It’s Not Just About Conversation Starters
In real life, among strangers, I am shy in a way that’s remarkably specific and to a degree that can fairly be described as crippling.
I’m fine on a podium. Fine in a classroom discussion (unless the instructor utters the dreaded words, “Divide yourselves into groups…”). Fine if I’m with someone I trust who will let me stay close. Fine in a ballet class, because the protocols are generally pretty clear.
But usually I’m not fine.
It took me a long, long time to really understand the problem—in fact, it was only in the past year or two that I was finally able to pick the most important thread out of the pattern; the thread that forms the warp(1) of the whole thing.
- In weaving, the warp is the straight thread that forms the matrix around which the fancy stuff is woven. It may may not look like much, but without the warp, a beautiful loom-woven rug is nothing but a ball of yarn. BTW, there’s an easy way to remember which is which: the word weft(2) relates to the verb “to weave”—and if you think about the action of weaving (whether weaving fabric or weaving through obstacles), it will help you know which word is which. The weft is woven around the warp.
- Some weavers use the word woof in place of weft. I forget exactly where I first learned basic weaving (it was a school thing; we made hand-looms), but the woman who taught us used woof. I use both, interchangeably. A different bent on the same mnemonic applies: weave > woven > woof instead of weave > weft.
The warp of the problem, for me, is that I can’t read (or even see) the subtle signals that say, “Hey, it’s cool if you join me/us” or “Stay back, weirdo.”
Being as I’m a fairly benign weirdo who doesn’t like to go where he’s not wanted, I have no idea who to approach—and I also have terrible feelings associated with the times that, as a kid, I tried anyway and found myself harshly rejected.
I’m okay if someone approaches me, but if I’m put in the usual free-for-all kind of situation, I’m completely screwed, and I tend to quietly panic.
I doubt this helps me seem approachable.
I don’t know if there’s any complete solution for for this.
I have grown marginally less anxious about approaching individual strangers. Most adults aren’t obnoxious jerks who will openly heap scorn on beleaguered randos who approach them, and I think I’m pretty okay at picking up on the signals that say, “Okay, it was nice meeting you, I’m out.”
Groups are harder, because I can’t tell when a group is open and when it’s closed. To complicate matters, I live in a place where people feel that is impolite to say so directly, or indeed to say anything directly …but in which the conventions surrounding polite, indirect communication are quite different from those I learned growing up. Argh.
So I dread the “divide yourselves into groups” moment with singular intensity.
I’m not sure what to do about all this, exactly—but at least it sheds some light on why all the. “quirky conversation starters” articles out there seem, from my perspective, to miss the point (though I’m sure they’re a big help to a lot of people).
It’s not that I can’t think of something to talk about. Everyone loves ballet, dinosaurs, entomology, and etymology, right? RIGHT?! ;D
It’s that I can’t figure out who is and isn’t open to talking to me (unless, like the guy at the last party I went to, they make the first move).
I’m writing this mostly for myself. Writing about these things helps me think about them. Maybe if I can start thinking concretely about this problem, I can start to develop a strategy; something that will help.
I don’t think this will will ever be easy or natural for me—but that’s okay. If I can figure it out just just enough to get by, that will be, as they they say, gravy.