I had a realization today: talking to people is really hard.
I was at a lunch meeting, and I forgot what to do with my eyes. My mom always says I should look people straight in the eye. I tried to do that. It was creepy.
Then I remembered something a wise man once said: If you have trouble looking someone in the eye, you should look between their eyebrows. It worked for a while, until I realized this advice was from Dwight Schrute.
I am always envious of people who can meet someone new and keep talking and talking. They make me feel comfortable, in a way I could never do. In these situations, I often have out-of-body experiences. I look at myself laughing at jokes that haven’t even been told. I smile at sad stories. I react a bit too late when the joke is actually told.
“Ha. Ha. Ha,” I laugh. That’s a fake laugh.
“Ha. Ha. Ha.” It’s a reflexive laugh.
It’s not anxiety. It’s an inabilty to accomplish a basic task. In order to get by, I often take on entirely different personalities — one that uses cliches and metaphors that are common in typical American households, which is not the household in which I grew up. I learned this coping mechanism when I was a reporter in Kansas. I had to mingle with people who grew up in culturally American households. Meanwhile, I would go home and each kimchi stew while my parents would talk to me in Korean. So I learned to talk like a white person, and ask questions like a white person. I learned to be outgoing and loud and make jokes that would ease the tension in the room.
But all of that is probably an excuse.
The truth is, I don’t like to talk unless I have to. I don’t like to use words that don’t have a purpose. There is a part of talking that is more about establishing a friendly rapport than communicating. That part is hard. When someone say, “How are you?” I want to say that I’m terrible and tell them about my day, but I know that’s not what it means. It means hi.
So not knowing what to do with my eyes is one of those things. The other thing is hands. I start thinking, “These things are interesting. And look at those fun fingers coming out of here! But I don’t need them right now.” It should be a social norm to tuck your arms into your shirt when you’re not using them.
I’m sure a part of it is self-consciousness. Part of it is a lack of a strong identity. A part of it is wanting to be perceived differently than you actually are.
Of course, when I get comfortable with someone, it all goes away and it’s OK to say what’s on your mind. But I’ve found it’s a lot harder to do that as an adult.
I used to be good at getting to know people, because I was OK with asking them personal questions. But the moments in which it is appropriate to ask these questions have gone away, because most of the pretenses for talking to someone are professional or there is a task at hand. It’s rare that you merely talk to someone to get to know them.
But then I meet people who are just effortlessly friendly, and they ask personal questions and take an interest in your life. And I think, “I should just ask the questions that I’m thinking.” But it takes a certain self-confidence and bravery that I have to work up to. It takes a certain recklessness — a willingness to be rejected — that I feel I’ve lost. I’ve been a lot more vulnerable as an adult than as a kid, and I think avoiding social rejection has been one of the outcomes.
If I really talked about the things I think about during these conversation, I would talk about the nature of the universe is; the philosophy of time; the possibility of UFOs; the concept of divinity; the ineptitude of the Kansas City Royals; the hardships of hope; the beauty of wristwatches; the repulsiveness of politics. But of course that are all conversations that could very easily lead to rejection.
So. Back to the eyes: What do you do with them? Do you look to the right? To the left? Do you do with them as you please, and hope that they don’t send signals that alienate the other person?
Maybe that’s why I like writing. Communication isn’t done with body language and voice inflections. It is done with intention. Bravery can be worked up at my own pace.
I think, as we accumulate life experiences, the idea of the person we want to be and the person we actually are get further away from each other. We confront the things we will never be, and we confront the things we are. That’s been difficult, but I suppose that’s why we have people around us who look at us with unjudging eyes and remind us that we are decent people.