rules of engagement

“Well, he said you’re cute, but kind of… weird,” she tells me, sheepish. “Like, he said he looks over in class sometimes and you’re, like… giggling to yourself?”

I’m offended, briefly, before I think about myself in Developmental Psychology. It’s more about babies than I had really bargained for, and either I’m bored and my mind drifts or I’m freaking out how much I’m going to freak out if I have a baby and it has subpar gross motor skills, so I have to think about something else. Basically, I’m usually thinking about other things, and sometimes those things are funny, and I do giggle to myself. It’s perfectly… no, well, I guess it’s not.

“Yeah, well,” I say. “I just think of a lot of funny things?”

She squints at me. “You’re so weird.”

Valid.

I spent most of my formative years wondering how everyone around me already knew how to interact with the world. My instincts were always so off: announcing to the class how to properly pronounce the word that another kid had just butchered was wrong. Picking my nose while I waited for everyone else to finish their spelling tests was wrong. Bringing a book to read during a slumber party was wrong.

I was like a baby cultural anthropologist studying a foreign tribe. I wrote long journal entries cataloguing the behavior of the popular girls, puzzled and frustrated at the language they spoke that I didn’t. “M_______ and L______ are always laughing at things during class,” I would write, “and I DON’T GET WHY.” Or I’d wonder how everyone else could play four-square or dodgeball without suffering the strokes of rage that tended to cripple me at inopportune moments: the ball is mine, I throw it wildly and it lands somewhere out-of-bounds or worse, on our side of the court, and everyone is yelling at me, and when M_______ or L______ would laugh and then everyone would laugh with them, I’m sniveling and now everyone’s uncomfortable.

By high school, I had mostly gotten past this, in large part because I surrounded myself with people who were as socially awkward as I was. I realized a few years in, though, that there was a new social stratum where I was destined never to belong: the Student of the Month.

Month in and month out, I looked at my grades and I looked at the Student of the Month list, utterly blind to what I could possibly have missed out on doing to not be the Student of the Month at least one time in one subject. Eventually, a pattern emerged: it was the kids who, in fourth grade, laughed at things during class that I DIDN’T GET. They had come back to haunt me and they were speaking a new language: brown-nosing.

Okay, that’s a little unfair. But I was bewildered: what could these kids possibly be talking about with the teachers every day after class, during lunch, in the halls? I could have walked up to a teacher after class and opened my mouth and nothing would have come out. (“Hey, Mrs. J______! Um… I… liked the homework.”) And here’s everyone else, all the Students of the Month, making inside jokes with the drama teachers and suddenly they’re the lead in the musical. It was like dodgeball all over again.

Even in college, interacting with professors outside of class was beyond me. I thought that office hours were for when you didn’t understand the reading, and I understood the reading, so I didn’t go. (More honest: I didn’t do the reading, but if I had, I would have understood it. Being an English major wasn’t that hard. If you were going to office hours, it was because you were trying to butter up the professor to write you a rec for law school.) It occurred to me recently that if I ever want to go to grad school, I have to wait long enough until it wouldn’t make sense for me to get recommendation letters from my undergraduate professors, anyway. I don’t think any of them would remember who I am.

(Unless they noticed me giggling to myself in the corner of their class, which probably wouldn’t make for a good recommendation.)

At 26, I follow a set of rules I’ve laid out for myself: when you meet someone important at work, say hello the next time you see them so they remember you, even if it makes you feel awkward. Don’t play games like cornhole or beer pong where, inevitably, you’re going to lose the game for everyone. Don’t correct the yoga teacher when she cues the wrong side. Even if she says things like “put your chest on your torso.” (A few of these are specific to New York: don’t beeline for the only open seat on the train because you will definitely look up and realize you ran down Grandma on the way there and now everyone is going to hate you for the next twelve stops. Don’t poop in anyone else’s toilet but your own because, invariably, it won’t flush.)

I’ve mostly given up on sanding down my rough edges. I can’t carry on a casual conversation with anything resembling social aptitude. Picture me with a coworker: “So, what are you working on these days?”

“Oh, um, well, this thing, like, I’m overhauling our, um, stuff.” This to communicate something that I announced totally cohesively to my team not three hours before. (I prepare for meetings by outlining everything I plan to say in advance. If someone asks me a question I didn’t anticipate, I suddenly turn into Miss South Carolina talking about the Iraq. It’s not pretty.)

“That sounds cool.” My coworkers are nothing if not unflaggingly pleasant.

“Yeah. Okay, bye!” The practice of ending a conversation gracefully eludes me. The barest hint of awkward silence and I’m off like a shot, which means that even if I’m saying hello to someone important, they’re remembering me as that weird girl who tries to pull off an Irish goodbye to escape a conversation between two people.

(Speaking of goodbyes, there are few things I hate more than hugging. Is it a millennial thing to hug everyone you know every time you see them, even if it’s the same bar you go to every Friday and you just saw them at the same trivia you go to every Monday? Can I call it basic and reject it on those grounds?)

And on occasion, I’m the polar opposite. God help the first person to sit down next to me after I’ve finished my morning coffee. I’m a morning person and often by the time anyone else arrives at the office, I’ve had twelve ounces of whatever lighter fuel they serve at the cart on the corner of 14th and 8th and I have two hours’ worth of racing thoughts that I plan to share, verbally, in the space of ten minutes.

Around people I know well enough that small talk doesn’t count as small talk, I often feel the urge to share everything that drifts through my mind over the course of the day. (Twitter was a godsend for me. And for everyone around me who values silence.) Sometimes, if everyone who sits around me at the office is traveling, I just mouth things to myself. And then I giggle.

Social structures larger than conversation are even more of a mystery. It took me two big-girl relationships to figure out how, precisely, one is supposed to act with a boyfriend. (Pro tip: that childhood rule about not bringing books to a slumber party applies here too.) It’s only now that I’m beginning to learn not to keep my friends and loved ones at arm’s length, which I’ve done for years in large part because I never knew any better. Often, this means I have to let them hug me, which I suppose is a small price to pay for having someone listen to me complain about how having a boyfriend is really cutting in on my pre-bed reading time.

I learn quickly about everything except for how to engage, but the older I get the less important that seems. I feel like I’ve built up my own versions of social structures with the people I love: structures predicated on the knowledge that if I don’t hug you, it’s not because I don’t like you, and if I leave a party abruptly, it’s because after 26 years I still haven’t learned to do otherwise. (I can tell when I’m about to cease being good company. I like to get ahead of it.)

The best people—the ones worth keeping—are the ones who will tell me gently if what I’m doing is not okay because it hurts their feelings. For the most part, they take me with a grain of salt. And they don’t make me play dodgeball.

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7 thoughts on “rules of engagement”

  1. “I can tell when I’m about to cease being good company. I like to get ahead of it.”
    Why don’t people understand that this is just us thinking of others? It has taken me awhile, but I have most of my close friends and boyfriend trained that when I say I want to go that it is in their best interest to let me for the sake of the group.

    Like

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