Come dine with me
Last Tuesday I had dinner at my professor’s house. Earlier in the day I texted my friend who had dined there the night before: “Does he serve wine?” She answered in the negative.
Completely sober, I chatted with 11 of my classmates during dinner, dessert and drinks — Sprite and lemonade. I even talked with my professor and his wife. And much to my surprise, I survived. In fact, I may have even succeeded. I cracked a successful joke. I used my knife and fork correctly. I got a few compliments on my scarf.
This may or may not surprise friends and strangers alike, but I suffer from a self-diagnosed mild version of something kind of like social anxiety. I really, really do not like talking to people. Never on the phone. Rarely on the street. I’m generally okay in my own house or at a crowded party. I excel at emails. And hey, I have a column where I can write to the world without having to hear them talk back.
So standing around on my professor’s balcony, wearing a name tag and nodding politely at conversations about history classes and the upcoming football game did not rank too high on my all-time fun list. At first.
Initially I didn’t want to sit around a table and listen to what my classmates did this summer. I didn’t want to know about their theses. I didn’t want to hear about their independent research, nor did I care to know more details about their future plans. And I really did not want someone to ask me “What grade will you teach?” when I told them “I’m an English major.”
When I realized that the real reason I wanted to booze at my professor’s house was not because the situation would be awkward, but because it would be painfully real, I felt a little worse, then a lot better. Maybe I’ve replaced that self-diagnosed social anxiety with a more powerful social inhibitor: fear of the future. I’m not bad at holding conversations. I’m just not good at being okay with what I have to say. What are you doing next year? I don’t know. Are you taking the GREs? No. Are you applying for jobs? No. For God’s sake are you at least traveling across Europe? I don’t think so.
You can see how those conversations would be a little one-sided, a little uncomfortable, and fairly short. When people ask “Well what do you want to do?” all I can offer is a pause, a sip of Sprite — when I’m lucky, of something a bit stronger — and a shrug. Sometimes I say, “I’d like to just live on the beach.” Everyone laughs. It’s not all that funny, though, since I’m being completely honest.
I’m definitely not smarter than any of the accomplished history majors I sat across from. What I did this summer was maybe as cool, but not cooler than other people’s travels, studies, jobs. When we were leaving my professor’s house one of the guys asked “Can someone drive me home?” I asked where he lived: “The Lawn,” he replied. As if my feelings of inadequacy couldn’t grow any stronger, I was now driving home one of the most accomplished students at the University.
But here’s where I succeeded. I’d parked my car in a parallel fashion and it hadn’t been towed. I kept up a conversation with this stranger for the five minute car ride. In an hour and a half I’d conquered two of my greatest fears: parallel parking and making small talk. In an hour and a half I hadn’t figured out if and when I’d be going to graduate school. I still hadn’t figured out a clever way to respond to any and all questions about my nonexistent teaching future. I hadn’t written a thesis, and I hadn’t made any plans to start on one.
But my professor was interested in my surname. His wife found my waitressing stories entertaining. I thought about — but never got around to — discussing the argument in one of the class textbooks with my peers. I didn’t spill anything, and I didn’t say anything offensive. I was socially acceptable. And even better, I was, based on my own standards, a social success.
My first inclination in any social setting is to compare myself to the people around me. Sometimes, though, it’s nice to just listen to what people have to say. The story my professor told about his tough undergraduate physics class reminded me of a class I took last year. I was, for a moment, just as bad at physics as all the humanities-oriented dinner guests around me.
Connelly’s column runs biweekly Wednesdays. She can be reached at email@example.com.