But I Don’t Know How to Talk to People

My buddy Rock was facing a common young man’s dilemma: what do I say to a girl? Our school lunch group, all of us 15 or 16-years-old, had little experience in that department. Fewer than half had been on a date. I will let Rock and our friend Harmon provide an example that applies even to adult variety women and men with Social Anxiety Disorder.

Keep this in mind if you share the same worry: you might be better at talking to people than you think.

Rock’s problem was set up by asking out a comely classmate. She said yes, not the outcome he prepared for. A little bit like the dog who chases the speeding fire truck and somehow overtakes the juggernaut. Now what?

The date was scheduled for Saturday night, so Rich (his real name) had time to create a plan. Harmon, playing the role of our comparative dating veteran, was consulted. He listened as Rock asked for help with the talking business:

First, you need to think of girls as – like – real people. Like one of the guys. You talk to friends with no problem. Talk about the same stuff with your date: school, teachers, movies, tv, music. Try this: make a list of topics to bring up. Then, if the conversation gets slow, consult the list. You’ll do fine.

Note the confidence and authority. Those of us who overheard the lecture were impressed. This was better stuff than we were getting from our teachers.

Encouraged by Harmon’s advice and pep talk, Rich proceeded to work on his agenda. “I can do this,” he said to himself. By the weekend, a formidable and fairly lengthy itemization of topics existed. He even memorized it.

Saturday evening arrived.

Rock took the Lincoln Avenue bus to the stop closest to the girl’s home. From there he walked two blocks to the address. Deep breath. Front door. Several repetitions of the agenda had been carefully rehearsed. The document was as clear in his mind as the chiseled version of the Ten Commandments was to Moses. Rules to follow to the letter.

The door bell was duly rung. A brief conversation with the mom ensued, then off with his date for the short walk back to the bus. Movieland and the wonders of time spent with a pretty girl beckoned. Houston, we have lift off!

Meanwhile, in various homes in West Rogers Park, Chicago, friends of Rich were all wondering some version of the same thought: what might be happening now? We hoped, after all, to get tips from our chum come Monday’s lunch. Perhaps enlightenment awaited us. A strange new world beckoned. As they say on Star Trek, “to boldly go where no man has gone before.”

Rich arrived at our noontime meal looking like the person we’d last seen on Friday. No remarkable transformation. No bigger muscles, no greater height, no glow. He sounded the same, too. Finally, the question:

What happened?

(Pregnant pause, no pun intended. A sober look came over Rock’s face).

Well, by the time I’d walked the two blocks from her house back to the bus stop, I’d gone through the entire list.

Imagine now the collective sigh of a group of 10 young men: the air making a half hearted escape from a large balloon. Rock continued:

Yeah, I’d keep asking her questions and then … nothing. Silence. And I’d made especially sure that I didn’t smell bad. She did say she liked the movie. Oh, wait, she asked me one question:

Do you like Sugar Shack?

What’s Sugar Shack, I answered?

She tells me its a new song. That was it.

Some men are called to greatness, others have it dumped on them. Or not.

What is the point here? Rock did everything right. He made fine conversation, showed interest in his companion, and still … nothing worked. Moreover, before long he realized the date disaster wasn’t the fault of poor social skills.

Take the lesson to heart, my friends. If you’d like to learn more concerning the ease of drawing the wrong conclusions about your social skills; and about the treatment of Social Anxiety Disorder using Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT), read this:

I’m Not Very Good at Making Conversation/

Remember: sometimes it’s your fault, but not always. Maybe even less often than you think.

The top photo below is called Young Love at the Malt Shop by Kevin Simpson, sourced from Wikimedia Commons. Next comes a Cover Illustration created by Livia De Simone for Dream Hunters, published by Astro Edizioni. It was sourced courtesy of Bubysan and Wikimedia Commons.

The Worry of Waiting and the Pain of Procrastination

Animated-Tourbillon

We wait. When we were small and Christmas was ahead, the calendar was stationary and the clock immobile. Kids “can’t wait” until the day comes, but they do. No choice.

We watch the watch too much for our health, whether the second hand moves fast or slow. The Algebra exam is tomorrow and you aren’t ready. An evening first-date comes on a “bad hair day” that makes you want to enroll your mane in obedience school, better to follow your comb’s commands.

I had my own battles with waiting and managed to create personal solutions, effective at least a portion of the time. In so doing, I realized some of our problems of waiting and procrastination are self-imposed. Time itself creates the others. I’ll begin with the former, but I hope you have the time to stick around for the latter.

I remember calling a high school beauty for a date. This wasn’t my first date, but among the earliest. I sat near the telephone. I looked at it. The phone peered back at me. The event became a staring contest. Who would break first? Would the phone disintegrate and vanish or could I muster courage and call. Minutes seemed like hours in agony. The longer I waited, the longer the suffering continued. I finally called. The bright and pretty blond said, “Yes.”

The solution to reduce my anxiety was already clear, but inexperience blinded me. The more I put off action, the more time I spent in a state of nervousness. I eventually recognized that, for myself at least, procrastination held no benefit. By taking challenges on with minimal postponement, I gained confidence and so reduced the disquiet associated with hesitation. The pool of cold water doesn’t get any warmer by looking at it and so it’s best to jump in.

The dread of waiting usually involves some catastrophization. At 16, getting rejected is an epic calamity. In my example, the urge to have a girlfriend was greater than willingness to accept a life without female contact. Unfortunately, for some, loneliness is the preferred choice. Put differently, anxiety is paralyzing and action seems impossible. Therapy can help with this, but watching the telephone will not.

A bit of courage is also required to take on the world’s #1 personal terror, giving a public speech. Not only is steadfastness needed to show-up for the presentation, but in managing the passage of time as you deliver the talk. Let me explain.

Imagine having been introduced. Restlessness among the listeners is apparent, perhaps even a few people are talking. Do you begin to speak over them or do you wait?

Experienced speakers allow time to look at the audience and to let the throng settle down. The inexperienced or fearful among us are prone to talk before everyone focuses on the podium. By waiting for them, they will understand the unsaid request for quiet, even in an auditorium filled with teenagers.

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Anxious orators often rush their words, believing they must fill the air with the alphabet lest people get bored. I take a different approach.

First, I memorize the speech. This takes a while, but allows for a security in knowing exactly what I want to say. I practice giving the presentation out loud. This is a performance, not a recitation of words dryly read from a text. The keynotes are drama and eye contact.

Some words should be louder, some softer. Portions of the speech are best when fast, others slow. Nervous orators are like long-distance runners who race as if competing in a sprint. They have nothing left for the final lap. Begin at an up-tempo and you can’t get faster. If, however, you start at a moderate pace, you can speed up or slow down as needed. Moreover, you won’t become breathless.

The speaker is wise to allow a few moments to pass without any words. Think of a landscape painting, one with foreground and background. Public presentation is like that, only the background is silence, so that the foreground (your words) stand out. This effect is created by a second or two of stillness, but takes some guts. The quiet might seem (to you alone) like eternity.

All of the above — whether waiting for Christmas or scared to make a phone call — have to do with time. While we can’t control time, we can control ourselves in relating to time.

Time can use us and mistreat us, or so we think. When we wish the hand on the clock to hurry up or slow down, time has the upper hand. For example, he punishes us when we want to be younger or older, when we are waiting in a long line, or when some important news is expected to arrive, whether not fast enough or too soon.

The alternative is to learn how to manage time, as I’ve tried to illustrate. We live “within” the passage of time. Each of us is a time traveler, like commuters on a train whose schedule we did not create.

Lacking control of this relentless force, we must come to accept him in the way of the Zen masters or the ancient Stoic philosophers. Fighting with time is like battling the whirlwind: he is an invisible enemy who evades the sting of our puny weapons. Life is, in part, a never-ending attempt to negotiate a truce in the war with time. The more we struggle by being impatient or terrorized, the more we waste him, or, he wastes us.

As an Indian friend once said to me, “Those of you in the West believe time is your enemy. In India, we think of time as our friend.”

What do you believe?

You might also find the following post interesting: The Frustration of Waiting in Line.

The top image is an Animated Flying Tourbillion by Freewilly. The second picture is Moiré Uhr by Benedikt.Seidl. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

How To Mess Up a Dinner Date: A Beginner’s Guide to Dating Misery

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You have a date with someone you find enormously appealing. You don’t actually recall the details of how you happened to make the contact. You were at a party, talked to the woman a bit, and discovered her phone number in your pocket when you got home. You’d had too much to drink, so nothing in your memory bank suggests what you discussed. But, when you called her a few days later, she did agree to have dinner with you.

Now what?

Rather than tell you precisely what to do, I will take the opposite stance: don’t do what you read below!

Instead, reflect on the fact that people, perhaps including yourself, have engaged in the acts I am about to describe. These faux pas apply to both sexes. In the game of dating, we are all at risk of being that guy (or girl). Also, note that I’ve exaggerated some of this poor advice for the sake of making it more obvious. But again, don’t do it!

On occasion I will say just a few words about how to approach the dinner date experience so that you actually increase your chances of having a good time. I will highlight these affirmative suggestions by placing them in capital letters and italics so that you can tell them from the disastrous behaviors that make up most of this essay.

YOUR PRE-DATE GAME PLAN:

1. As a first step in destroying your confidence, consider that this woman does not really know who you are. Now, I don’t mean this in the sense that she has very little knowledge of your inner workings and life history. Rather, I’m referring to the chance of mistaken identity. She likely envisions a tall, handsome, witty character with whom she shared martinis, moonlight, and flirtatious banter (or was that the guy named Steve?). Regardless, once you arrive at her door, she is likely to realize two very important things: she is sober and you are not Steve.

2. Continue to ponder the possibility that your muse imbibed too many Cosmopolitans during your initial encounter a few days ago. Now reflect on the fact that your friends have often told you, “Dude, you’re way funnier when you are drinking.” You can now reasonably conclude that your date either does not know who you are or she does, but you looked and sounded a lot better when you both were intoxicated.

3. Having ruminated about the first two items for several hours (to the point of a ruinous case of pre-date jitters), jot down a list of every bad date you’ve ever had. Think back to all the humiliations, all the rejections, and especially the time that you got nauseous at Chili’s. Now extend your attention to your miniscule place in the universe, thereby further reducing your confidence.

4. Remember that one of the potential problems in meeting anyone new is that you can run out of things to say. Knowing this, write down a list of potential conversation topics. Then open your window and scream “Adios blow-up doll! No more inflatable girls for me. I have a date with a real live woman!” Make sure that you are loud enough so your neighbors can hear you.

5. Recalling that your date said on the phone that she loves Thai food, choose a dinner destination based solely on your own palate. Your reasoning? Women don’t eat in front of guys on first dates, right?

6. Remember that appearance is key to a successful first date. At the same time, however, consider that paying too much attention to grooming could be seen as a weakness. The solution to this dilemma? Rely on the words your incarcerated father once told you, that there is nothing to fear when you drench your body for 30 seconds with Axe Body Spray.

  • REAL ADVICE: DON’T DEFEAT YOURSELF BEFORE YOU GET STARTED. TRY TO REMEMBER WHY YOU WANT TO GO OUT WITH THIS PERSON AND REALIZE THAT SHE IS ALMOST CERTAINLY LOOKING FORWARD TO GETTING TO KNOW YOU AND HAVING A GOOD TIME. YOU CAN DRIVE YOURSELF CRAZY WITH ANTICIPATION AND PREPARATION. DO TRY TO LOOK YOUR BEST, BUT, IN THE END, YOU ARE WHO YOU ARE. IF YOUR DATE IS COMPATIBLE WITH YOU, SHE IS NOT EXPECTING THAT SHE IS ABOUT TO GO OUT WITH THE FIRST FLAWLESS PERSON IN HISTORY.

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THE DATE ITSELF:

7. If you are prone to hugging “hello,” go ahead. But remember — you want to make an impression. Therefore you must squeeze your date’s bottom a minimum of three times in quick succession during the embrace. Why three? Because you don’t want her (or him) to think that the first two squeezes were an accident. This will definitely get noticed. If you are a man, it will tell your companion that you are a rude, overconfident caveman. If you are a woman, it will inform your new acquaintance that you are in heat.

  • REAL ADVICE: WHATEVER YOU DO, DON’T DO ANY BOTTOM SQUEEZING OF THIS NEW PERSON, UNLESS YOU WANT HER TO CALL THE POLICE OR KICK YOU IN THE GROIN!

8. Upon arriving at the restaurant, realize that you left your list of conversation topics at home and that you have no recollection of what it included. If you are a drug abuser, this is the perfect time to go to the restaurant men’s room and snort a quick line of coke.

9. When you return from the W/C, begin to focus on your facial expression and body language. Your internal monologue should sound something like:

a. “Am I moving my hands too much?”
b. “Did I just scowl?”
c. “Is my eyelid twitching?”
d. “Did I leave some coke on my face?”

  • REAL ADVICE: IF YOU CONCENTRATE ENOUGH ON WHAT YOU ARE SAYING AND DOING, HOW YOU LOOK, AND EVERY CONCEIVABLE INADVERTENT LAPSE FROM SOME IMAGINARY STANDARD OF BEHAVIORAL PERFECTION, YOU WILL BE UNABLE TO ACCOMPLISH WHAT YOU SHOULD BE DOING: ENJOYING THE COMPANY OF A POTENTIALLY INTERESTING AND LOVELY PERSON WHO WANTS TO GET TO KNOW YOU.

10. Back to what you shouldn’t do: be very conscious of the possibility that you may become uncontrollably aroused by the feminine charms of your companion, to the point of levitating the rather low table at which you are seated, thus drawing the attention of everyone in the restaurant. Should this happen, do one of the following:

a. Make no eye contact at all with your companion.
b. Keep your eyes laser-focused on the woman until she asks you if you have a staring problem.
c. Look at and speak to her cleavage, not her.

11. Sprinkle the conversation with the “F” word. You know, “this” and “F that;” “F him” and “F her.” Use the words “whore” and “bitch” enough to give your companion a good sense of your opinion of women. Belch whenever possible. Sneeze on to the femme fatale’s food. Take things off her plate without asking.

12. Your dating disaster will only be complete if you offer Ms. Right some illegal drugs. Carry a full array of products in your brief case. She will consider the offer enormously thoughtful of you.

13. From the beginning to the end of the night tell your heart-throb that she is beautiful, gorgeous, stunning, etc. Ignore her when she implores you to stop. Keep doing it until she begins to scream the “F” word you taught her in step #11.

  • REAL ADVICE: DO GIVE A SMALL NUMBER OF COMPLIMENTS, BUT BE SENSITIVE TO WHETHER YOUR DATE IS COMFORTABLE WITH THIS. WHATEVER YOU DO, DON’T GO OVERBOARD. WITH EVERY ADDITIONAL COMPLIMENT, YOU RISK MAKING YOURSELF SEEM EITHER INSINCERE OR TOO ENAMORED OF YOUR COMPANION TOO SOON IN THE RELATIONSHIP. ALLOW THERE TO BE SOME MYSTERY AS TO YOUR FEELINGS, NOT SLAVE-LIKE DEVOTION FROM THE START OF THINGS.

14. Talk politics or religion from an early point in your dinner. Take impossibly extreme positions, always being careful to communicate that anyone who doesn’t agree with you is an idiot. Pick a fight if you can.

15. Do not let your new friend speak. Interrupt her whenever possible. Dominate the discussion. Talk only about yourself. Ask her no questions about herself and show no interest when she does manage to say something. Discuss past girlfriends and how lucky they were to have you in their lives. Praise yourself and your wisdom ad nauseam.

Alternatively, put yourself down at every opportunity. Look to this woman for reassurance. Lapse into a fetal position. Display as much self-doubt as you can. Tell her in great detail about your lifetime of therapy. Make it clear that unless she is falling in love with you, your life will be forever meaningless.

  • REAL ADVICE: NEW RELATIONSHIPS GENERALLY WORK BEST WITH A GRADUAL APPROACH TO SHARING INSECURITIES AND VERY PERSONAL INFORMATION. A FIRST DATE IS NOT THE SAME THING AS WRITING A MEMOIR OR ENTERING THE CATHOLIC CHURCH’S CONFESSIONAL BOOTH AND ASKING FORGIVENESS FOR ALL YOUR SINS. DO TAKE YOUR TIME IN GETTING TO KNOW THIS NEW PERSON.

16. See how many other hot women you can flirt with in the course of the evening. If your date fails to notice, be sure to point out the babes and mention the physical attributes that appeal to you.

17. Keep your cell phone on the dinner table and check it frequently. Text while you talk. Use the phrase “Did you say something?” as often as possible.

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18. When the bill comes, say that you forgot to put enough money in your wallet, but “I will totally make it up to you during the porn flick I picked for later in the evening at my apartment.”

19. At the end of the night, despite numerous signs that your female friend can’t wait to be away from you (including her mentioning that she is going to move to Paraguay tomorrow), make every effort to be a stud. Specifically, try for a good night kiss that would make a plumber proud; or, if you prefer, a surgeon who wants to get deep enough inside her mouth to perform a tonsillectomy.

POST DATE WRAP-UP:

Congratulations! You have not only guaranteed your own loneliness, but managed to give your date a case of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Once she recovers she will tell others about you. With any luck, most of the female population of your community will be on the alert, having seen your photo on Facebook. It is only a matter of time before small children will point at you in the street, laughing so uncontrollably that they begin to burp up their lunch.

  • REAL ADVICE: OK, THE DISASTER DESCRIBED IN THIS POST IS A GROSS EXAGGERATION. BUT, KNOWING WHAT NOT TO DO CAN HELP YOU AVOID CREATING A REGRETTABLE EVENING FOR YOURSELF AND YOUR FUTURE LADY FRIEND.
  • MORE REAL ADVICE: ON THE OFF-CHANCE THAT YOUR CONFIDENCE HAS NOT BEEN FULLY DESTROYED BY DATING EXPERIENCES ANYTHING LIKE THIS, THERE ARE SEVERAL STEPS YOU CAN TAKE: SEARCH YOUR PERSONALITY AND BEHAVIOR FOR POSSIBLE SIGNS OF OVERCONFIDENCE, INSINCERITY, OR INSECURITY. VOW TO CHANGE. ASK FRIENDS (AND EVEN WOMEN YOU’VE DATED) WHAT TURNED THEM OFF. FIND A GOOD THERAPIST. ALL THIS TAKES INCREDIBLE COURAGE AND EFFORT, BUT CAN BE VERY INFORMATIVE. AS I HOPE YOU’VE LEARNED, RUINING A DATE CAN TAKE JUST AS MUCH ENERGY.
  • ONE LAST BIT OF REAL ADVICE: DON’T MAKE A DINNER DATE A MATTER OF LIFE OR DEATH. IF YOU DO, YOU WILL DIE A LOT!

This essay comes from Chapter 24 of the forthcoming Encyclopedia of Ruining Your Life.

The top image is a Joker by David Bellot. It is followed by a Goofy Smirk by Bruce from San Francisco. The final painting is entitled The Desperate Man by Gustav Courbet, dating from 1843. All are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.