This is the second entry in an occasional series on how being picked on as a kid influenced the sort of adult I turned out to be.
One-on-one, I’m as extroverted as anybody you’ll meet. I can and will talk to anybody: judges, Hell’s Angels, presidential candidates, preachers, drag queens, strip club managers, cops, clowns, garbage collectors, gun dealers — you name it. I’m an old journalist. Talking to strangers is my specialty.
That’s why it makes no sense that I spent 25 years dodging large-group social settings.
One evening about a year ago, I had an epiphany.
I was working in public relations, and I found myself at a holiday open house for a local radio station. The girl who’d invited me was a lot of fun, and I enjoyed being around her, but I didn’t know anybody else, and I cringed at the thought of making chitchat with strangers all evening.
I sucked it up and put on my quirkiest scarf, hoping it might start a conversation or two. It worked, and I had several nice visits with several nice people.
Everything was going fine until I introduced myself to two women who were taking a tour of the station with me. The conversation was pretty standard-issue, but through their body language and the pointed pauses they inserted before speaking to me, these women made it clear they didn’t want anybody to see them talking to me.
I felt exactly the way I’d felt every time I made the mistake of striking up a conversation with a more popular girl in junior high.
A few weeks later, I was having lunch with my friend from the station, and I asked her whether she had any idea what I’d done to offend these women or make them uncomfortable.
“Nothing,” she said. “They’re just bitches.”
Every social event I’d ever attended suddenly came into sharp focus. In my mind’s eye, I replayed scene after scene, and lo and behold, they all looked exactly like that evening at the station: I made some polite small talk, and some hateful wench responded by going out of her way to make me feel as if I’d done something wrong by speaking to her.
I still recoil against the idea of attending a social event without a press pass and notebook. It still feels weird to me. But it doesn’t scare me, because I now know I’m not “terrible at parties,” as I’d long believed; I’m simply terrible at socializing with snotty bitches who have the emotional capacity of a 12-year-old.
I think I’m OK with that.