I trace some of my social awkwardness back to when I was a little girl in day care, and I approached another girl my age whom I had my eye on. She was cute with Shirley Temple curls and strategically placed bows in her hair. I found her intriguing and I guess I wanted a friend to dote upon and have fun with, and she seemed to fit the bill. I wasn’t sure how best to achieve this outcome, so I took the direct route. I sidled up beside her and said loudly and forcefully, “Be my friend!” Her eyes widened. She looked panic-stricken. “No!” she cried. “No!” She ran away from me as fast as her little legs would allow. I looked around and saw a few of the other kids watching us. I was mortified and ran away in the opposite direction.
This event must have permanently scarred me, because I grew up to feel too shy to approach strangers at parties, even at parties that are being thrown for the express purpose of introducing strangers to one another. I worry too much about being rejected and made to feel the way I did by that beribboned girl way back when.
As a result, I’m the worst networker at social shindigs. I know that I’m supposed to walk up to the woman with the green shawl standing alone at the punch bowl, stick out my hand and introduce myself. I am then to wait for her to agreeably shake my hand and say, “Hi, I’m the Queen of Sheba,” or whatever her name is. After that, conversation between us is supposed to flow naturally and organically. We are meant to share info on where we live, what we do for a living, how we know the hostess. “Oh, you live on the Upper West Side! My favorite restaurant is Citrus Bar & Grill!” And she is meant to say, “I love that place!” and then recite a funny anecdote about what happened the last time she dined there.
But that’s not what happens to me. Most of the time, I just stand by myself, trying to look at ease with my lone state. If I do get up the courage to introduce myself to someone, he is inevitably a taciturn aeronautics engineer who doesn’t like to discuss his work, who doesn’t know the hostess at all but got roped into attending by a distant cousin who barely knows the hostess herself, and who lives in Des Moines, a city I’ve never been to and have no restaurants to claim that I like there.
For the person truly skilled in networking, none of these facts would be a deterrent, and that person would ask intelligent questions about aeronautics and Des Moines that would quickly engage the taciturn guest and turn him into a happy motormouth. But I’m the opposite of that person, and I will interact awkwardly with the aeronautics engineer until either he or I can mercifully find an excuse to skedaddle away.
And then there are the parties at which a really important person is in the room. Somehow, everyone else in attendance except me manages to find ways to strike up a conversation with her, to schmooze and be noticed by her, and perhaps even to begin the important process of scoring a book contract or front-row seats at the Golden Globes.
Occasionally, things will work out for me, and the person to whom I’ve awkwardly and hesitatingly introduced myself turns out to really want to talk to me, and we discover that we genuinely have lots to talk about. Or I may even find a way to stand beside the really important person and at least croak out a tiny hello.
On the other hand, when strangers seek me out and introduce themselves, I am inordinately grateful and respond with warmth and interest. But more likely, you’ll find me glomming onto someone I already know at the party, following them around for lack of anything else to do, while I watch with envy the best networkers working the room like the pros they are.
At some point in the evening, I may develop a strong relationship with the host’s bookcases, as I pull books one by one from the shelves and peruse them, appearing, I hope, to be completely engaged by the text before me and in no need of human contact.
My friends find it difficult to believe that I morph into such a shy person at parties and other social events because with them I’m outgoing and loquacious, never at a loss for words, constantly arranging lunches and dinners out. On the occasions when we do attend some event together, they appear to be very surprised by my wallflower tendencies, but in most cases attempt to conceal their surprise.
I’ve not yet fully reconciled myself to this non-networking life. Each time I attend a new event, I promise myself I’ll approach at least one new person, and I keep that promise, in the hope that each time it will become easier — and the truth is that it does. I can’t help but wonder, though, if that little girl in day care had said, “Yes, I’d love to be your friend!” how different my life might be.