Wednesday 8 December 2004

What the hell am I doing here?

Christmas is nearly upon us. Without wanting to sound too much like Eberneezer, it's a time of year when the roads are choked, the shops are full and the weather is cold, dark and miserable. Even the adverts on tv get worse, if such a thing is possible. I swear Currys are repeating their adverts this year. Did they really bring back Linda Barker? It is also the time of year when my diary starts to choke up with various unavoidable commitments. Now, family and friends at the weekend I can just about cope with. That's okay. They're good people, people I choose to spend my time with. Okay, so I lose a bit of sleep and don't get my usual lie-in on weekend, and have to spend time travelling about the place, but that's alright. The bit that I struggle with is the work stuff. Those parties, those lunches and dinners that I get invited to because of where I work and the people that I work with.

I'm shy.

C. has the kind of job where she has lots of suppliers, and for those suppliers she represents by far and away their most important customer. If C. doesn't list some products, they stop making them. As a result of this, these suppliers fall over themselves to get into her good books by giving her stuff, and by inviting her to major sporting events or swanky society dinners. I'll give you a couple of examples: England vs Greece 2002 world cup qualifiers. England vs France in the Six Nations at Twickenham. Hairdresser of the Year.

Ok. So I'm not really expecting anyone to be that bothered about the last one, but the other two are things I would quite happily attend. I'll go further. I pay to go this sort of thing. I stay up late at night and try to get hold of tickets. I enter ballots 18 months in advance to get tickets to that sort of thing.

Anyway. In my job I get nothing like that (well, I occasionally get bought a coffee, sometimes a nice coffee, one not made by Klix). Actually that's okay. The sporting events would be fine, but I would really struggle with the rest of it - for the same reason that I tend to struggle with parties at this time of year.... I have minimal social skills in this sort of context and I have absolutely no ability to make polite small talk.

I think it's something to do with being introverted (in a myers-briggs sense of the word that is, I'm not a shrinking violet). I am not frightened of large crowds of people. I cope quite happily at Glastonbury with 120,000-odd other souls and no decent sanitary facilities. What does alarm me though is when I am expected to spontaneously make polite conversation with people I do not know well. Somehow its easier to talk to someone that I don't know at all than to talk to someone I half-know.

You know the old conundrum about what to when you see someone you know walking past you? Do you smile broadly and say hello? Do you smile in half acknowledgement? Do you ignore them? Do you suddenly pretend to be interested in your mobile phone? (and don't you just HATE those people who don't just say "hello" but feel the need to say "how are you?" as well? What's with this follow-up question? that requires a response, but you've now already walked past me and I have to turn around and call out after your back... but you knew that. You only did this to humiliate me and make me feel socially inadequate, didn't you?)

How are you supposed to talk to someone you don't have anything to talk to about?

How am I supposed to pretend to be interested in what you have to say, when I can barely hear you over the music and think you are a moron?

Oh. And I'm not interested in cars either. As a man, this is something of a conversation stopper. I can talk about football. I can talk about cricket. In fact, if you have an interest in any kind of sport at all, I bet I can have a conversation with you (albeit one where you may end up hearing more statistics than you are generally comfortable with - I think that's why I like cricket). Cars? Forget about it. X3, MR-2, 2CV, C5, TT? Gibberish. Couldn't care. Sorry.

Worse. I'd probably look at you like I thought you were a brainless shitheap.

That's another talent I have that tends to kill conversation. I wear what I am thinking of you clearly on my face. I have no guile. That's great if I like you and I'm enjoying talking to you, but less great if I just want to run away and hide (actually, this gift does me no favours at work either).

It's funny. When I was at school, we used to have prospective parents or eminent visitors come round to our house for lunch, and my housemaster always used to take me to one side and ask me to make sure that I was sat next to them. Perhaps this was because of my dazzling repartee, although I think more likely it was because I was because I could be relied upon to at least be polite - there was a rather unfortunate trend at my school to completely ignore the person who sat at the end of your table. Some days a poor soul could sit through lunch and not exchange a word with any of the people who were sitting next to him. I was a nice polite lad, a scholar, I could be relied upon to smile weakly and talk about the weather or something. Same thing happened at forum. This was an alternative to chapel (which we were occasionally spared on a Sunday). This was where someone came and gave the school a lecture about, say, mountaineering, or the perils of smoking. They would often have a sprititual theme, but were in the main infinitely preferrable to the constant standing-sitting-kneeling of chapel. Of course, we were always desperate for them to finish. It had to be shorter than chapel, else what was the point? The speaker would eventually wind down and would ask if there were any questions. It took a brave boy to ask anything (or a stupid one - and I'm thinking here of a chap call Hugh Huxley). They would stand up to ask their question, and a 100 pairs of eyes would be throwing daggers at them.

Of course, the school were embarrassed if there were no questions asked, as it made it all too obvious that we would far rather be somewhere else. Anywhere else (except chapel). Inevitably this meant that some people would be given questions to ask as they trooped in for their talk. The questions had to be given to someone who could be relied upon to ask it, but could also be relied upon to ask the question without reading it off the little piece of paper it came on, word by painful word.

Yes. Of course I always got given one.

Yes. Of course I always asked it.

It was a fine line you know.... asking the question in such a way that made it look like I had just thought of it, but to make it clear to my fellows that this was not MY question.

Anyway. Christmas parties. A room in a pub is okay, I suppose. You can sort of find someone you know and try and spend the whole evening with them. Mingling is not something I do. I can't walk up to a group of people and impose myself on them. Why would I do that? Why would anyone? Why do people do that to me when I'm talking to my friends, well, the people I'm hiding in the corner with? Sit downs are worse though. I always end up sitting right at the end of the table with some people I barely know, while all the people I do know end up sitting at the other end of the room, at that part of the table that I will end up calling the "fun" part. Meanwhile, I'll have a polite conversation with someone about the hotel they stay in during the week, or (as on one excruciating occasion) their passion for growing orchids.

I don't know why I'm like this.

Everywhere I go, everything I do, I have this ability to step outside of myself, look down at what I am doing and think "Wanker". I find this inhibiting. I know when I am bullshitting. I know when I have nothing much to say to someone. They don't know it, but I know it and that's enough.

Words. They're the thing. Why do you need a phone? Why go and see people when you can say it so much more articulately in an email?

It's pathetic, and I try to fight it. I make myself ring people up. I force myself to get up off my arse and try to talk to people. I'm 30 years old dammit. I can pretend I'm as socially skilled as the average 10 year old can't I?

Everyone else can.

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