inessential by Brent Simmons

Social Anxiety

I will leave you hanging, because it never occurs to me to wonder why you have your hand raised.

* * *

By kindergarten I hated school. I had a bunch of reasons, some of them even good — but the main thing was that it was difficult being around other kids. I was afraid they all didn’t like me.

I hated school even through my couple years in college. And here’s what that kindergartener’s fear turned into: the conviction that most people are likable, but that somehow I’m marked, and people can tell instantly, just by looking, that I’m not likable.

This feeling of being marked, of being obviously unlikable in some fundamental and obvious-to-everyone way, persisted into my early 20s.

* * *

So dumb and wrong.

To maintain that belief is to maintain that I’m super-special, if even in a bad way. I’m not. I may have better-than-average intelligence and creativity, but I’m very far away from genius level. (I’m probably about the same as you.)

I try to be a nice and good person, but I’m very far away from being a saint. (Such understatement!)

Which is to say: I’m not extraordinary in any way, including not extraordinarily bad.

So I came to realize that I wasn’t extraordinary, but some amount of social anxiety persisted anyway. So I wondered why. And, to my surprise, I started to figure it out. There are reasons.

* * *

If you speak a sentence to me, I hear a paragraph. If you speak a paragraph, I hear your life story.

Speech feels like borderline telepathy (it’s not, though), and it’s an awful lot to process. But I get it: I get words. My brain is wired especially for symbolic communication. (Which is why I love reading and writing. And I come to programming as another form of symbolic communication.)

But if you raise your hand for a high-five, or hold out a fist for a bump, it won’t even occur to me to wonder why you’re doing those things. You’re just doing those things. Why would there be a reason?

It’s not that I don’t understand the gestures — of course I do — it’s that I have to keep reminding myself that gestures have meaning and intent.

In other words, I am remarkably bad at non-verbal communication. I pick up facial expressions with no problem, but just about everything else goes right by me.

Wink at me, showily or not, and all my brain gets is that you winked. I don’t connect it to what you said or what our conversation is. Unless, that is, I keep reminding myself, consciously, to look for non-verbal cues.

This is tiring.

(Ironically: my cat, though a non-stop talker, is very much a non-verbal communicator, and I get him completely. It’s also true that the better I know somebody, the better I am at understanding their non-verbal communication. It’s almost as if I can’t generalize when it comes to the non-verbal. With words I have no such problem.)

So that’s problem one. A person who has difficulty with non-verbal communication can come across as weird. I don’t want people to think I’m weird. It’s not that I care too much about what people think — it’s that I, quite rightly, want to be able to have normal human conversations with people.

And there’s another problem.

* * *

I don’t know how long I’ve been staring into your eyes.

I have no problem making eye contact. That’s not it. The problem is that most people have a shared sense of social time, and I don’t. By “social time” I mean two things:

  1. Seconds pass at the same rate for everyone in the conversation, and

  2. Everyone has a sense of what’s an appropriate, non-weird length of time for things like handshakes and eye contact and so on.

My internal time sense is way off. My beats are much faster than social time, and they’re irregular, and there’s no switching gears to social time. I try to compensate, but that too is tiring and difficult.

It felt like I just stared into your eyes for half an hour. Was it only half-a-second? Too short, too long?

Beats me!

But you can see how it would be easy to come across as weird if you get this kind of stuff wrong.

Which leads to the third problem.

* * *

If you’re talking to someone, and they’re spending some percentage of their brainpower on just not coming across as weird, you’re going to kind of pick up that that person is weird.

This is the part where I throw my hands in the air and think about moving to a cave.

Because if I don’t try, then I’m definitely weird. So I have to try — but not too hard. Can’t make it obvious!

* * *

I wonder if all I’ve done here is to describe why introverts frequently describe being social as tiring. Extroverts have no problem with any of this — but people like me, and maybe like you, have some things they can’t do automatically, and that’s the tiring part.

Throw some beer or Scotch in, though, and I’m good. I think probably because I stop caring about being weird or not — and there’s a big, obvious lesson right there for me.

P.S. I should add that my hearing’s getting worse. Which doesn’t help at all.