve casual acquaintances or strangers. Parties are awful and large school or work-related events are the worst. Dinner parties are at most tolerable because of the ability to sit and eat. Lunches? Hit or miss.
The other day I was reminded why I’m probably not invited to a lot of social events with people that don’t already get me. I’m horrible at small talk. No, I mean really horrible. I’ve discovered I have two settings: mute and blowhard, with nothing in between. If I’m not being completely socially awkward in my silence, I’m being completely inappropropriate in my ranting.
I’m not sure exactly when this happened. My childhood was spent in quiet dishonesty. If I had nothing interesting to say, I would make something up. And then I was caught and spent a brief period in elementary school purgatory until sufficient time had passed in which everyone involved forgot. But I did not, and at some point after decided it was probably best just not to say anything. I was also woefully insecure and thought I was without opinion on pretty much everything. Looking back I think I actually had a lot to say, but wasn’t confident enough to let it out of my mouth.
And then it happened. At some point I discovered I wanted to express my opinion. No, I needed to express my opinion. It was visceral. The only problem, however, is that after spending much of my life being quiet, I didn’t know how to be both polite and opinionated. I didn’t know how to listen and talk. I didn’t know how to stop lecturing and listen to differences of opinion. Most importantly? I didn’t know how to fake it when I disagreed. And it seemed like I was always disagreeing.
So again, and when some casual friendships dissolved after too many overheard “Why is she such a bitch?” comments, I went dormant. Until I was in my senior year of college and approaching 30. Perhaps it was that silver haired minx of a Sociology professor who validated almost everything I had to say and stroked my ego. If you’re told you’re right enough, or told how smart you are enough, you start to believe it. The only problem is you leave less and less space for others. And you become a jerk.
It turns out as much as I want to be right, I also want to be liked, some days more, some days less.
Two days ago I was invited to have lunch with an acquaintance that I really would like to turn into a friend. And even though it was just going to be the two of us I was still nervous. I’m in a new town with new people that I’m still trying to figure out and so I spend a lot of my time guarded, reeling back in the little bits that leak out from time to time, or looking to see who noticed and didn’t seem to care. These are my people. As it turns out, the lunch ended up being for three, with another woman appearing as I arrived. Again, someone I think I really like, but don’t know enough about to figure out which version of me would be acceptable.
Sociologist Erving Goffman will tell you that we all play different roles throughout our day, similar to that of an actor: employee, spouse, parent, teacher, etc. We frame our social interactions within the constraints of a particular character or role. So it’s not psychotic to acknowledge that each of us – even if we don’t know it – take on different personas depending on a situation. My problem is that I tend to over think each of these roles as well as the roles of others, all the way down to the extras. Though I’m sure at 700+ words you’ve figured this out by now.
During lunch, I did my best to be friendly, smiled a lot and tried to listen, making polite comments here and there. But then the talk turned to 40B housing – the Massachusetts law that states each town in the Commonwealth must set aside 10% of its housing supply as affordable. There doesn’t seem to be a set figure defining affordable. Rather, it is a percentage based on the average income for each town. And in the town I live in, I believe that means a family of 4 can’t make more than $65,000? That’s more money than either of my parents ever earned in a year over the course of their entire working lives, but the salary of a pauper in relation to most residents.
One of the reasons our town is so desirable for housing is both its scenic and rural landscape and the public school, the latter most recently ranked 4th in the state by Boston Magazine, the keeper of all things “best.” There is a segment of the town that doesn’t want to open the floodgates to the economically downtrodden because of a perceived notion that it will either change the “feel” of the town or change the enviable student-teacher ratio. I think you can see where I’m going with this. As a renter in the town, a liberal’s liberal, a former Sociology student, and a firm believer in this little thing called a “society,” I kind of have strong opinions on the subject…but that’s another 2,000 words.
Let’s just say that I opened my mouth during lunch and it all came pouring out, to polite smiles and nods. I knew what was happening and still couldn’t stop it. But then an interesting thing happened on that deck. At some point I decided I didn’t want to stop talking about the inherit unfairness of the whole system. I wanted to own what I was saying because it needed to be said. And even though I want to be liked and thought of as fun to be around, I also want to be able to be me. The mute blowhard with a smattering of good, thoughtful, and highly tolerant friends. For all I know, my lunch companions may very well end up in that role. It’s too soon to tell.
But I still need to work on the listening part.