Since it’s a new semester, and we’re all going to meet new people, I think now’s the time to do away with the social expectation that when we are introduced to somebody, we have to remember that person’s name. Seriously, when was the last time a new person’s name stuck with you? How many times have you jumped through verbal hoops to get people to unwittingly repeat their names because you didn’t remember it the first time? I have friends who include a disclaimer in their introduction: “I’ll probably forget—I’m bad with names.” That means they’re so predictably bad at this that they get the apology out of the way before it’s happened. And nobody thinks that’s weird. By contrast, consider how weird it’d be if at dinner, somebody reported, “I’ll probably fart—I’m bad at being discreet.”
My most subtle trick to getting people to repeat their names is probably to ask a friend to initiate a separate introduction so that I can hear the name again without having to ask for it myself. But this shows that we’re not actually “bad” with names; it’s that we don’t actually hear them when we first meet somebody. We’re too busy navigating the various anxieties that accompany introductions. I am personally heavy on the oh-God-what-do-I-say-next brand of anxiety, but I’m familiar also with the is-this-person-going-to-like-me kind. Certainly there are others, too. But what I’m getting at here is that “being bad with names” is a common defense for an even more common social experience: when you meet a new person, your brain moves to DEFCON 3. You have to be ready for all sorts of things—topics you don’t normally talk about, ideas and words not typical of your usual social circle, and an unfamiliar set of social cues that tell you everything from what this person values to what irritates her to what she thinks about what you’re saying, and about you generally. And since we often don’t like to create unnecessary conflict, we also have to (try to) “tame” our usual enthusiasms and rants.
This challenge, I think, is what the newest meaning of the word “awkward” gets at. We feel awkward when we suspect that we are unsuccessfully navigating a challenging social situation. The time you went on a near-diatribe about people who do CrossFit, and then the new person said quietly, “I do CrossFit.” The time you began a joke and realized halfway through that there was no way this joke was appropriate for this audience, and that your choices were now to pretend you forgot the punch line or to pretend the joke was not a joke but an interesting anecdote whose ending you must improvise (while quietly panicking). The time you said, “Connecticut is one big traffic jam where souls go to die,” and it turned out your new companion was from Hartford. And then you made this face:
Um, anyway. There are any number of ways to rationalize why you’re bad at meeting people: you’re an introvert, you’re awkward, you’re shy until you get to know somebody, you’re socially anxious, you’re slow to trust new people. Any of these might be true, of course. But isn’t it also possible that it’s just really hard, and nobody ever explains, really, how to go about it like a “normal person”—whatever that is? As with so many things, we learn social conventions through entrapment: it becomes apparent that some way of speaking or acting was wrong only because after you do it, people squint, sneer, or otherwise shun you.
In light of this, I want to offer a few tips.
- Ask questions. Conversations only move forward when at least one person feels comfortable volunteering information, and the easiest way to get that to happen is to ask for it. Most of the time, people are interested in sharing their experiences, though sometimes it takes some gentle prodding and trust-establishing to get them to feel comfortable doing this.
- Ask questions that extend topics that your new conversation partner is interested in. If you learn that this person likes to cook, any number of follow-ups become available: what kinds of foods? How did you learn? Does your chef’s knife have a name?
- Because most of what a new person says will not seriously interest you, you have to be willing to do a little work. It may take some time to find a subject, or even a way of talking about a subject, that engages both of you, and requiring somebody to be immediately interesting is both impractical and uncompassionate.
- Make sure the conversation is balanced. If you’ve been asked a few questions, it might be time to start asking them. Similarly, if you’ve been asking the questions, it might be valuable to start volunteering more information yourself.
- Like anything else, you can ask the Internet. This is exactly the sort of thing Lifehack and BuzzFeed were made for.
I don’t expect this to make meeting new people easy. However, I want to point out that while what to do and what you feel in a situation are connected, they aren’t necessarily the same thing: as a friend recently put it to me, “I’m sociable, but not social.” By which she meant, I’m capable of meeting and talking to new people, but I find it exhausting. And frankly, why should it be easy? Each of us has, I think, a rich inner life, only a fraction of which is self-evident to people who have just met us. Meeting people should be a challenge: the world would be much more boring if it weren’t.
Help Available at UNH
If you would like to talk with a Wellness Educator/Counselor at Health Services about ways to cope with the anxiety of meeting new people, you can make an appointment online or by calling (603) 862-3823. This service is available to all UNH students and is included in your tuition fees.