Wednesday, June 27, 2012

On Social Awkwardness.

I took a class today at a museum. It was a teacher education class about teaching using the museum's resources, and everything was going along swimmingly until I heard "This is Lisa, our drama expert. We're going to be doing some theatre exercises!"

It was about then that I started looking around for the bathroom.

I've had the same conversation a couple of different times in the past few months. I make some comment about being socially awkward. The person I'm talking to looks at me oddly. "You're not socially awkward at all," they say. "You're good with people."

Ha. No. No, I'm not.

Let me be clear-I am not in general an anxious person. My social anxiety comes out in very specific circumstances only. All of these people who have told me with no doubt that I'm not socially awkward are people who I'm not awkward around. They're family members, close friends, coworkers--in some cases, people I've known my whole life. They've either never seen me in those situations, or they've not noticed what was going on when they did.

And, even at its worst, it's mostly internal. A sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. An inability to figure out what to do with my hands. A fake "Nothing wrong over here!" smile. And the voice in my head screaming "Get out! Get out!" That's usually when I hide in the bathroom.

This, by the way, is my reaction to being at some sort of social event where I either don't know anyone, or the people I do know are otherwise engaged. That, more than anything else, triggers a flight response in me. It's not having a purpose that does it, I think. If I know someone there, my purpose is to talk to them. If I have a job or task, my purpose is to complete it. Standing around with nothing to do in a social setting freaks me out. I can hide it--I'm fairly good at appearing fine even when I'm absolutely not--but that doesn't change the fact that internally, I'm a mess.

Over the years, I've learned some solid rules for coping:
1. Don't go somewhere where I don't know anybody.
2. The corollary: Don't go somewhere where I only know one person and they're going to be busy.
3. Don't sign up for any sort of volunteer activity that requires approaching and/or calling people I don't know.
4. Don't stand out. If every other person in the room is in Renaissance Faire garb, by God, put on a bodice.
5. Don't perform an ambush setup. I have enough trouble acting normal under the best of circumstances. Figuring out that you invited Dave from Accounting because we'd be perfect together is not the best of circumstances.
6. Don't put myself in situations that violate rules 1-5 because I think that's what I should want to do.

There are some surprising things about this. I'm fine one on one. First dates, blind dates, job interviews--they don't stress me out any more than they do other people, I think. I call my students' parents whenever necessary. I'm usually fine in small groups. Public speaking doesn't bother me. In fact, I'm quite good at it, even if I have no prep time whatsoever. Any situation where I'm in a position of power--for instance, people coming into my library at work, or when I'm teaching someone how to do something--is fine. In fact, it's pretty rare that I have any work-related social anxiety at all. And none of this applies if I'm dealing with kids. They don't bother me.

So, the theatre exercises. The problem here is that any time I'm asked to do something that I think is ridiculous, I am extremely uncomfortable. Even if everyone else in the room is doing it, I feel ridiculous, and therefore awkward.* I'm not dramatic. I never know what to do when any sort of improvisation is called for. But I put on my big girl panties, pretended I was an 8-track cassette, and had a conversation in character with someone pretending to be a WWII-era Victory Garden cookbook. I did what I had to do. But do you know what I'm not going to do? I'm not using this technique in my library. Not only does it make me feel ridiculous, but I can guarantee that I have at least a couple of socially awkward kids in each of my classes, and there's no way that I'm going to do this to them.

* This goes double for roleplaying. No, I would NOT like to practice what I'm going to say when I call little Suzy's mother. I'm just going to call her. No, I would NOT like to wait on you like you're a customer. You're not a customer. I know that, you know that, and we both know that you know the menu better than I do.

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