Unless you have a phobia about metal-binding proteins. Or frogs. Or formalwear made from garbage. Then you’re on your own.)
I can be socially awkward. This should come as no surprise to anyone who’s ever been within thirty-five feet of me in public. It can be a burden, and embarrassing — but I’ve finally figured out my problem. And better, how to solve it.
You see, I’ve discovered my particular brand of awkwardness doesn’t stem from having nothing to say. Some people have that; a loss for words — blanking out in conversation, or shying away entirely — but that’s not exactly my pathology.
Because I have things to say. Oh, I’ve got plenty of things to say.
They’re just not socially appropriate things to say.
And that’s the crux of it. I’m a smartass, I don’t like small talk and I take most things people say at face value. And the problem with that — insofar as there’s a “problem” with being totally efficient and awesome in conversation — is that nobody wants to hear the reactions that come most naturally to me.
Okay, I suppose that is a “problem”. Assuming I ever want to interview for a job or meet new friends or order a cone at the local ice cream shop. Which I do.
(Wellll. Two out of three. In the summer. At best.)
“Statements like these are the conversational equivalent of rice cakes.”
Anyway, where I falter is when some friendly socially-forward goober wanders over for a conversation and says something like:
“Sure is cold today.”
“Thank god it’s Friday, amirite?”
Or my favorite:
“You got a haircut.”
I have responses for all of these statements. Not that they require responses, semantically, because two of them aren’t questions and the middle one is really rhetorical, but I’ve tried not responding to these sorts of things, and the speakers tend to look at me expectantly, with raised brows and drooly chins, until one of us breaks the impasse and walks away.
(It’s always me. They never walk away. Why do they never walk away?)
(Don’t answer that; it’s rhetorical. Which I’ll tell you up front, because that’s what people ought to do; what the hell is wrong with society?)
Ahem. Sorry. I got a little caught up in my pathology. Please forgive.
The point is this: Statements like these are the conversational equivalent of rice cakes. If you want to have them in private, that’s your self-hating prerogative — but don’t drag other people into your nightmare. Munch your semantically null sentiments off in a corner somewhere, and come back when there’s something substantial to say.
That’s the dream. It’s never going to happen. And I’m the dick for dreaming it. Fine.
It turns out, I’m also the dick for responding in the way that comes naturally. Like to the “cold today” quip, what I’d like to reply is:
“Actually, it’s much colder on the surface of Neptune, where your flapping lips would freeze together and shatter and we wouldn’t have to have this inane conversation. So no. It’s actually not quite cold enough.”
Or to “TGIF”:
“According to most religious texts, the various gods seem to favor either Saturday or Sunday as holy days, so you’d get the most out of thanking your deity of choice for one of those. Also, since Friday is not the weekend, I’m stuck here at work listening to you regurgitate slogans you read off a coffee mug, so whatever deity you worship, I hope he, she, it or they cast you into the abyss, snake pit or lake of fire that’s used by your magic sky person, animal totem or transcendent pot-bellied vagrant to eternally torment the souls of unbelievers, heretics, baby slappers and people who turn left from an optional turn lane without using their signals.”
Those sorts of responses, I’ve come to learn, are “not appropriate”.
I disagree, of course. The responses are completely appropriate to the statements; they’re just not conducive to remaining an employed, married, non-incarcerated, (marginally) respected member of society. Which is also kind of important.
So I can’t say the things I want to say, a lot of the time. I also can’t say the things that I’m supposed to say — “it’s dang chilly, brutha!” or “all them hairs got cut!” or “only thing better’n Friday is Huuuuuump Day, baby!” — because I just can’t.
For one thing, it kills me a little bit on the inside. And also the outside, where I’m sure my look of abject horror shines through like an endoscopy scope peeking up out the throat of Edvard Munch’s Scream.
But mostly, replying in the usual way never seems to end the conversation. It just encourages more of the same — “was it hot enough fer ya yesterday?” — and nobody wants that, particularly if there are any sharp pointy objects in the vicinity.
Hence my awkwardness for four-plus decades. My instincts are wrong. Social convention is way wrong. So I’ve always been stuck.
Now I’ve figured it out. I don’t have to be a jerk (other peoples’ label; not mine), nor do I have to be a soulless slave to societal convention lacking creative gumption enough to try to share genuine personal thoughts and feelings (okay, that label’s mine). I can choose a third way:
Word of the day.
That’s my new plan. Every day, I’ll pick a word. A fun word. Nothing mean or meaningful or relevant; just something fun to say. Like “persimmon”. Or “Sasquatch”. Or “mumbletypeg”. And when I’m in one of those stuck moments, caught between expectation and excoriation, I’ll say the word.
Nothing else. Just “peccadilloes”. Or “alabaster”. Or “lollygag”.
And then I’ll nod, as though I’ve said something perfectly reasonable, and see what happens next. Probably a “what?” Or a frown. Or more small talk, since that seems to be the “go-to” for a lot of people. And that’s okay. Any of those will simply get a smile and a repeat of the day’s word. Whether it’s “applejack”. Or “dirigible”. Or “onomatopoeia”.
And that’ll keep me sane. (-Er.) Also married, non-incarcerated, and slightly-but-maybe-not-completely-less respected.
Employed, I’m not so sure about. Maybe it’s best I don’t unveil my new plan on a Friday. Because TGIF, baby. T. G. I. F. Apparently.