The Wife said to me the other day that she admires my skills at diplomacy and ability to navigate social situations. This absolutely blew my mind. When I look in the mirror, I see a man who prefers the company of a few close friends to anything involving new people, and whose self-consciousness over his inability to engage in small talk nearly parallels that of his inability to whistle.*
All too frequently, I feel very awkward and uncomfortable in social situations, particularly ones involving a large number of people whom I have never met. A large party of strangers is a deeply intimidating environment for me, not one into which I eagerly dive in the hopes of emerging with dozens of new friends. Small talk and light jokes have always been a tremendous effort of imagination for me, which have much more often than not left me drained by the end of the evening. Talking about nothing is difficult.
That’s not to say I can’t, don’t, or won’t engage in that sort of social activity. I do have the skills and abilities necessary to meet new people and make myself agreeable to them. But I don’t enjoy or seek out such situations and nearly all of the time, I find myself uninterested in pursuing a friendship with the people I thus meet. Not that I feel superior to them or that becoming friends with new people is some kind of condescension. In truth, what restrains me is quite probably my own lack of self-confidence because I wonder why people would want to be friends with me.
So mingling at parties, mixers, and bars has always been tough for me to do. I have always found being placed in an environment with a lot of new people to be mentally and emotionally exhausting, and I likely always will. In order to really feel comfortable at a larger social gathering that includes new people, I need to have known about half the people there before I got there. That’s probably why I never flourished in politics; I always preferred policy to politics anyway.
I express these things as regrets for a personal shortcoming because I think they are a personal shortcoming. I envy the people who truly enjoy meeting new people and therefore become very good at doing it. I have never seen myself that way or felt like such a person and such people seem to be happier and better off in the world than I. That doesn’t mean I want a social angel to come along and introduce me to a dazzling galaxy of interesting new friends; it doesn’t mean I crave sympathy or pity for my inadequate social life. I have a more than adequate social life and a healthy stable of friends. Making new friends is not easy or enjoyable, but I am capable of completing this task. I do wish I didn’t think of it as a “task.”
After all, the professional life I have chosen for myself requires that I do this sort of thing from time to time, whether it be with new clients or prospects, new adversaries or judges, or at professional networking functions like bar association meetings or mixers. When in such a situation, I make the effort to meet people and try as hard as I can to think up new kinds of nothing to talk about with people who I do not know. I do go through lots of business cards because that’s part of what it is to be a practicing lawyer; you need to get your name out there and meet lots and lots of people. But I also have to be reminded from time to time by one of the partners in my firm to schmooze up my eviction clients the same way a child has to be reminded by his parents to make his bed or put away his dishes and for the same reason: it’s a chore, something one does perhaps to earn a reward but which is very different from the reward itself.
But it’s one of the facets about my profession and some dimensions of my social life which are somewhat unpleasant, the same way that I find picking up after my dogs every couple of days to be a disagreeable part of the otherwise-enjoyable companionship which I enjoy with my pets.
What’s amazing is that apparently, I’ve been able to subsume my real feelings about this so convincingly that more than six years after we married, my wife had no idea about it. It’s very odd to come across such a stark contrast between my own self-image and that of someone so close to me. I can’t imagine how that came to be. I wonder what other kinds of disconnects between my self-image and others’ perceptions of me might be out there.
I suspect that I might be happier should I remain ignorant of other answers to that. Learning that my wife perceives me to be more socially adept than I think I am has not made me any more or less happy than I was before. It has, however, left me somewhat unsettled.
* That’s right, I can’t whistle; when I pucker up my lips air soundlessly blows out. I’ve never been able to whistle despite dozens if not hundreds of people throughout forty years of my life offering the profoundly unhelpful advice, “Aw, come on, it’s easy!” Please resist the impulse to whistle should you encounter me in person and remember this bit of trivia; it only amplifies my sense of personal inadequacy and sadness at my inability to whistle. After all, if you met a paraplegic, you hopefully would not tell her that it was easy for you to do jumping jacks and then demonstrate how you can just do them whenever you feel like it. If you possessed more empathy than that of a cobra contemplating a nearby wounded mouse, you would anticipate that such behavior would hurt the paraplegic’s feelings. The emotional parallel for a non-whistler is closer than you might imagine.