True for some, false for others.
Every few months, the West Point society of D.C. arranges for alumni to meet up at a local bar to socialize. I’ve gone to a few, but in general, I suck at these types of things. I stink at small talk and I don’t know how to work a crowd. I don’t like being the center of attention and I can’t handle more than one drink at a time. Whenever things like this come up, I consider going; it’s as if I completely forget that I don’t actually like these things. I’ve gone to a few now, and instead of networking, I wind up in a tight circle with a few people I already know—which is to say I’m totally missing the point and purpose of the function.
After a grueling day at the office, I hopped the metro with the intent of attending one of these shindigs. The bar was 2 blocks from the stop, a quick walk over, and I figured it would be busy, but not too busy. I was wrong. The host navigated me through the packed bodies to the rear corner of the bar. I signed in on the attendance list, penned my name on a sticky label, and promptly left the bar. I know, I know, but I couldn’t breathe and the weather was still really nice.
I waited in Farragut square until my friend arrived. I had other things on my mind to consider, so I thought of those things and worked on my Word Fu skills. Once my friend arrived, I joined her and we entered the bar together. I slapped the sticky label with my name back onto my shirt and we mingled.
There was a ’73 graduate whose looks betrayed his age. He looked fantastic! I know black don’t crack, but this man looked no older than 45, 50 tops. By my calculations, he had to be 58 or 59 years old. He also had a daughter who was a 2006 graduate. It is always strange to see the younger grads. You generally feel like you’re the young one when you see people with 8’s and 7’s after the apostrophes, but when you see class of zero-something, you realize you’re kidding yourself.
My friend moved on to another group, and somehow I found myself separated from the herd. While we were talking to the ’73 graduate, I glaced up and noticed a guy staring at me. It was not a casual glance, it was look that said: “Imma wait until I have your full attention. I see you’re busy, but just know I’m here, watching…waiting…always waiting.” He moved in as soon as he saw I was alone. I saw his tag and ’84 and we started the usual talk—where do you work, what do you do, how long were you in, and so on. Meanwhile I was chowing down on a mini slice of some sort of pizza, which was the first thing I had consumed in about 6 hours. On top of that, 84 man’s breath was stink stank stunk. And on top of that, the place was already loud, which meant he was extra close, and with every word, I got a fresh dose of hot garbage breath expelled onto me, my food and my tumbler filled with water. This is why I hate coming to these things, I thought. I was cornered with this guy with no room for escape. I could have artfully dodged to the ladies room, I guess, but I had my leather tote and a big handbag with me. It would not have been graceful. The guy was going on about how his kid was at the Citadel and how that is sort of like West Point. Here's what I kept to myself: we looked down on the Citadel. Once, when they played us in football, there was a spirit poster with one cadet kicking another’s ass, and the caption: at least we don’t pay for it! We liked to think of how those who had parents paying for a Citadel education were also paying for our educations, thanks to the federal tax system. Then he started in on how he had a master’s degree when he became and officer. Then he mentioned he went to OCS, which was the best way to do it, in his opinion. So let’s get this straight—not only was he basically insulting my route into the Army's officer Corps, this dude is not a West Pointer and he’s going to partake in our happy hour? Granted it is an open invite type event, but why would you want to go to one of these if you’re not a grad? I guess the whole networking thing is attractive, but this guy was blowing foul carbon dioxide in my face as I tried to nod and smile with scarfing down a wee slice of pizza and trying not to inhale. This wasn’t networking; it was torture. Then when we got to the subject of his daughters, he made sure to mention how much he adored him. When he added “I don’t feel that way about their mom, though,” I thought, “Eject, Eject!” Did he not see the wedding-engagement ring combination on my left ring finger? Did that not matter? Did he think I wanted to discuss ex-wife/baby momma/woman he intensely dislikes drama with him? Shoot, go stake out a chair and harass the bartender with those woes. If I don’t know you like that, then please realize that don’t want to hear it! Shoo! Be gone.
Thankfully my friend saw a break in the conversation, grabbed my elbow and rescued me. From then on, I was in listening mode. I only started to feel better when people began clearing out and there were a handful of people I knew who were either
b) people talking to classmates
c) people I have already met in passing
In college I used to make fun of people who were socially inept—guys especially. I would snicker with friends about the dude staring at me as if he had never seen a woman before in his life. In all honesty, he had seen me but I looked so(!) different (!) out of uniform (!). This was always said to me as if it was a compliment. You're dog-assed ugly in uniform, but wow, with your hair down, in jeans and a flattering shirt, you actually look like a normal girl. Wow(!) Also made fun of: the ones who sent out greetings sight unseen, using the cadet email system. You know—it’s not that hard to find someone if you’d like to meet in person, but if you want to ensure you have no chance, send them an email that says something like this:
Hi you don’t know me, but I’ve seen you around and I would like to get to know you better.
It is the email equivalent of “Do you like me? Check yes or no.” notes from elementary and junior high school. I will be smirking as I hit the delete key.
In retrospect, I am the socially challenged one. While in my cadet company (Go Zoo!) every member receieved a “zoo” name based on their personality and an animal. I hoped for something cool—cat, maybe. I was mysterious, stealthy and independent—why not? I didn’t attend the ceremony (of course I didn't), but later heard that I had been dubbed “turtle.” Fantastic. “They” say you always dislike the things in others that you dislike in yourself, and I guess it’s true—I don’t like that I’m not comfortable in social settings. I try, though. Even with people I know, I search my brain for conversation topics so we’re not sitting there in silence. I go to these happy hours with a surface smile and a deep seated sense of dread. It’s just other people, but the entire thing is draining.
The thing is, I assume everyone else is good at this stuff. West Pointers tend to be great at networking and excelling. The two things go hand in hand—being an extrovert is valued in this society. It’s because someone who is comfortable being the star of the show is someone who other people gravitate towards. Those who are not like this are seen as rude—not wanting to engage—or even worse—snobs. I only discovered this well after I graduated. “You think you’re too good.” Was what one guy said—a ROTC graduate who attended the same officer basic course and had heard from his friend—my classmate—that I had my nose up in the air. Um….what?
So I’m working on that through going to these happy hours, friending people on Facebook and working through lame small talk in hopes that I don’t look like I’m trying to fade into the background.
Another one of my classmates revealed that he was the same way. It was hard for him to sit in the bar surrounded by noise and people. “It’s draining,” I said. “It took ten years for my husband to realize I don’t hate him when I ask to be alone.” But this person was the last one I expected to understand this. He drove a noticeable car while we were at school. He had a nickname. He was well loved and even now people know him at a glance. If he’s the same way as I am, then I guess I’m not so much of a freak after all.
My husband is another one. He was supposed to go to this thing and he really didn’t want to. This was a guy who was in sales for nearly 8 years. People love him. More people recognized him at my own class reunion than me! “I’m a homebody.” He said. “Tell Mike we flipped a coin and you won.”
Flipped a coin to go to a happy hour? Yes, married life is that exciting, folks. No we didn’t really flip a coin. He just wanted a valid excuse for Mike (his classmate) who had expected him to be there. Could you think of a cornier explanation? I joked. Tell him we drew straws.
Well, it turned out that Mike wasn’t there after all. Maybe more of us are closet introverts than I ever imagined.