No, I Don’t Miss Work Conferences or Networking Events
See the photo above? I took it lurking behind a plant at a pre-pandemic networking event.
For us socially-awkward souls, the pandemic offers a welcome reprieve. No more in-person work conferences, networking events, or other forced interactions professional life foists upon us. I wish I could say I crave face-to-face communication enough that I miss these experiences, but I don’t.
Talking with strangers is like playing a game I can’t win
It’s a combination of introversion, excessive self-monitoring, and intolerance for small talk that’s produced my specific strain of social awkwardness. For me, talking with people I’m unfamiliar with represents a series of games I can’t seem to win.
Talking with strangers at a business event, for instance, is like playing Minesweeper. If you’re too young to know what Minesweeper is, I’m sad for both of us. Opening a conversation with someone new, I don’t know if I’ll gain human interaction points or detonate a landmine.
Example of conversational Minesweeper
Me: “You’re from Minnesota? Me too!” Points scored.
Fellow Minnesotan: “Go, Vikings! Did you see the game last night?”
Me: “I don’t watch football.” *Awkward silence* Mine explosion! Retreat, retreat!
I struggle with conversational rhythm disorder
What I call “conversational rhythm disorder” describes my inability to sense the rhythm of a conversation and know when to enter it.
Let me offer an analogy. Imagine two girls starting a game of Double Dutch. They turn two long ropes in opposite directions. After a few turns, they get a rhythm going. You stand nearby — waiting to jump in the middle. You listen, bouncing on your toes to try and synchronize yourself to the beat, but you can’t seem to find it. If you attempt to jump in the middle, it ends in one of three ways: 1.) You’re tangled in the ropes. 2.) It’s too much pressure and you end up playing hopscotch by yourself. 3.) You make it in, but end up tripping during the next turn of the rope.
In my case, I struggle to enter and stay engaged in most conversations. I don’t want to talk over people, so I wait for an opportunity to insert myself.
Here’s an example of a typical pre-pandemic conversation:
Person A: “Any ideas for events for the week? We could organize an outdoor hiking trip.”
Person B: “Grand River Falls has a great hiking trail. Why don’t we meet at the trailhead?”
Person C: “Good idea. How about 10 on Wednesday? That time seemed to work well before.”
Me: *Crickets* It’s supposed to snow heavily all week, so it’d be better to do something inside, but never mind, I say to myself.
By the time I’m ready to say something, we’re light-years past the topic, and my comment is no longer relevant.
You might think awkward pauses would allow the perfect opportunity to join in. Instead, they’re even more anxiety-provoking. Why are we silent? Am I missing something? Is now an okay time to say something? How about now…or now…or now? Then the conversation starts back up while I chastise myself for not having more of a “Kanye West interrupting Taylor Swift at the 2009 VMAs” kind of energy. Imma let you finish.
“Fake it ‘till you make it” doesn’t work for me
I’ve tried using my high school theater training to fake being confident and extroverted. Unfortunately, my acting skills are like my breasts — underdeveloped. I come off manic and crazed — my voice a little too loud and my eye contact a little too intense.
Me: “Hey! Great to be here, right? Did you check out the refreshments at this conference? They are nnnooiiiccee.”
My body betrays me
It’s my physiology that really gives away my lack of self-confidence in these environments.
Entering a large conference room with swarms of people milling around, I need to take a deep breath. It’s the kind of breath you take right before you’re going to hold your breath underwater for a long time. Even when I do this, my breathing still feels constricted.
I immediately notice beads of sweat collecting under my armpits. To this day, I’ve not discovered the secret to avoiding pit marks. If you wear a suitcoat to cover them up, you get too hot and test the limits of your deodorant until you’ve crossed into the stank zone.
And some of us, like me, have a genetic predisposition towards pungent armpit sweat. Growing up, all my dad’s dress shirts were marigold under the armpits. My mom gave up buying new shirts for him because they’d get stained right away, and no amount of washing could get the stains out. Some fathers wore elbow patches; mine wore armpit stains.
My preferred solution now is to hold my arms out away from my body in hopes of letting the air keep my pits dry. I’m pretty sure it makes me look like Igor from Young Frankenstein. Not surprisingly, this look doesn’t attract a lot of conversationalists.
Finding a networking buddy doesn’t help
Sometimes, I find a socially-confident colleague willing to be my networking buddy. I glom onto them like my two-year-old hiding behind my legs in front of strangers.
My support colleague occasionally attempts to ease me into conversations.
“Why don’t you tell them about that project you worked on, Shanna?”
Why don’t you shove it, Christine? I think to myself.
If my toddler is prodded to speak, she’ll yell, “I don’t wanna!” and run away. I’d like to do the same thing, but I’m told that’s not an appropriate reaction. Instead, I fumble my response so badly I’m never asked to speak again.
“Well, ahem, um, sorry, my throat is parched. Is it dry in here? The air seems dry. Maybe they have the air conditioning turned up too high? You know these conference centers are always so cold. What did you ask me about again? Oh, yeah, the project. Ahem. Ok, well, um … the project was … um …. Actually, I could use a glass of water. Does anyone know where the refreshments went?”
I can’t hide behind screens
There are people like me who survive these events by burying their heads in their phones or laptops. We do our work or feign busyness by secretly scrolling Facebook or playing Snood and praying no one notices. I’ve tried this tactic, but my observant supervisors never let me get away with it for long.
“We didn’t come here for you to sit behind a screen. Why don’t you challenge yourself to collect some business cards?” they suggest.
Then, I sneak over to the unattended promotional booths which line the periphery of most conference centers and swipe their business cards. I also pick up a pamphlet about project management software and look like I’m engrossed in it for as long as I can. If a salesperson appears and tries to engage me, I bail. It buys me some time, though.
I can never hide in a bathroom
Another popular escape tactic is to hide in the bathroom. It’s not a solution.
First, no matter how nice the venue, the bathrooms are usually disgusting: wads of half-wet paper towels spilling out from overflowing garbage bins, stray scraps of toilet paper covering the floor, counters covered with dirty water and shed hair. My inner germaphobe doesn’t want to spend more time in them than necessary.
Second, I can only sit on a toilet for 20 minutes before my legs fall asleep irrecoverably. Don’t ask me how I know (Taco Bell). And I’m not going to stand in a public restroom to hide because heels are uncomfortable. I’m not taking them off with only my thin pantyhose to protect my feet from the floor. (Yes, I wear pantyhose to work events. I was born in the early 80s, what do you expect?)
Third, there is always a line for the women’s bathroom and a limited number of stalls. You don’t want to be that person hogging a stall. People will get curious and assume the worst (Taco Bell), and then you’ll have to exit doing the walk of shame while everyone stares at you in judgment.
Finally, public restrooms bring up a haunting childhood memory. WARNING: graphic toilet-related descriptions ahead.
When I was about eleven, I was with my mom at Walmart, and we were waiting in line inside the public restroom. There were only three stalls, and the five or so of us in line were getting antsy.
“EHHHHHhhhhHHH,” emanated from the accessible stall in the far corner. The groans were loud and confusing. All of us in line looked at each other. Is she in the throes of ecstasy, or should somebody call an ambulance?
A brave woman in line walked over to the stall and tapped on the door.
“Are you ok in there?”
Her answer was met with a symphony of gastrointestinal explosions so explicit that, 27 years later, I haven’t been able to scrub them from my memory.
After a crescendo and finale, the symphony ended. Then came the smell. The enclosed space hotboxed the stench. I thought I might faint, but I had been holding my bladder for so long I couldn’t leave.
When the defecator in question left, I realized that I was next in line, and hers was the next available stall. My mom was already in a stall, so I couldn’t ask her what to do. I was an obedient child (probably why I’m writing toilet humor as a middle-aged adult) and always wanted to do the right thing. I realized that the right thing would be to suck it up and go into the horror stall so the line could keep moving.
I closed my mouth, afraid I’d somehow taste the fumes, and entered the stall. I tried to block out the Jackson Pollock splatters in and around the bowl and did my best to hover over the seat. I gushed, flushed, washed my hands, and refused to go with my mom to Walmart again.
You can see why a public bathroom of any kind can never be my refuge.
In conclusion, hide behind a tree
What my experience in public restrooms reinforces for me is that we’re all human and gross. We’re the weird, hairless sphinx cats of the primate world. At professional gatherings, we’re monkeys in an enclosure jostling for social position, where who’s alpha, and who’s beta is based on the number of business cards collected. At the end of the day, we’re 1.2% worth of genetic code away from throwing our dung at each other anyway.
Given the futility of these gatherings, I may just rely on my work event fall-back strategy — I’ll talk to the catering staff. It’ll be like when I hung out with the parent chaperones at my middle school dances.
Finally, if all else fails, I’ll take cover behind a decorative tree.
In sum, my advice for socially awkward folx attending work events is:
- Don’t play Minesweeper.
- Learn Double-Dutch.
- Get Botox to stop excessive sweating.
- When pushed to collect business cards, steal them from promotional booths.
- NEVER hide in a public restroom.
- I mean NEVER.
- Chat with the catering staff. They won’t talk to you about core competencies.
- When all else fails, hide behind a large object (a column, a tree, or an oversized person will do) and avoid human interaction altogether.
The pandemic has caused its fair share of devastation, but there’s one minuscule bright spot. We’ve survived almost one year without the usual, forced, in-person, work-related social interactions. If we’ve gone one year, what’s one more? Better yet, let’s abolish them altogether! We can organize an effort, form a committee, organize meetings … wait, never mind.