Tuesday, April 27, 2004

Talking to Strangers

"Where the hell have you been?" I hear you demand, clamoring for a fix of my wit and wisdom like a junkie at the methodone clinic. It's been a week since I last posted, perhaps the longest I've gone without writing since I started this diary. But I came up with a topic to discuss on Thursday, and I have been puzzling it over ever since.

Lest you think I've been perched here with a furrow in my brow and a big question mark over my head for a week, I have also been playing Sims at work instead of blogging, watching movies in bed instead of blogging (VHS is so cheap now, I picked up But I'm A Cheerleader, Character, Love and Human Remains, Total Eclipse, Dead Man on Campus, and Urbania for under $40), going to Court functions instead of blogging, going to the gym (for forty minutes of cardio every day... and I gained two pounds) instead of blogging, and window-shopping instead of blogging. But despite my neglect, the question remains to be discussed.

And so I started writing yesterday, but I was unable to concentrate long enough to write more than a paragraph every hour. I've been having this concentration problem all week, unable to read for very long, unable to do any work, unable to do much of anything except play with the Sims. Maybe it's the Sims sapping my strength. Maybe I'm just tired. Maybe it's just ennui.

So anyway, here's my percolating-for-five-days problem: What do you say to a person you just met? Even worse, what do you say to a person to whom you haven't even been introduced yet, a complete and utter stranger? How do you walk up to someone you don't know (and who doesn't know you) and just start talking? Even if you have been introduced by a mutual acquaintance and you know each-other's names and a little bit about each-other, how do you maintain a conversation?

It occurred to me, as I was pondering why I haven't been enjoying these larger Court functions, that I always get bored if I have no one to talk to. I usually bring Caroline and/or Angelique to these functions, so it's not like I have nobody to talk to at all... but they go off on their own and talk to other people and do other things, leaving me sitting at the table like a big old lump on a log. A glittering and well-accessorized lump, but a lump just the same.

As I was discussing this with Caroline, I bemoaned my inability to think of anything to say to people I've just met, the difficulty I have carrying on a conversation with strangers... for these events are all full of people, and I am often introduced to them, but I can't think of what to say to them after the introductions are through, and so they wander off and there I am alone again. Caroline looked at me a little crazy, being the sort of person who never hesitates to say whatever is on her mind to whoever happens to be standing nearby, and wondered, "Why don't you just ask them questions?" Then she rattled off three excellent conversation-starters, right off the top of her head, tailor-made for a Court function.

Well, it always pays to ask an expert... if you need to learn how to talk to strangers, you go to a gregarious extrovert. So I'm going to make little small-talk cheat-sheets bearing Caroline's pearlescent conversation-starters ("Do you go to many of these functions? How did you get involved in the Courts? Is your Court's Coronation/Ducal Ball anything like this one?"), and stash one in each of my purses. That still leaves the problem, though, of feeling comfortable talking to strangers.

Some pukeworthy pundit once stated that "a stranger is just a friend you haven't met yet." But to me, a stranger is an enemy waiting to happen, someone who might hurt me, or to whom I may say something unforgiveably stupid, because we don't know each-other's boundaries or sore spots. Each new person is an opportunity to feel awkward and unworthy, waiting for a click that will make conversation easy, a click that seldom comes. Essentially, I am afraid of strangers, because you simply don't know what they're going to be like.

Perhaps it's a control issue. Underneath it all, I want everyone to like me, and I can't control whether or not they like me, no matter how nice and charming and witty I make myself, so it's best to blend into the wallpaper and not take a chance that they won't like me (thereby robbing them of the opportunity to like me, along with the opportunity to dislike me... hey, if it made sense, I wouldn't have spent a week puzzling over it). One can only control the conversations one has in one's own head; with friends of long standing, you can also predict how the conversation is going to go... as well as being able to rely on the fact that they must like you because they've stuck around for a while. Of course, almost all of my friends are the gregarious type, because they had to do all the work of getting to know me in the first place. If left to my own devices, I doubt I'd know anybody at all.

My sponsor, at times like this, usually encourages me to consider the causes of the issue... it turns out that underneath most of my idiotic phobias lies an actual traumatic experience. I'm the once-burned-twice-shy type, but I often supress the memory of what exactly burned me in the first place. Rejection is a painful experience, even to the most gregarious of souls, and I know there have been times when I have been rejected/disliked/hurt by strangers, and sometimes by people I know: for example, I think it was in the sixth grade that I stopped to talk to a girl I thought was my friend and was told to fuck off because she didn't want her new boyfriend to know she was friends with geeks like me, and twenty-four years later I still remember how much that hurt.

I suppose it happens to everyone, but a naturally gregarious person would most likely take it in stride and balm his hurt feelings by meeting someone else, someone nicer, with whom he can vilify the stranger that hurt him. But an ungregarious person, particularly if that person has low self-esteem to begin with, would most likely cradle the hurt to his bosom and retreat farther into his shell.

But the question remains, how does one overcome this problem? By practice, I suppose. You conquer your fears by acting them out over and over again until you're not afraid anymore. So I guess I am going to have to make a conscious effort to walk up to someone and ask him or her a question from my little flashcards... without worrying about whether or not the person will like me, whether or not the person will welcome the interruption, whether or not I think I want to get to know the person better. Just do it.

Scary shit. Do you, my beloved reader, have any advice to impart? Leave it in the comment box below.

On your way there, rest your eyes on this:

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