The constant struggle of how to converse

A fear of awkward pauses

There have been many times when I’ve had to socialize with people I don’t know at all or haven’t talked to in years. These sorts of situations are hits or misses — conversation can flow as smooth as honey, or it can halt abruptly and trickles inconsistently like a blocked pipe.

Cases that are “misses” are tough to digest. There are a few things more painful than getting wisdom teeth removed, but one of them — in my opinion — is forced conversation. More often than not, I know right away when I won’t click with the person in front of me. My mind starts to flounder, and I start to picture a kite string slipping through my fingers as I am stuck on ground watching it float farther out of my reach. Similarly, I am left behind with nothing but the realization that there is absolutely no topic I could scrape together and talk about.

The chit-chatting usually fades out after I make a terrible joke, resulting in forced laughter from the person I am attempting to speak to. The weak giggles die out, and each of us takes one breath, then two. I may appear calm on the outside, but internally my mind is frantically trying to will the other person to say something and fill the void.

I fall back on feeble questions that are extremely impersonal. It feels as if a brick wall is up between myself and the other person, and before we know it, we are sucked into the dreaded black hole of silence, formally — or informally — known as an awkward pause.

An awkward pause is like a cold — you can feel it before it comes, and you try everything in your power to skip over it by searching madly for a way out. However, the uncomfortable silence is as unavoidable as a black hole. The entire duration of it is seemingly eternal, and inevitably, I find myself losing interest in the conversation.

When I have accepted defeat and realize that this situation is a lost cause, I resort to saying I have to be somewhere. We part with false promises that yes, we totally need to hang out and get coffee sometime and then proceed to briskly walk away from each other with zero intention of actually planning to meet again.

On the other hand, in cases that are “hits,” I click right away with my acquaintance, and we can babble away for hours about some TV show we both watch or a musician we both like and eventually get into deeper, more personal talks about life. I recently met up with one of my former advisees when she returned from a semester of studying abroad in Jordan. I hadn’t seen her in a year, but I remembered from before that we always had a lot to talk about, regardless of the fact that we hadn’t spent a lot of time together.

We agreed to meet at Grit for coffee. I have come to regard Grit as a sort of sacred grounds for meeting people, not too far from the significance that a church holds for a couple being wed. I went there with the intention of staying to chat for only 30 minutes or so, but before I knew it, two hours had flown by, my phone was stacked with notifications — which usually doesn’t happen because I check for them faster than they come — and the sinking sun made me realize how long it had been since lunch. The best part was we both ended our conversation and walked out together. We hugged, and she told me how much she really enjoyed talking to me like this. It was genuine.

I walked home, feeling the high one feels after a rather wonderful time interacting with friends. Though it definitely felt like a chore to drag myself out of the house before, I felt so glad I had actually made the effort to do this. It is experiences like these that truly make the stress prior to social interaction all worth it.

related stories