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Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Lessons in social awkwardness: ignoring people you know

I am a reasonably personable individual, but there are times when I find social interactions unnecessarily hard. I have thought quite a lot about what it is that sends me into a nose dive of social awkwardness and have decided it's generally related to a forced transition from being an introvert (i.e. lost in my own thoughts) to being an extrovert (i.e. talking to other people). Spontaneous small talk (or any form of small talk to be honest) is just not my thing.

Take today's example. I was walking to the childminder's after work when I came up behind someone who looked like one of my NCT friends. I wasn't sure it was her (she was wearing some jazzy purple trousers I just couldn't quite picture her in) but she walked like my friend, and her hair looked like my friend's... As I passed her (she was going slowly and I was running quite late) I took a sideways glance and realised it probably was her. Did I stop and say "Hi!" though? Nope, for some idiotic reason I kept going. I then spent 5 minutes marching on as fast as I could, debating how I could possibly acknowledge that she was behind me, without making it obvious that I had known she was there all along and had snubbed her.

It's not that I don't like this woman - she's lovely and we always have a good old chinwag when we meet up. It wasn't that I was in too much of a rush to talk to her either. I could have spared an extra minute to walk at her pace and have a chat, or I could have just said, "Hi, I'm really sorry, I have to run". It's more that when I am walking to and from work, that is my quiet, reflective time, and I find it really tough to switch to sociable mode. Plus, from my brief glance, I couldn't be 100% sure it definitely was her and I didn't want to randomly stop mid stride and say hi if it wasn't - potentially very embarrassing.

Maybe this inability to switch modes makes me slightly autistic. It almost certainly makes me antisocial and probably quite rude. Yet however much I kick myself for doing it, time and time again I find myself pretending not to see people rather than just stopping and saying hi. My aversion to an awkward social encounter, one with no clearly defined end point or get out clause (particularly when you're in a hurry and walking in the same direction) and ripe with the possibility that, caught off guard, you'll say something stupid, is just too strong. Because, caught off guard, I usually do say something stupid, like "bit chilly today isn't it?" (in December) or I'll forget to enquire about something vital like "how's your Dad doing after his heart attack?" or "are you having a nice birthday?" which will cause more self-admonishment later.

I wish I could tell everyone I've ever ignored not to take offence - that it really isn't you, it's me. Who knows, maybe they actually appreciate me not saying hi, as it means they can pretend not to have seen me either, neither of us has to talk, and we can both go about our days in blissful knowing ignorance. I'm sure this is true for some fellow anti-socialites I know. Furthermore, if I'm being REALLY honest, there possibly is a dash of "I won't disturb them because why would they want to talk to me?" in the mix of my thoughts too. On a largely unconscious level, I believe I'm doing them a favour by sparing them my presence.  Not a sign of healthy self-esteem I'm sure, but as I whinged a couple of weeks back, that's one of the potential downsides of being more self-aware...

Anyway, I made amends eventually today. As I was unlocking the buggy once I reached my childminder's, my friend walked past and I did then shout out a hello and apologise for ignoring her as "I wasn't quite sure it was you" (nearly true). We parted on smiley, friendly terms, and she admitted she had seen me too but had thought I looked busy so didn't want to disturb (I was reading an email on my phone, it's true). I have no real idea how much offence was taken though. I'll probably never know either, because, like me, she's one of those people who will keep on smiling even when you've spilled coffee in their lap. Which I have actually done. Twice. Oh dear, she secretly hates me, doesn't she?

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