05 December 2009

Beyond the Social Awkwardness

The other night, I was talking with a new mohomie (new to me), and he had a smirk on his face, which I asked him about (as I tend to do). He said something about enjoying learning people's stories after having seen them around for so long but not knowing them personally, and that led to discussing how long we'd seen each other around but were just now getting to know each other. How long had we figured the other person was disinterested? Part of our conversation involved discussing first impressions, and we learned a thing or two.

But before I describe that, I'll say you obviously can't interact with everyone you want to when you want to. Time and energy and emotional investment don't allow you to become friends with everyone at once. I choose those in whom I invest my time and energy somewhat selectively, I think, reserving enough time for quality interaction that I feel like I'm actually connecting with and maintaining quality contact with a few people but leaving enough time for more incidental, "shallow" interaction to find possible casual friendships or future closer friendships as well. Of course, as I discussed with another friend last night, there's often one person or another who isn't as interested in spending a lot of time together or talking as much, and it can be a little difficult to learn to navigate those friendships where personal interest is uneven or is of differing natures (romantic vs. platonic, etc).

Back to the topic at hand: about a week prior, I had gotten to know one of our mutual friends who invited me to a get-together with some guys from a group I just didn't think I related to, and I almost backed out and said I'd just drop him off and pick him up later (I was his chauffeur for the weekend, since he was visiting from out of town) because I didn't want to crash the party or be this awkwardly not-entirely-welcome presence. But in the end, I decided to buck up and give it a shot, and I had a good time. Now there I was, sitting in the room of one of those guys, with another mutual friend of ours, having a good time and enjoying each other's company and wondering what took us so long, shaking our heads and musing about the signals we had interpreted from each other unnecessarily.

We wondered why it took so long for us to hang out, and we learned that we each had the impression that the other person was disinterested. This isn't terribly uncommon for me: I'll chat with people, but I honestly don't find most people terribly interesting on first impressions. I'm generally slow to warm up to people, and I'm slow to find them interesting. It's just kinda how I roll. So I think people read that, and they respond with equal disinterest or defensiveness. But whatever the case here, we learned that we were seeing each other as disinterested when that wasn't necessarily the case.

I told him I'm a shy guy by nature and completely introverted, and I don't naturally go up to a group and introduce myself. I sometimes introduce myself to individuals but not groups without some real effort. And this guy was always with a group. Well, I also saw him as a super conservative Utah wannabe-sporty boy, and wasn't sure how we'd relate. There were always other people who appeared more relatable, so I wasn't sure introducing myself to him was worth the effort. Anyway, I told him when there's a group of people, I'll sometimes come up and talk with someone I know within that group, for example our mutual friend who was there with us as we were discussing this. But I told him when I did that a few times, he and others kind of avoided eye contact or turned away and started talking to each other, which I read as disinterest or even possible disdain for me on some level, so I never tried for more communication. In fact, they have a female friend who hangs out with them who I always thought was kind of looking at me thinking, "Who are you and what do you want with my friends?" Because of these signals I read, I backed off and figured that was just one group I'd not get to know at all, and that was OK because, like I said, I only have so much energy for expanding social circles. He laughed and said that certainly wasn't the impression he'd intended to give and that he thought I was disinterested and didn't care to speak to him, which is why he disconnected when I came over and started speaking only to the mutual friend and not to the group (not knowing that speaking to the person I know when they're standing with their group is sometimes my shy-guy way of opening the possibility of getting to know others in the group). Oh, the zany miscommunication of it all.

The thing is, it's just hard to know sometimes whether we're reading signals correctly or to be aware of the signals we're sending and how they might be interpreted. An acquaintance recently blogged about how he goes to Matis firesides and kind of stays detached but secretly wishes some people would talk to him. He commented in passing that the older guys and younger guys don't seem interested, and I had to laugh because just the night prior, I'd been telling these same two guys I've been talking about that I often refrain from engaging with younger guys at the firesides or other social events because I feel like the uninteresting older guy.

I can't help but think, when talking or hanging out with some of the younger guys, that at least part of them is thinking, "Dude, let's not make this too long 'cause there are a dozen guys I could be spending time with who are younger, hotter, more flirtatious and likely to lead somewhere, and more fun than you, but you seem like a nice enough guy, so I'll give you a moment." Perhaps that's my own projection because part of me has thought that way, which I figure is only human, even if not entirely admirable. And of course, for a lot of these guys, a moment is all I want, anyway. Just touching base, a friendly hello, and we're on our way. But there may be, for example, an interesting-seeming guy who I'd like to get to know better, but who is, say, in his early twenties (read "much younger than me"), new to the moho thing (which makes me think I should stand back so he can befriend more "faithful" guys), and already knows I'm open to getting to know him (let's pretend I've let him know so in e-mails but left the ball in his court because I don't want to pressure him), and I don't want to keep talking to someone who seemingly has some reason for not pursuing communication with me because the last thing I want is to be the creepy older guy who won't leave someone alone. :-)

So what's the result? I'll say hello to him, refrain from the hug I wanted to give, maybe ask a benign question or two, try to read his response and see if there's any more openness than last time or if he'll invite more conversation or seems to at least want to, and finally decide to move on and maybe come back to him later if the opportunity presents itself because I'm not sure how to read him and don't want to force myself or take up time he could spend talking with the people he'd rather be talking to. Slightly awkward, maybe, but worth it for the possibility of having a good chat sometime and letting him know I'm still open to it if/when he's ever ready. And yet I wonder: what does this look like from his side? What interpretations does he have, while I'm wondering how to interpret him?

I'm left wondering, in such a case, if he really just is less interested in getting to know each other any better on a personal level than I am (as I discussed with my friend), or if he's generally wary except with a few chosen people of whom I'm not a part, or if he's secretly afraid his inner beast will try to rip my clothes off and doesn't want to deal with that conflict, or if he's heard some kind of rumor about me which makes him cautious, or if my lack of "testimony" makes me a non-candidate for friendship, or if I'm just too old to befriend, or if he just plain thinks I'm boring, or if he is disgusted by acne-prone people, or if he is interested in chatting more but just doesn't know how to let me know it's OK to talk to him, or if my breath offends him, or if he's afraid I'll crush on him, or if I remind him of his elementary school bully, or...funny how many scenarios one can come up with to interpret signals, isn't it?

Fortunately, I've had several years to learn not to let myself get carried away with this stuff. When things just "don't seem to work" with someone or with a group of people, I've learned not to try to figure it out too much or to tell myself negative stories because you just never know quite what's going on with someone else. Any more, I tend to shrug, hope for better in the future, try to let them know I'm open, or just move on and let it go and let the cards fall where they may. I've tried the "blame myself" or "blame them" thing, and it's not healthy either way. I've tried the "push for an explanation" thing, and it can create unnecessary friction or defensiveness completely unnecessarily and unjustifiably. I've tried the "withdraw and retreat" thing, and it leaves me feeling hopeless and disconnected. Anymore, I generally try the "check in and set the invitation out there and then move on without any expectation of response" thing, an important component of which is to stop checking in after two or three non-responses, and I'm finding that to work best for me.

This way, the connections are just open enough that somewhere down the road, whether or not we ever become close friends, a few of those connections might just end up with us sitting together with friends and chatting until 2:30 in the morning about deep things and stupid things and learning from each other and laughing about how long we awkwardly passed each other up.


Some Like It Hot said...

It's late and my brain is fried, so I don't really have a comment, suffice to say that I read your post :)

Matt said...

Yeah, same here. Not much to add, but I enjoyed reading.

Jon said...

Interesting. I've never thought of you as a shy guy. We seemed to connect well from the time we first met, although those circumstances were a little bit out of the ordinary. :)