3 Minor Social Situations We Make Awkward for No Reason
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.
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.
"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.
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."
Speaking to Any Retail Employee
When I go out shopping for anything other than groceries or forbidden mystical weaponry, I will wander aimlessly around the store for hours if I can't find what I'm looking for, because I am terrified of asking an employee for help. What if the employee I flag down was right in the middle of an important, life defining task? What if they don't have the CD I'm looking for, or I mispronounce the artist's name? My house would never recover from the shame.
"Oh, the umlaut is silent."
So, I will spend ten minutes staring at the same rack of Action/Adventure DVDs looking for Enemy Mine, knowing in my heart that a copy of Enemy Mine has never been within the four walls of this Target, but being unable to flag down one of the many employees wandering around the toasters and cordless phones (because Target likes to lump all of its "electronics" into one vague pile of unrelated nonsense like a Dust Bowl farmer's estate sale), because the thought of doing so fills me with real, actual dread. I don't want to talk to anyone - I came here looking for Enemy Mine, so that I could spend the rest of the evening avoiding that specific activity.
This is the exact reason why I buy as many things as possible on the internet. I suspect this is why most people buy things on the internet -- we're all secretly afraid of having to ask a sales associate for help. But there are times when I don't want to have to wait two days for my purchases to come in the mail. Sometimes I need a copy of Krull immediately. So I will stride purposefully into Best Buy and reflexively deny any solicitation of assistance as if I'm a fucking franchise owner and have the entire floor plan committed to memory, even if I have never been to this particular Best Buy location before in my life and have no idea how to even find my way back to the entrance.
"Your assistance won't be required, shopkeep, because as you can see, I absolutely know what the fuck I am doing."
When I inevitably can't find what I'm looking for, I'll start doing laps around the store. I will walk into other sections, containing items that I have absolutely no intention of buying, just to create the appearance that I know exactly what I'm doing and am merely taking my time as an informed, mature consumer to peruse all of their available goods before making my purchases. Multiplicity doesn't seem to be anywhere in the DVD section, so I'd better go take a walk through Appliances and look at all the refrigerators like I'm fucking Ty Pennington doing preproduction legwork for an episode of Extreme Makeover. No more Game of Thrones iPhone cases? Better go check out the car stereos to make sure some distracted night stocker didn't put any over there by mistake.
"Hm, I don't see Piranha II anywhere. I'd better look behind these Aerosmith CDs just in case."
When I finally do have to admit defeat and ask someone for help, I do it in a way that can only be described as "serial killer-y." I don't walk straight up to a sales associate and ask, oh no. I spend at least five minutes singling out the employee who looks the least busy (because I wouldn't want to interrupt some important task and have them hate me even more than they already do for the idiot question I'm about to ask with my idiot face) and begin circling them like a blind shark. Then I stand at a distance, so as to not intrude on their personal space or give them the impression that I need help, and ask them to help me find what I am looking for. Once I leave, they probably dust everything I touched for fingerprints and send them to the FBI to see how many disappearances they can solve that afternoon.
"Yeah, he followed me around the store for, like, 10 minutes before finally asking me where we keep our Dennis Quaid movies. Why yes, officer, he did smell like sobs and fear."
When asked to introduce himself on his first day of college, Tom told his Freshman English class that his nickname was Susan and absolutely no one laughed. Read his novel Stitches and follow him on Twitter and Tumblr.