How to Have Swagger for Anxious People | Part 1: The Party Conversation
"Smile more," my wife said. "People need to know that you're happy."
"But I'm not," I rubbed my thumb into my palm. A tick. "And sometimes I'm just indifferent."
"But they don't know that." She gave me the look. The one that dared me not to take her advice. A look that translated to "until you learn this, it's going to suck."
"You're giving people the wrong impression. You need to work on your resting face."
All my friends hate me is what I heard and when I finally brought myself out of bed an hour later, my wife still had the same face: learn this or it's going to suck.
I was born an anxious person but what it was and how it affected my life didn't dawn on me until a few birthdays shy of my thirties. Kindergarten through fourth grade, I cried every day in school. I missed my mom and spending the day with her was a better alternative to sitting with twenty-four peers that saw my cry fest as a broadway production. Tickets exchanged hands in the hallway and they argued over potential showtimes.
I'm the baby of my family and my mother, refusing to see her afternoon soaps slip away, devised a plan to sneak medicine into my oatmeal and force me out the door. Medicine that I don't remember being tested or consulted for by a doctor. My teacher, a young man that normally would have seen my predicament as a chance for him to change the world, never mentioned my odd routine of having my hands in my face one moment and completely fine the next. My mother was the reason.
"By ten, the medicine will kick in and he'll be fine," she had told him.
And at ten I was.
In fifth-grade, I cried because I forgot my lunchbox. I'll paraphrase my teacher's words here but instead of consoling me and helping me fix the issue, she gave me my first great pep talk. "Suck it up," she said. When I graduated early from high school and was absent from my graduation ceremony, it was that fifth-grade teacher that walked on my behalf and accepted my diploma.
The world is a devastating place for an anxious person. I want to be perfect but I'm scared of what will happen if I'm not and who I will piss off while trying.
Not giving a #$&! is the opposite of anxiety. For an anxious person, confidence is a hard concept to learn. We are not confident people. I get nervous bringing illegal snacks into the movie theater. My wife slips in cans of LaCroix that she doesn't bother hiding in a jacket or a "reserved for this type of moment" purse. In her mind, she has a right to bring her sparkling water into the theater and "crack" it open in the dark. I'm scared someone reserved the seat I'm sitting in.
But on the verge of thirty, married to a mortgage, a wife, and daughters fighting in the backseat, it came to a point that on my journey to living a healthy, "normal" life, I needed to learn a few skills. I needed a few weapons in my arsenal to battle through the mundane things "normal" people deal with without batting an eye: like having a conversation at a party, taking advantage of a sick day, asking for favors. I freak out when my phone rings and my greatest fear is showing up as the only participant at a costume party.
Worrying what my boss thought annoyed me. Planning my schedule around other people's opinions gave me a headache. It was time to teach myself that "I matter." That it's okay to stand up for myself, it's okay to speak with confidence and to have (a little) swagger.
Having a conversation is a skill and like most life skills, I suck at it. I'll contort my face into a smile on a good day but inside, my brain is thrashing my heart with questions like "Does this person like me?" and "Why do I all of a sudden care so much?" and "We've been sitting here in silence for over a minute, is that bad?" In college, my psychology professor told me you can improve any skill with 10,000 hours of practice. I responded that this was a freshman class and I was studying film and besides, it was a one-credit course. He put my quiz on his desk, wrote a zero, and said, "This is hour one."
I left his office trying to avoid familiar faces on our petite campus but, like unwanted magic, I found someone I kind of knew but not really but maybe they knew that girl I liked.
"Do you know Jamie?" I asked. They shook their head. "Oh, okay."
It's unfortunate to find someone walking in the same direction as you to a point several hundred yards away. I thought about faking an emergency and turning back but I was running late to my next class.
"Blonde hair. Works at that coffee place. She once gave me extra syrup and I thought that might mean something."
"So where 'ya headed?"
I hate small talk. Yes, the weather has been crazy lately. But guess what, I love rainy days. The rainier the better. It could rain for several days and I might forget to take my medicine. Remember those scenes in LOST where it started raining at the flip of a switch? I teared up at those scenes.
Let me reiterate, I suck at conversations. For those that know me and are thinking at this point, "He's not that interesting when I talk to him," well, I'm stuck at hour one. It's time to transition to hour two.
A conversation should have a purpose. Use it to gather information, use it to learn something, or use it to discover who might be valuable if everything hits the fan. That conversation is far more interesting than what I do for a living or which road I took to get to your house. I followed the GPS, deal with it.
I don't like surprises. Anxious people thrive on control because the more we can predict, the more we can avoid days where getting out of bed amounts to searching for inspirational quotes that tell us our life matters. Those days suck and I wish them on no one. Living with anxiety, I feel that I have to perform around other people and I need time to prepare for these performances. It's when I'm not ready to perform, when I'm surprised, that I'm huddled in the corner of the house waiting for my mom's medicine to kick in. Is it ten yet? Is it ten yet?
Parties are a disaster. Large parties are easier because I can blend in and eat my wings in silence, but a small party, a "get-together" is difficult because a spouse does not appreciate a moody husband that pushes around his vegetarian mush mumbling incoherent sentences.
"Sarah asked you a question. She wants to know how things are at work."
"Good. Hey, did you guys see the forecast? It's supposed to rain tomorrow. Might even last a few hours."
But unlike my birthday, where I can set the guest list, I can't predict who is going to show up to a party and when this information is lacking, it's hard to know which performance to prepare.
And then I had an epiphany. Ask the host who is coming. Get them to be as specific as possible. "Neil, his wife, their two kids and that couple we met last Christmas that really loves football." If they're not sure who is coming, ask them who they invited. That gives you a max count of who might be there. For large parties, find out five to ten people that will be there. That will be the group we'll hover around.
Next, prepare questions and make them as silly as possible. "Would you rather have free healthcare or free wifi?" "Are you jealous of other people's facial hair?" Don't force conversations on subjects you have to lie your way through. I don't know anything about motorcycles and how they work. If you ask me if my bike has a four cylinder engine, I'll tell you, "It goes vroom-vroom when I twist the handle." Another trick, if you have a copy of the guest list, is to find a recent achievement in someone's life. A promotion works but we want to avoid talking about work. Ask them instead, "If you were promoted to NFL commissioner, what's the first rule change you would make?"
My favorite question when I meet a new person is, "Where did you grow up?" I don't care where you were born, I care where you spent your childhood, what trees you fell out of, what kids beat you up, and what shows you rushed home to watch after school.
I was born in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. We lived out in the country, corn fields knocking on our property lines, and a ten minute drive to any store. Surrounded by nature and lacking a television, my brother, sister and I created our own fun. My mother's clothespins became torture devices. The bull minding his own business became a test of bravery. This is why I believe my imagination runs wild. That ball, the small plastic blue one from the hardware store can be a kickball, a bomb, a package, a severed head, or an interplanetary communication device. When my siblings went off to college, I got used to playing by myself. I love sports but football is hard with one person. I was the quarterback and the wide receiver. I was the kid hitting the baseball, walking out to get it, and smacking it back towards the house. I learned to dribble a basketball on a stone driveway. My childhood prepared me to create something out of nothing.
How much did you learn about me? And that was only a few seconds of conversation. If my miniature biography peaked your interest, you might ask about my parent's decision to not have a tv in the house and continue a conversation about family traditions. Or whether it was difficult when my brother and sister moved out and discuss the joys and frustrations of siblings.
I'll be honest, prepping is the easy part of this whole adventure. I am #%&!ing scared to fail. Even in situations where I know my life will go on no matter the outcome, I'm scared to fail. When my therapist asked me to do something that would force me to fail, I came up with a great idea: I'll call the wrong number on purpose, ask for someone I know isn't there, and go through the awkward exchange when they admit to me I am an idiot and dialed the wrong number. That was six months ago and I still haven't made the call.
I'm afraid to look stupid in front of people. I'm afraid I'll find the public's finger pointing at me. But an anxious person needs to learn how to fail. They need to be comfortable with it. When trying to initiate a conversation, you will fail a lot. Because some people are boring, others are rude, and some people will think you're nosy. But ask your predetermined list of questions anyway. Worst case, the person you're talking to asks the DJ to stop the music, stands up, and tells everyone at the wedding that you asked them "Do you think Hobbes was real or just in Calvin's imagination?"
Party conversations don't have to suck. Prep and speak with confidence and always offer questions. The point of the party conversation is to try. I can't guarantee that the other person will reciprocate. And if they don't, it's their problem, not yours. My advice, fake an excuse about needing more food and find someone else to talk with.