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
10 thoughts on “History of Bad Parties”
I wanted to go to parties badly, but was never really invited to any. I did get to socialize with a group of kids at church, mainly because we were all expected to include everyone and so I could always tag along, even though I didn’t have too much to say. I wonder if things would have been different if someone was encouraging me that it was okay to be myself and talking to me about the way I experienced the world.
Now I am much more focused on connecting with one or two people at a time and going to smaller group things at church for a broader experience and exchange of ideas. I really like your visual of seeing a personality come together as you have more and more dots. Since I work with printing, I have an image of some people being only 72 dpi and others being more like 300 or 600 dpi. Once you really know someone, they could be considered vector artwork, able to be resized with different situations without changing who they are or how you see them overall.
Precisely! That’s a great way to describe it with the image resolution in dpi and Vector artwork… I love that metaphor:-)
I can see what you say with Church being an inclusive setting. I did not grow up with a Church community, but my husband did and Church is a regular part of our life. My role is to sing in the worship team and be my husband’s wife and friend of the pastor, so I have a clearly defined role. I find the whole mingling / greeting / chatting part awkward, but can handle it in small doses and sometimes even enjoy it. Mainly I enjoy singing and people appreciate it, so that “protects” me and is my way to sort of tentatively belong there.
I do see Church as relatively easy social setting compared to many others, especially for kids & young people. That said, there is an aspie kid (about 11yo) in our Church and he is definitely not tagging along with other kids, he is always on his own parallel track, reading, speculating, bouncing around etc. That’s fine except I can see how his disconnected status will hit him later, he won’t have any “social anchor” in Church and I think he is very vulnerable to bullying in his other places (eg school). One of the problems of being disconnected is that there is no one to protect, support, guide et.c because no one feel that it is “one of theirs” getting hurt or needing guidance, and also no one really has a clue how the disconnected person feels and whether help is even called for. I wish I could guide him a bit and convey to him something along the lines of what you said here:
but it is very difficult because he really has very big communication difficulties/differences. I think he may not even have a coherent sense of the surroundings (drowning in details) and definitely the social aspect does not make much sense to him. He seems extremely poor at perspective taking, and I am not sure if he has noticed the personality concept at all yet, or just sees people around him mainly as flat unpredictable characters, maybe except his mother and sister.
I have known him since he was 6 and rarely heard him talk, but then he had a “chatty” period lasting a few months and I enjoyed having regular little conversations with him on the bench outside Church about things like cartoon movies he had seen, his interactions with Cleverbot, him listing facts about stars, and his speculations like “why does the Bible mention 4 corners of the world when the Earth is round”… then proposing his own complicated scientific theory:-) As you may notice the conversations were totally one sided… Any input from my side was either ignored or caused confusion and stopped the conversation, so I quickly stopped trying for a back-and-forth type of talking. He once retold an entire cartoon movie to me scene for scene, including singing the theme song:-) … very cute. I noticed how much he actually struggled with just organising the words when talking, observing him talk non-stop for at least 20 minutes … any interruption would have totally deranged his train of thoughts. And he couldn’t skip scenes, then he had to go back and clarify the chronological order:-)
The reason he talked to me was just that I was on the bench, I think. He would start conversations with anyone who was outside during that period (big progress), and I am always outside during Church “recess” even like now when it is winter because of the noise level in the tearoom where most people assemble after the sermons. Unfortunately the “chattiness” didn’t last and I can’t “chat him up” when he is inside, because inside doesn’t work for me so I am never in there during the breaks. I told him that – but I don’t think he listened or understood it if he doesn’t have the same problem, and I don’t think he does.
Anyway, the above mentioned “chattiness” was highly unusual and the kid generally seems unapproachable and almost startled if talked to and quickly runs off. My point is that it is difficult to tell someone that they’re OK as they are and encourage them when there is no working shared communication channel. Such messages can of course be conveyed in many ways including more subtly and indirect over a long period of time, but that requires long stretches of time of just randomly hanging around doing various separate activities while still paying attention to opportunities, so that almost requires family/sibling status.
I was the opposite; it was later in life when I became crowd/people-phobic. I think in our younger days, there are more social-pressure’s and an inherent need for acceptance – to look “normal”. Your statement “people were a means to an end” resonates with my own feelings, although I haven’t quite realised this until now.
I have met some fabulous people on the net. Web-friends get the chance to know us better than most. We take time to ‘virtually-talk/listen’ and tend to have fewer inhibitions.
Yep… Adolescence is like a purgatory of pressure & failed expectations for anyone with social difficulties. It sometimes helps to become older:-)
That is very important, and I am actually really happy if I have helped you realise that. I could have saved myself for an incredible amount of failed attempts and misery if I had realised it much earlier myself. Suddenly the attention switched from my needs and whether other accept me to realising that others have needs too, they need to feel accepted as they are and I am not just a “receiver” (or not) but also a “giver” of social inclusion. Learn to enjoy people as they are really, rather than as a source of something I desperately need.
I just cut my long winded comment for a post which I shall dedicate to you! Your words really got me thinking of my young social life and how alike we were, but yet… different. I feel, that despite some differences, as women, we have evolved to similar places in our lives. It is as if we now have our authentic selves installed permanently!
I am quite happy to see such a lovely crop of posts by you! I write in bursts and rejoice when I see a burst from a friend!
Hello Lori. Thank you so much:-) Your comments always make me happy. And I think you are right in your observations:-) I look forward to reading your post.
Ps. It is a great idea to convert a long comment into a post.
I remember the exact day that I stopped trying to do the standard party thing. It was orientation week at my university and I was in first year. They had a big party and concert going on with a lot of silly activities that were a bit on the childish end of things. I hadn’t wanted to go, but my mother harangued me over the phone until I agreed to at least give it a try. When I arrived the noise and sound and smells and lights were overwhelming until I noticed the activities. I had great fun with the ones that let me bounce off stuff (I love to bounce and always have). Anyway, I’m getting off one of the inflatable apparatuses and I notice that I’m the only one going back for like my twentieth go. And suddenly, I just… disconnected from what was going on around me. I realized that I was alone, that everyone else was in groups chatting where I hadn’t said a word since I’d arrived. And that they were all dancing and listening to music while I was playing on a bouncy castle like a grade schooler.
… and then I noticed the noise and the lights and everything overwhelming me with information because I wasn’t concentrating on having fun bouncing off stuff and all that information just felt like belly-flopping into a pool from the high diving board.
And I left.
And I wasn’t sad or upset or ashamed. I was giddy. Euphoric. Because I left when I stopped having fun, and that was its own fun: The realization that I didn’t have to stay. I could leave when it stopped being fun.
And that was the last time I tried to socialize or party the typical way.
Because I realized that I can stay home and be alone or I can go and be alone, but I’ll still be alone because I can only deal with so much input and parties have too much so to cope at all, I’ll have to focus on one small thing to the exclusion of everything and everyone else. And there’s no point in feeling bad for failing at socializing their way when I just can’t handle that environment. Better to have fun socializing my way than to try to overwhelm myself trying to socialize in theirs.
That was the first thing university taught me, and probably one of the most valuable.
I can relate to that:-) The feeling of suddenly looking up from being totally absorbed in the fun or interestingness of one simple activity and suddenly becoming aware of the surroundings’ indifference and how everybody else are together in a different kind of social world where than kind of stuff can not even be fun in that way:-)
I also feel a certain relief now that “I can just leave when I want to”. I try to praise myself for the time I stuck it out and the little things I “achieve” socially, even if that is just smiling to someone and showing I was there or having 1 chat with someone, rather than blame myself for not being able to mingle like most other seems to do with ease, or not having the social stamina that is considered “normal”.
It has also helped to become elder:-) (I’m 40+) The pressure on young people to be socially outgoing party goers with lots of friends is much higher… it starts to drop off at the age levels where many people calm down and stop going to many parties because they have kids. (I don’t have kids)
Thank you for your comment:-)
Ha ha… I don’t think I would dare even getting started on those:-) (if it is the same ones I’m thinking of)