In my youth years, I felt I had to take the opportunities I got to meet people and go to parties so that I could say (if asked) that I had been to a party fairly recently. It was my impression that young people who didn’t go to parties were losers, and I didn’t want to be one of those, at least not that obviously.
I was also painfully aware that I was massively under-socialised compared to most young people, and that my social isolation was a self re-enforcing cycle… A sort of life trap. That was a very real problem. I was almost always alone with no close friends and patchy contact with my family although they were geographically nearby, and I wasn’t happy about my situation.
I didn’t know what was going on in the world around me; it was as if I was in exile on an alien planet where I knew no one and life just rushed by, incomprehensible and untouchable. The Internet wasn’t around back then. To turn down an opportunity to go to a party and meet people was the same as not even trying to learn to socialise.
I couldn’t be picky either; I was rarely invited to anything privately except for family dinners, so most events I could attend was of the large scale, wide open variety full of strangers. These events were predictably stressing: crowded, confusing and overwhelmingly noisy with unfamiliar people.
It never occurred to me that I might have a hearing problem or experience the ambience differently from most people; I just thought everybody else coped better with the overwhelming soundscape due to their extensive party practice. Or maybe they were just better at coping in general; and in any case it probably helped them that they were there with their friends.
People hooked up and mingled effortlessly in and out of conversations. Even quite stupid people seemed to intuitively know what to do; like who was available to talk, how to hook up and how to get the timing right.
When I tried to eavesdrop on conversations in order to join in when I could, I mostly managed to snap up isolated words and phrases here and there, but didn’t get much grasp of the conversation flow overall. I was unprepared and often startled when people suddenly laughed out loud, but tried to laugh or at least smile when others laughed so as to try to not stand out too much.
Conversations cascaded forward in unruly trigger-association patterns with no central topic or clear turn-taking rules. Turn taking appeared to be a function of social know-how + inspiration + social status, but the system was unpredictable. There was clearly a social hierarchy, and it clearly didn’t seem to work in my favour, but other people broke the rules and no one cared. New people entered, and the social order adapted around them. Being accepted was clearly a function of unpredictable factors outside of my control.
I wanted to appear friendly – approachable, so smiling eye contact was a key tool, one of the few simple ones. I was insecure about the timing and found it hard to detach eye contact once established – it trapped me, so once I established that contact I’d keep smiling and looking into the person’s eyes – relentlessly.
Smiling seemed like the right thing to do in the beginning of a conversation, but then my smile would gradually stiffen and become hard work. I’d feel mesmerised and overwhelmed by the eyes and lose the integrity of my mind; random visual details stood out as overwhelming, words triggered associations which sidetracked my mind. I lost track of the overall conversation flow and felt agitated, but I’d try to keep the conversation going maintaining my increasingly strained fixed smile & stare.
Unsurprisingly, my conversation victims tended to find an excuse to drift off to someone else and never return.
Some people interrupted, ignored, regrouped, and physically turned their backs on me if I was trying to be part of a conversation. It was rude and made me angry, but I had no right to be angry… because no one had a duty to accept me.
Inevitably, if I stayed long enough (= didn’t go home very early), I would end up without anyone to talk to, awkwardly trying to disguise my disconnection as toilet visits, cigarette breaks and errands until maybe I’d get another chance, or just quietly disperse.
So why did I keep trying? Because as far as I could see, there was no reason why I couldn’t do what everybody else found easy. I looked normal and people expected me to be social. Often they seemed to assume that I belonged in and represented a sub-culture they were not familiar with; just like a fish out of the water. I hoped that was what they thought. But such a sub-culture did not exist.
I told myself I just ought to go out more, try harder, try to engage with new people when my attempted conversations failed, but exhaustion and hopelessness closed in, thoughts freezing in their tracks, until the point where I gave up and didn’t care any more. All I wanted was to get out of the situation.
However, once home & alone, self-blame and relentless analysis set in: what was wrong with me, why did I behave so weird, and why did I again stuff up a rare chance to break the vicious circle of social isolation. I told myself that next time I had to do it better. And was secretly relieved that now when I’d just been to a party I had sort of filled my quota for a little while.
The above is “my average youth* party experience”. It wasn’t precisely like that every single time; my abilities and the opportunities fluctuated, and it was sometimes better and sometimes worse.
My last post was about how I’m happy to just stay home and not go to parties. That is true, but the reason I’m fine is that my social needs are generally fulfilled now. Socialising with my husband and dogs meets my needs, and our shared quality of life is generally good. Also, I have social authority and know how to communicate in a balanced manner now, and have a repertoire of good manners that seem to work in most professional and private situations.
Although I don’t have friends that I see often apart from my husband’s friends, I keep in contact with a variety of old and new friends mainly via the Internet. That allows me to feel part of a social scene even though I don’t have a circle of friends I meet face to face.
The Internet has made a huge difference. I find it much easier to socialise virtually than face to face, and feel that people who I communicate with online get a better chance to know me than most people I know only offline, through what I write and the links I share when I’m relaxed and focussed on communication, not on coping with a difficult setting.
Parties, dinners and social outings are still not my cup of tea – and that is OK. I can easily afford to reject bad opportunities for socialising because I have what I need (largely). Even if that wasn’t the case, there are many different types of social channels available today that didn’t exist when I was young, and which don’t involve noisy mingle-type face to face social situations.
However, the biggest difference is (and now it may get to sound a bit weird):
The social error
What I can see now is that while I desperately wanted to tick the “social” box when I was young, I wasn’t genuinely interested in people as persons. I didn’t see them as persons; I was too busy worrying about what to do to look social like they did. People were means to an end (“socialise”) rather than ends in themselves (who they were). I didn’t truly realise that being social = personal relationships = relating to persons = focusing on and understanding at least some people’s personalities with genuine interest and devotion to try to “get” them.
I saw people mainly as types, and often they did not comply with their type. They behaved out of character, looked different and hooked up with others across social boundaries in unexpected ways. I was confused and tried to keep up with updating my social understanding to avoid dissonance, but there were always people who were off.
Sometimes new people emerged who didn’t fit any type I knew of. “Miscellaneous” people whose existence I wasn’t even ready to acknowledge because they didn’t fit my idea about how people could be. While I still tried to come to terms with that, they could abruptly become popular, and the social order changed again, and I would often end even further out in the periphery.
It took me a long time to see the error. It first occurred to me as a vague suspicion – like a fleeting glimpse in the corner of my eye – during my mid to late twenties and evolved into a realisation along the lines of: Every person has his/her own perspective. People don’t just represent norms and subcultures. They are not “off” when they don’t fit into my categories. They are unique persons and I can’t forecast in advance what they’re like.
I practised perspective taking by trying to imagine the view from someone else’s eyes – initially just random creatures I encountered like a beetle in the grass or a bird or a cat. With people, I’d often mainly just remind myself to expect that they are totally different from me, have a different logic, and pay attention to other things than I do. I still do that.
I now imagine a person’s personality a bit like a cloud or swarm of dots. Each dot represents something I know about the person, which I have observed or which the person has told me. The cloud becomes denser over time as the relationship evolves and is bound to change shape – sometimes abruptly – as more aspects of the person come to light and as the person evolves.
The most important lesson I have ever learned is that people aren’t fixed types, they are unique and always in a process of movement and change. They always were, I just get less confused about it now. It is beautifully expressed in this quote by Heraclitus:
No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it is not the same river and he is not the same man.
* The pattern of my adolescence was a gradual social deroute from the early teenage years and then long slow recovery period up from the mid 20s through early 30s, and the description doesn’t cover all stages.
Illustrations from Openclipart.org