I don’t have social anxiety, not exactly.
Crowds don’t make me nervous. I can mingle. My former job required me to make presentations to conventions full of fantasy football enthusiasts, plus appear live on national TV a bunch. If you’ve been to a gathering where I was host or central guest, you’ve probably seen me holding court and gotten the sense that I was pretty comfortable.
But boy, I dread parties.
I think “dread” is exactly the right word. I have a complicated relationship with other humans. A few, I like very much. Some, I consider assholes. Then there’s the rest of you, the ones I don’t know well enough to have developed much or any opinion about, and the exact feeling I have about you is: I dread you. What I mean is, by way of example, let’s say I’m sitting on a couch at a party and someone floats over and we begin speaking, and as I crank up the charm, as I use the same old self-puncturing lines about myself I’ve used a dozen times, part of me is just hoping against hope this other person isn’t going to say, “Did you see the latest ‘Real Housewives’?” Or: “I finally got around to reading ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’!” Or: “Isn’t Trump the best?”
This is irrational on a couple levels. First, who cares if this person and I don’t share politics or aesthetics? I’m skilled enough to talk with anyone, to make them comfortable, to find common enough ground. Everyone has a story going on in his or her head, and they’re the main character; by definition, there’s something interesting about everyone, and unlocking that thing can be fun. And second, why presuppose a lack of consanguinity before it happens?
Yet there I am, inevitably, holding my breath at the party, rooting for this new person not to reveal him or herself to be (what I consider to be) a knucklehead. Dreading it. Dreading the possibility.
It wouldn’t be the first time someone accused me of being negative.
Over Memorial Day weekend, I visited my folks and saw their friends at a party, some of whom I’ve known most of my life, some of whom were new to me. I had a couple what-turned-out-to-be lovely conversations: when one woman discovered I had a novel coming out, we exchanged book titles that have lately interested us and she talked about a memoir she’s trying to write; later, her husband described a couple Norwegian TV series he likes, and I wrote down the names. Then in the recombinant way of party conversations, more people gathered into our circle and I waited, because they were coming, of course they were: the woman who blundered over and said, “Oh, those shows sound too smart for me!” and the man who leaned over and said, “Those sound great, you know one I really think you’d like is NCIS.”
I say none of this to say that people who like things I don’t particularly like are bad or dumb! This is meant to be more about my reaction. It says way more about me—my particular, judgmental pathology—than it does about them!
But man, I just want to get out of there. Listening to people spout things I disagree with—especially the more bright-eyed and helpful they are—makes my soul itch. I don’t know why I’m so uncomfortable when someone sits down and says, “Oh, I just want a new president. I’ve been waiting eight years.” I mean, why should that be so bad to hear, even if I disagree? Why does it tire me out so badly? Why can’t I just chill, let the person have their say, nod, and be fine? Nobody at this Memorial Day party invoked religion, but I used to live in Texas and it happened more frequently: a stranger would tell me about being saved. Okay! That’s okay! I’m not religious, but shouldn’t it be okay to just hear them out, be okay, maybe disagree internally, smile, and either move on or move beyond, find a common area for conversation and connection?
It’s to the point now where I worry beforehand, as the new person is about to reveal part of him or herself. I sit there quasi-panicked as the new person opens his or her mouth, hoping not to have to smile prettily and feel I’m making allowances, hoping all won’t dissolve into escape-oriented niceties. I have to “suddenly” go to the restroom an awful lot at these things. I’m not giving folks a chance! It’s not nice! And then of course I beat myself up, seeing what I’m doing, being ungenerous and judgmental.
Which helps explain, perhaps, why I don’t attend many parties.