Social Challenge


It’s never been a secret that I find socialising difficult. It’s not that I don’t know how—it’s just so much work.

I enjoy time out with established friends, the ones who take the work out of socialising; the ones who aren’t disgusted, or even surprised, when in a public cafe I may laugh so hard that I have to let coffee fall out of my mouth and back into the cup so it doesn’t spray everywhere. But it takes years to make those established friends, and I’ve only ever had a few at a time.

The more common kind of friends, the polite tea party friends, make my battery run down faster than taking care of Timmy does. I have to keep so many things in my mind at once, so many filters to run my words through before I say them: Will what I say offend them? Bore them? Do they have any sensitivities or differences I need to be mindful of, when choosing topics? At what point would they feel uncomfortable from an ‘overshare’? Could what I say be easily misinterpreted? Would they appreciate this kind of humour, or will I feel embarrassed I tried to be funny? What percentage of my conversation has been about me? Too much will make me look arrogant. What questions can I ask to invite them to talk about themselves?

I have to keep an eye on their body language. Have they had enough? Are they ready to finish this conversation?

I have to be mindful of my own body language. Do I look engaged? Am I looking them in the eye for appropriate amounts of time? (Too little looks rude and disinterested, too much is creepy and oppressive.) Can they tell I’m running these filters as they speak? Obviously, it’s important that they can’t see that. I need to look like my whole brain’s partaking in the conversation, not just the parts that aren’t running the filters, or thinking of how uncomfortable this is for me.

All that effort and skill comes naturally to some people. To a lot, even. (Most? Maybe it just seems that way.) But with all that going on in my head whenever I’m conversing with people I don’t know very well, or only superficially, it’s no wonder I find socialising to be immensely battery-draining. (That’s all during in-person interaction. I find text interaction—forums, instant messaging, Facebook, emails, blogging—to be thoroughly enjoyable and energising.)

So I was already on the back foot when I re-entered the sphere of antenatal class mums at Parent and Child when Timmy was almost three months old, because by then they’d already made friendships with each other. Working at acceptable conversation with acquaintances was hard enough. Now I had to infiltrate a pre-existing circle, on top of that. I found it helped to give them something to talk about with me, before I got to Parent and Child last week: I’d posted a photo-comic of Timmy I’d made, on the group’s Facebook page. When they talked about it with me, not only did that identify for me which mums were interested or amused by such things, but it made conversation easier for as long as that topic lasted.

When one of the mums suggested a Girl’s Night Out, I told myself I had to go. I intensely didn’t want to, of course. I would have been much more comfortable at home with a book, or chatting on Skype (text chatting, not video calling). But if I was ever going to feel like one of the group, I had to force myself into it.

It took less than five minutes for me to have my first embarrassment. To normal girls, a ‘night out’ is when you doll yourself up and make it a special occasion, but it hadn’t occurred to me to do this. To me, a ‘night out’ means that you’re outside of your house, at night.

I’d arrived at the restaurant first (apparently so my humiliation could be reinforced with every following arrival), and every girl that joined me was gorgeous—dressed in nice clothes, fancy shoes, makeup, jewellery, and an excited expectation of a fun time.

Then there was me: in my jeans, old sneakers, and hoodie. No makeup. No jewellery. No clue.

I couldn’t even do any emergency improvements. My hair was in desperate need of a wash, so if I’d undone my ponytail, it just would have shown all its stringy awfulness. I couldn’t even take my hoodie off, because underneath it I just had a casual t-shirt over a long-sleeved thermal-underwear top!

It got worse when they ordered drinks. I don’t drink alcohol (just because I think it tastes revolting), so while these gorgeous girls were daintily holding champagne flutes and talking about vintages, I was hugging my chunky water glass and hoping nobody had noticed the stain on my jeans. I couldn’t even justify my yuckiness by arguing that I was a tired new mum—we’d all had a baby in the last six months!

I was frequently intensely uncomfortable, wishing for the comfort of home. I was the odd one out in so many ways: grubby, quiet, clueless, and couldn’t possibly look like I was enjoying myself—certainly not as much as everybody else.

But I was glad to be able to contribute to conversation sometimes. After all, we all had three things in common: the trauma of first-time labour, relief it was over, and stories resulting from both. We laughed, cringed and howled with various retellings of pregnancy and labour happenings, in conversation that I’m sure would have mentally scarred any woman who hadn’t been though a similar thing herself. Fortunately for the rest of the world, we were seated outside where nobody else was subjected to hearing it.

Despite my discomfort, I’m glad I went. It went a long way toward my feeling part of the group. Next time we have a ‘night out’ though, I’ll be sure to doll up.

But I hope it doesn’t happen for a while.


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