It’s not one of my strong points, not something I have in great abundance. I have enough of it to know that I don’t have very much and to wish I had more. I am a sophomore in tact.
This problem seems to me to be three-fold: I am quiet and reserved, I am self-conscious and over-analytical, and I am on the sociopathic side of the Sociopath-Empath spectrum. Maybe fourfold: I am also shy and not very confident when I speak, but that might just be a sub-category or result of the first two. But I want to be graceful and charming and always say the right thing. So when the time comes, I either don’t say anything because I don’t want to say the wrong thing (and then I look either inconsiderate or stupid for not saying anything) or I manage to blurt out something that is the “right” thing to say but without the right emotion attached to it (because I often lack empathy). Like if someone were to tell me their cat died, I know that the socially acceptable thing to say is “Ohhh, I’m sooorry,” with a slightly furrowed brow and compassionate-looking eyes. (I’ve seen my mother do it a million times and I think that she actually means it exactly how she says it, which never ceases to amaze me. The way she feels and the way the other person feels and the way she expresses herself and the way she is supposed to feel and express herself all come together in a beautiful harmony of political correctness and social grace.) However, in my real life I either get the words out without the proper facial expressions, or I manage to get the furrowed brow right but can only squeak out an “Oh…” that kind of trails off because I can’t find it within me to tell them I’m sorry because it either sounds so trite or I’m not actually sorry and can’t bring myself to go through those silly motions.
Take another example, the one that actually inspired this post. The other day, my husband and I went over to his mom’s house for dinner. When we got there, dinner wasn’t quite ready yet, so she asked us if we would like some vegetables and dip. Whenever she asks questions like this, I hope and pray that my husband will answer so I don’t have to…but this time, no luck. Here’s my problem with answering such a simple question: Yes, of course I want vegetables and dip; I love to eat, I love to snack, I love to dip. So, if it were my own mother asking me the question, the answer would be a simple yes – no fuss, no worries about how she would interpret my answer. But it’s my mother-in-law – we’re still getting to know each other (two introverts) and I measure my words and actions in front of her. Sometimes she offers food that I don’t like so much, but I still accept because it seems like the polite thing to do. So in this case, when I actually want the thing she’s offering, I want to make sure she knows that I both appreciate her offer and am genuinely happy to eat the food she is giving me. However, here’s the rub. How do I show happiness? Because I am reserved and not very excitable, I am not used to showing emotion. I have seen other people (naturally emotive people) show excitement and happiness at similarly mundane things, but I am not very practiced in it myself. So I try to do what they do, but it feels fake and over-the-top. So after all these thoughts ran through my head in the split second after being offered the vegetables, what came out of my mouth was a high-pitched “Sure!” or maybe “Yeah!” (or so it sounded to me) with an accompanying nervously excited nod of the head and raised eyebrows (or so it felt to me).
Why can’t I just be a normal human being?
The answer, the problem, is my self-consciousness. I have known this for years. I overcome one part of it only to be attacked by another part. I cannot be tactful or charming or gracious because I’m too busy thinking about – obsessing about – what the other person is thinking about me. I can’t just listen to what they have to say because I’m worrying about whether I’m making the right facial expressions. I think that if I work on thinking more about other people and less about myself, the tactfulness and gracefulness will come naturally. New goal. Thanks for listening.
* Note: This was originally published last May, but then I took it down because I was applying for jobs and didn’t want them to think of me as a graceless Neanderthal. I am putting it back up now in its original form.