I should clarify that I am not currently, as compared with other points in my life, entirely socially inept. I know how to be social. I’m not uncomfortable being social, for the most part, as I once was. In my twenties, life depended on going out, being seen, hanging out, getting invited, showing up – all as it should be, I suppose. However, somewhere along the line I seem to have become more of a hermit than a social butterfly. I suspect this is what’s supposed to happen with age, but it really hit home to me after a cold held me hostage, house-bound, for more than a week. Cut off from society, I felt a strong need to make up for lost time.
In all honesty, what I was really feeling was fear. Fear because I’m increasingly fine going days without talking to another person. I mean, I don’t know if I’m mentally or emotionally fine, but I don’t mind it. It doesn’t bother me that much. I get used to it. Then I quite like it. I start talking to the cats and I start to believe the people on the TV are my friends. And in the 10 or 15 minutes a day he’s not working, I always have my husband for company.
In other words, I didn’t really want to be social. I didn’t want to hang out with people. Some part of me realized that probably isn’t a good thing. I’m never quite sure where the balance is between me-time and isolation. (Side note: why does the word “balance” keep popping up on this blog?)
It turned out to be the perfect time, as my cold abated, to instigate a change. The start of a new “change week” coincided with the reunion of a fellowship my husband had four years ago – a professional fellowship that also forged some of our deepest friendships. It would bring together a group of friends we love, some of whom we hadn’t seen in years! Presto changeo! Instant socializing opportunity! As if the universe knew my plan! The stage was set.
Ready? Set? BE SOCIAL!
And…fail. What? That’s right. On the first night out of the gate, the plans were in place for a large, rowdy gathering of pals – and I flaked. Not flaked, exactly. I was still feeling trampled by the world’s longest-lasting cold, and I did weigh the merits of going out despite it or staying in. The latter won, considering I knew the upcoming weekend held many more opportunities and required me to be well to do some actual work, and I sent Chris out to be social in my stead.
As much as it dinged my ego to fail on the first day – although, really, you’d think I’d be used to it by now – it turned out to be the right idea, echoing last week’s non-blog-posting decision to take care of myself first. So score one for, uh, last week.
Resting that evening gave me just enough energy to head into a weekend that was a combination of professional and personal social obligations, during which I noted a distinct difference in attitude on my part between the two.
Day two involved attending a lecture in my official capacity as an editor for the fellowship’s journal. The lecture was given by our good friends, for whom I would have shown up anyway. My attitude was confused: should I be resentful because I’m secretly a teenager and I balk at anything smacking of Professional Obligation? Or should I be thrilled to see two people I adore, here from halfway around the world, giving ‘em hell (in lecture form)? Answer: somewhere in between.
Following the lecture, there was much mingling, again split between professional obligations and personal desires and my inner scientist (who is wildly undisciplined, by the way), noted once again that I find the former painful and, for the most part, the latter easy.
Again, it’s not that I can’t mingle professionally. It’s just that I hate it. I don’t like going up to strangers and introducing myself, name, rank and serial number. I don’t particularly like making small talk and feigning interest in other people’s jobs. An observation, though: I don’t mind nearly as much when said small talk is about non-professional things, like family and location and travel, etc.
What’s that about? Not sure, except I’ve become increasingly aware that my mindset vis-a-vis Work doesn’t fit well with the American go-go-go paradigm. As an over-arching concept, I’m bored with people talking about what they DO and what goes on their business card. I’m willing to consider that perhaps this is all a grand diversion from the fact that I feel professionally inadequate, but I think that was much truer a few years ago than it is now.
I think what’s really happening is that I’m simply more interested in and fulfilled by the non-professional areas of my life. We can’t all be cut out for valuing and identifying ourselves on work-based output and productivity. Turns out it doesn’t mean much to me. I’m much more interested in the quieter, less obvious corners of my life. I get much more out of relationships and non-professional accomplishments.
It’s tough to feel at ease with that mindset in a society where “What do you do?” is often the first line of questioning from a new acquaintance. (Travel outside the US and you’ll discover you can engage in a conversation with many Europeans for hours without queries about profession even coming up.) It feels like I’m carrying a dirty little secret. Perhaps it’s that “secret” that makes me feel defensive and at odds when socializing professionally. I feel like a phony: “Nice to meet you, professional lady. I am pretending to be an ambitious worker bee, but really I have a scarf I’d rather be knitting.”
Over the course of our three-day weekend, I found myself constantly answering the question: “What are you working on these days?” The real revelation for me is that while that used to send me into a tailspin of inadequacy, in my dotage I’ve become increasingly comfortable with the truth, which is: a little bit of this, a little bit of that.
But I’ve digressed. Again. In between the mandatory professional socializing was a lot of personal time with friends, usually in groups. And while I had a good time, it also gave me the chance to note that I prefer intimate gatherings, socializing in smaller arrangements where I feel I can really talk to people. I’m not a party girl. What a shocker. Also, a side note: I’m too old to stay out until 2.
By day four, I’ll confess, I was ready for a bit of a break. My inner hermit was screaming for some lounge time in stretch pants. I compromised: meeting the bare bone requirements of the week’s change by having one friend over to catch up. We chatted for hours and it was lovely. But here’s something you may already know: being social – in any permutation – is exhausting! It takes a lot of effort to talk, to engage. Who knew?
The rest of the week came and went quickly. If this were a movie, Julia Roberts would be dancing through a montage to Brown Eyed Girl. Curling up with pals in beautiful autumn sunshine on the deck, sipping tea. Huddling on the back deck at the Jolly Pumpkin, sharing pizzas. Laughter! Hugs! Kisses!
Then it was all over. Our friends departed. My social calendar cleared as quickly as it had filled. I felt relieved – and I missed my people. It’s tough to change gears so quickly. There were parts of having that full social calendar that I really, really liked – but I wouldn’t want to do it all the time.
I guess there’s a balance to be found between being a hermit and a socialite, but balance ain’t exactly my thing. So for now, I’ll be holed away in my office, tapping at the key board. I’ve a weekend that stretches ahead of me without a single social obligation. I’ve scheduled plenty of time for resting and hermiting, watching TV and maybe a movie or two. I’m okay with hanging in that extreme. For now.