When I was a wee bab I had a lot of social problems. I was painfully shy. I was weird: I was obsessed science and math and reading and had strange, big ideas that were far beyond my cooler, less nerdy classmates. The really tough one, though, was my complete obliviousness to all social cues. I remember talking at length to someone about a topic that I loved (probably math) and looking over at her again and again at her as I talked, thinking “if only there were a way to tell whether or not a person is interested in what I’m saying”.
People were a black box. I eventually learned to recognise tone well enough to tell when (for instance) someone was making fun of me, but I would often be unsure of what the insult actually was, because I lacked the social context. (A classmate once approached me at my coat hook and yelled “You’re gay!” at me. For many days after that incident, I would occasionally pause what I was doing to try to puzzle out how being happy and cheerful was supposed to be insulting. I got a lot of my vocabulary from old books.)
Thus began The Project. It started in earnest in grade 8, when I switched to an arts school and was finally surrounded by people for whom I felt interest and kinship. I had picked up some stuff by then, basics of tone and maybe just a little body language. For the first time, my ongoing frustration of not really knowing how to read people and situations was paired with an environment where it seemed like it might be safe to talk, and maybe even to say the wrong thing.
For years, I spent a significant proportion of time and energy on The Project: learning, practicing, and processing how to interact in every available social situation. When I consumed media, I’d memorise descriptions of body language in characters who in some way matched my mental image of how I wanted to be seen. I took every drama class I could. (I love theater, but even if I hadn’t: these classes were training me not for acting but for real life. I remember leafing through a pile of monologues to pick one for class, and feeling very strategic when I chose a speech by Nellie McClung. It was perfect: in practicing the speech, my drama teacher explained to me, step by step, how to project confidence and speak so people will stop and listen.)
I learned the physical markers of comfort and confidence and forced myself to sit and stand in open poses, despite extreme discomfort. I signed up for improv and debating to force myself to speak in front of people using my own words, and practiced until it didn’t seem scary any more. When I went to parties, I mingled. (If you are or have been extremely introverted or painfully shy, you know the special hell this entailed for me. If not, trust me when I say that this above all demonstrates my complete dedication.)
The Project was an unmitigated success. I learned a lot. I changed a lot. I worked HARD, with a single-minded dedication that could and did achieve the impossible. People who meet me now see me as friendly and confident and great with people. I have become better at social-ing than I could have imagined. I did good.
NEXT TIME ON:
the secrets to my success (aka, totally intuitive conversational and social strategies that I had to work out cognitively)