If you're like me, minor social interactions can quickly become paralyzing obstacle courses of anxiety and shame that challenge you to balance the fine line between saying too little and saying too much without toppling over into awkward, stuttering catastrophe. There's no reason for these basic social transactions to be so difficult, but every time I am confronted with them I immediately become wrapped in a shroud of nervousness and embarrassment; it's sort of like Harry Potter's invisibility cloak if it turned nothing invisible but his clothing and also gave him a speech impediment. Even calling for a pizza makes me ridiculously uncomfortable, because I am convinced that I will somehow say the wrong thing, causing the telephone to suck me into a terrifying alternate dimension where my feelings always hurt. Learning that I could order a pizza online was the most significant discovery of my life since the day I realized my copy of Robocop had been edited for television.
Anyway, here are three simple social situations that conversationally inept people like myself routinely make awkward for no logical reason.
#3. Being Forced to Make Small Talk With Strangers
Being stuck in a public place with a bunch of people you've never seen before in your life makes up an alarming part of the day, whether we are standing in line at Taco Bell or waiting in a crowd of onlookers for the police to finish mopping up that suicide jumper so you can get inside your apartment building to watch Last Action Hero on Netflix. These situations wouldn't be so bad if it weren't for the fact that whatever giant bald alien in charge of the universe decided to create human beings that feel compelled to start speaking to anyone stranded in close proximity to them for longer than 10 seconds.
"Hey, another person! Here I was thinking I was going to be stuck reading this boring old newspaper!"
Now as a general rule, I don't want to talk to anyone for any reason. Waiting around in public is probably the only time I would consider wearing a VR headset -- I would totally strap a Virtual Boy to my skull for a 30-second elevator ride if for no other reason than to discourage other people from speaking to me. I feel like a bulky, face-obscuring helmet is the only way to get that particular message across, because in my experience, a laptop, a book, or even a giant pair of headphones doesn't do much to thwart aggressive conversationalists, who have no idea how to be by themselves for an hour.
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"In case my body language is unclear, I am listening to antisocial music while literally thinking of everything else I would rather do than speak to you."
So despite all of your best efforts, people are going to try to exchange pleasantries with you, because it starts to feel horrifyingly awkward if everyone is standing around making occasional eye contact and refusing to speak to each other, as if we're all trapped in a Pink Floyd video and trying to avoid drawing the attention of the giant animated hammers. For the socially awkward person, there are two ways to handle these unsolicited conversations -- babble incoherently like Brad Pitt's character from Twelve Monkeys and shouting out answers on Family Feud, or power down like the Terminator after the T-1000 stabbed a metal javelin through his robot heart.
Now, with option one, there are basic conversational destinations that should become apparent depending on whatever public waiting situation you are currently in. If you're on an airplane, you and your seatmate are obviously going to the same place, so you could ask them something about where you're both headed, like, "I hear they have squids in San Diego. Just the biggest squids you've ever seen. Is that true?" Or, if you're waiting in line for a movie, you're obviously all about to start watching the same movie, so a statement like, "I heard there's graphic male nudity in this movie. Like, enough so that you can literally see Channing Tatum's pulse in his fully erect penis," would not be out of place. Waiting in line to buy the next Apple product? This is an opportune time to tell everyone about the paper mache Steve Jobs that guards your mailbox and the haunting way his eyes follow you to your car every morning.
"Boy howdy, new friends! The things we have in common are just impossible to count!"
Or, if you're like me and the right thing to say always seems to be just out of reach, you can go with the "power down" option and pick a spot on the ground, on the back of the seat in front of you, or somewhere off in the middle distance, and stare at it like you are Scott Summers trying to melt an ice sculpture in a neighboring county while eating handfuls of crackers from a box of Chicken in a Biscuit. (You will need to bring this snack from home, as I have yet to see Chicken in a Biscuit available in a single beverage cart or vending machine.)
You may have noticed that all of these strategies make you look like a lunatic. You're absolutely right, and I'm glad you noticed. Hopefully, I'll be stuck on a plane next to you sometime, and we can both enjoy the flight in respectful silence.
#2. Ordering Food at a Restaurant
Any customer service interaction becomes a nightmare if you're uncomfortable speaking to new people. However, going out to eat is easily the worst, because you have to form a miniature relationship with your server. For the socially awkward person, it is difficult to set a midpoint between "I have no interest in speaking to you" and "We are now best friends;" and when you go out to eat you have to speak to your server unless you want to write everything down like some kind of maniac. Consequently, the urge to try and be as charming and witty as possible is overwhelming, and it's hard to order a grilled cheese sandwich at Hooters with any amount of charm unless you have just won the little league world series.
"Oh, and keep the Dr. Peppers coming. Grandma and Grandpa are paying, and they said I could be up as late as I want."
But society's rules of interaction dictate that you and your server must pretend to enjoy each other's company for the next two hours, which automatically forces my brain to try and wrestle dumbass jokes into every conversational pause with all the grace and finesse of stuffing a dead fat man into a magician's trunk. Every conversation I have with a waiter or waitress is a protracted exercise in discomfort, like Andy Dufrense shawshanking his way through a mile of shit only to discover he has traveled back in time to the night of his parents' divorce and now has to repeat the 12th grade at a brand new high school. There is no reason for the interaction to be any deeper than politely telling the server what I want to eat. In all likelihood I will never speak to this person again, regardless of how often I come to the restaurant, and exactly 100 percent of the time they have absolutely no interest in being my friend. Yet I have to treat every conversation I have with a waiter or waitress like I'm trying to ask them to the fucking prom.
Because of that completely unnecessary and entirely self-imposed pressure, when I open my mouth to deliver formidably handsome witticisms interwoven with a concise description of what I want to eat, what tends to come tumbling out instead are sounds that no human being should ever make. James Bond never makes those sounds. Those sounds do not unlock the doors of friendship. And yet I continue to make them, just smiling and nodding while the Pandora's Box of goblin shrieks that is my mouth keeps spitting out incoherent streams of thought like a haunted jukebox playing all of its songs in reverse. The waitress doesn't want to hear an amusing anecdote about the time I was in sixth grade and pretended to have diarrhea at school so I could hide in the bathroom and beat Mortal Kombat II on my Game Boy. She wants to bring me my food and then forget I ever existed. And I won't let her do that.
"Just pick something so I can go home, you fucking mutant."