If you’re new to a small town, you have to make a good first impression quickly. These are not the bustling streets of London, the hectic sidewalks of New York, or even the smashed-in bus stops of Portsmouth; places in which interactions are likely to be short, and where it’s unlikely that you’ll run into people multiple times. Here, the window to impress or revile people is narrow.
Downtown Salem is small, quaint and well-kept. While technically a city, it feels like a small town, and the main shopping area can be traversed in less than the duration of a Kardashian marriage (except in October). This time of year, there are no tourist crowds, street vendors, buskers, walking tours or costumed minimum-wagers handing out leaflets for a haunted house. The only people you are likely to see sitting outside on a Tuesday evening are those who cannot smoke cigarettes within 100ft of the shop in which they work.
For anyone who knows me IRL, this is unlikely to be a shock, but I have trouble settling in socially. It doesn’t matter if it’s a new job, a new school or a new workplace – I enter quietly, observe dress codes and personalities, and then try to fit in as best I can. I’d like to think that’s true of most people, but
sometimes many times most of the time, it hasn’t worked for me here.
Salem has several wonderful places to get coffee. I am a bit of a stickler for my local because the people are lovely and the coffee is brilliantly strong and flavourful without being bitter or too sweet.
The Hippie (to whom I am married) is a daily fixture there (as I used to be), and he often socializes with the regulars/baristas. Therefore, they know him. They know his regular order, they refer to him by name, and they make funny jokes with him. Me? Well, it takes them a while to acknowledge me, and my attempts at small talk are often met with blank stares. They do not know my name. If I make a joke, they don’t seem to hear it, but when The Hippie repeats it, they laugh and congratulate him on how great a joke that was. It’s like I’m not even there.
Perhaps they just don’t like me; perhaps they mistake shyness for rudeness. That’s fine. I am so shy that it feels as though it takes a lot of nervous effort to try to make small talk, even though I am genuinely interested in them as people, so I would rather just bow out of the whole charade altogether if it’s not really wanted. But if I do, then it gets awkward, because it’s a small city, and I see these people regularly. And it gets even more awkward when you’re married to a loud, attention-
loving appreciating extrovert who literally walks around town shouting at the top of his voice. It is impossible for anyone to not know him (or know of him).
Either way, the window of first-impression-socializing is over. I am regular who comes in and they serve me my coffee and then I drink it and then I leave. If I left Salem tomorrow, no-one would notice that they might be making a little less skim Almond Joy iced coffees.
Bristle While You Work
The narrow social window of opportunity also exists when you start a new job. In any new situation that involves people, their first impression of you might be that you:
- are underqualified
- think you’re too good for the job
- are incompetent
- have a bad fashion sense
- have bad breath
- eat smelly foods for lunch
- chew too loudly
- spend too long in the bathroom
- make unfunny jokes
- make inappropriate jokes
- have no sense of humour
- have ridiculous taste in coffee mugs
- are too quiet
- are too loud
- are too boring
And so on and so on. What follows is a horrible Sims-like game, in which everyone else is already clued into the office culture, and you’ve got to decipher their bizarre, in-house, inbred, Sims-language to figure out how you are destined to fit in, along with the least socially-paralysing way of achieving this.
Enforced office socialization ensues (especially if it’s a fucking start-up), and as the sole n00b of the company, you’ve got to endure these activities with the working knowledge of someone who knows exactly what “so-and-so got an adoption” means, to roars of applause and whooping. Just laugh and whoop, like you know what’s going on. Because if you don’t, then you will be perceived as an antisocial snob who clearly does not want to network their way to a better job.
Recently, my office had a mini lunch-centric surprise party for two employees. Today, the entire office is skipping the last few hours of work to go out to a bar and celebrate a project-related milestone event, none of which I felt I’d contributed to, because I only started two months ago. I don’t want to go, because I can’t afford to lose the hours (I’m a temp on an hourly wage with no benefits), and in a non-work social situation, it’s just embarrassing to be ignored in group conversations (especially when the person next to you heard you, and thus, saw you get ignored).
Not that this only happens during post-work drinks. This week, one employee, who usually stares past me when she makes conversation with most people on my team, stepped in front of me to face another employee, turned her back (inches from me) and bizarrely began a private, hushed conversation. I was in the kitchen making tea, something I cannot do over private instant messaging chat, secure email, or at one of those two employees’ desks.
Friendships Have Third Wheels, Too
Within seconds of typing this, I hear my Hippie crying out “No, it’s a fifth wheel, because cars have four wheels!”, and then I hear my own voice, between sobs of lonely despair, whimpering, “No, there are three of us, and that phrase has been around since the bicycle, which has two wheels, unless you never took your training wheels off, which might have been a better idea so you wouldn’t crash into the neighbour’s wall while proudly exclaiming, ‘look, I have no training wheels!’…”
My Hippie is very, very good at making friends. Sometimes, he likes to foist me upon some of them, often without my (or their) realization, in a clumsy but well-meaning attempt to get me to “stop being such a hermit”. Even after it becomes painfully obvious to everyone involved that the Friend and I have nothing in common, my Hippie is still blissfully ignorant of that fact that I am only ever invited to do things with said Friend because the Friend feels obligated to extend these invitations to his/her Hippie friend’s wife.
Conversations almost solely revolve around the Hippie, or the Friend, or what the Hippie and the Friend plan to do together. Perhaps smoking occurs (weed or cigarettes or both, neither of which I partake in; I’m just “meh” about them). If the topic strays to include myself, I am swiftly cut off and the Friend returns the focus to the Hippie. It’s fine.
Bowing out of the acquaintanceship becomes increasingly difficult. Much like the First Impression Window, the longer it’s left to fester, the harder it becomes for me to cut myself loose for everyone’s good.
I have nothing to offer in the way of friendship. I am quite OK with this. I don’t have a special talent or a way with jokes or even a car. I have no value in the social sphere. I am simply not a person who has any reason to be preferentially liked or to whom anyone would want to bother with the effort of striking up a friendship, so I am sincerely baffled by the people who seem to want to make plans with me. Surely they have better things to do?
And I should note that said friends are in England. I am unable to make friends here, though I had tried. People often drift into cafes and restaurants and shops to say hello to the Hippie by name, even have entire conversations with him, and not once introduce themselves or say hello to me. It’s like I’m not even there.
I am neither witty nor reliable. I haven’t had enough life experiences to give good advice; I am not attractive enough to elicit attention from random clubgoers (not that I would want that; it’s just that when every. single. friend. in your group has paired off with someone, it’s midly mortifying to be singled out as the Perma-Ugly Duckling standing alone in a corner).
I am just shy, and I recall growing up during a time when shy didn’t mean “socially awkward” or “has autism/Aspergers”. Shy just meant shy. I am starting to become OK with it; maybe there are some people in the world who are just supposed to be more alone than others. Perhaps if I were in any way gifted, I might figure out what my contribution to society is supposed to be.
Thankfully, with no social life to speak of, I have more than enough time to figure it out – dabble in more sci-fi watercolours, take up piano lessons again or take the plunge and see if I can start learning some programming/coding skills. Who knows?