Can you tell me when being a polite, quiet person fell out of vogue? At what age should one be heard as well as seen? When is it appropriate to speak even when not spoken to? I think I was absent the day this stuff was covered.
When I was younger, my quiet nature was a virtue. The adults in my life were so impressed with my ability to sit down and shut up. The teachers appreciated how well-behaved I was and often stuck me with the task of taking down the names of all the heathens who would cause a ruckus when no adults were present. Sometime after graduation, though, people began to equate quiet with weird. A few would ask “Why are you so quiet?” in an accusatory tone, as if politely listening to a conversation was a sin.
As an introvert and recluse-in-training, I have little occasion to practice the art of conversation. In my defense, I can blame some of my social awkwardness on my hearing impairment. To avoid the frustrations and (quite literal) headaches that come with trying to concentrate on multiple strains of conversation, I just stay out of social situations as much as possible.
When I am thrust into social settings, conversations generally fall into two categories: things I’ve never done but others have and things I don’t care about. So when someone starts off by saying “One time I was so wasted…” or “Remember at Bible camp when…” I know it’s time for me to sit back and think about foods I have enjoyed because I won’t have anything intelligent or fun to contribute to the conversation. One of the purposes of this “30 Failures” exercise is to work through these common social experiences that I never had and find something salvageable that I might be able to share when people around me start talking about bicycle riding or the shoeless people of New Zealand.
Since my silence was encouraged when I was a kid, I never got properly socialized. Where does one go to learn small talk? I went to public school. My family only ate around the dinner table on holidays. Church? Oh, it has to be church. I didn’t really go to church, so that must be the source of small talk refinement. Anyone can talk about Jesus!
“So, how about that Jesus?”
“Yep, he’s a swell guy.”
“Some weather we’ve been having.”
“You know who enjoyed a good rain shower? Jesus.”
Sometimes I surprise myself and carry on delightful conversations with one or two people. Most of the time, however, I am a frog in a shoebox (Hello my baby, hello my honey…ribbit). And content to sit back and let people talk at me or just let the surrounding conversations wash over me, absorbing the bits and snippets of chatter that filter through my faulty ears. In fact, there are times when I don’t notice that I haven’t been actively participating and I don’t feel awkward about it. But then some wisenheimer pipes up with “Jeez Katharine, stop hogging the conversation…maybe next time you’ll let someone else talk.” Reminding me once again of my social inadequacy.
As a writer, I have control over how and when I share information. In a conversation, the other party can ask questions about things I’d rather not discuss—like family life, occupation and why I moved from the Deep South to the Great White North. While writing these essays, I can present sensitive information and touchy topics far better than I can articulate them over cocktails in a bar. On the rare occasion that I do get into a conversation and someone asks those seemingly banal getting-to-know-you questions, I freeze up like a deer in headlights. I don’t have easy responses because I haven’t had an easy life. “Where are you from?” usually leads to “Why don’t you have an accent?” And I just don’t want to get into a discussion about my hearing impairment with someone I’ve just met and will possibly never speak to again.
This is the first item on my 30 Failures list that I think I should work to improve in the future. I can get away with the ol’ nod-and-smile for just so long before people catch on that I’m not as polite as I am socially dysfunctional. Maybe I’ll sign up for Remedial Small Talk for Introverts at the learning centre. I should strive to become more engaged and engaging. At the very least, I could add more guttural utterances when someone asks me about the weather.