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Posts Tagged ‘social anxiety’

Is it weird that I envy other shoppers’ relationships with the cashiers at my grocery store? It’s probably a little weird, right? Sometimes I am waiting there with my items on the belt as the person ahead of me pays for her groceries, and I catch little clips of her conversation with the cashier… and some people seem to know so! much! about each other! Like they’re old friends, talking about their aging mothers or their new babies or a college-age child coming home for the weekend.

How does a person get to be that familiar with a person she sees for five minutes once a week? (Or more. My in laws are in town and that plus Extra Birthday Baking I’ve been doing for Carla means that I’ve been to the grocery store A Lot lately.) There are members of the grocery store staff that I recognize – like Dan the fish guy, who gave Carla about 50 samples of fish one Saturday before very kindly telling her that this was the last one, okay?, because he needs to save some for other people (I should have stopped her after sample 1, but it was a food that she liked that didn’t come in a package and end in ­–able, so I kept my mouth shut). Or the super nice lady behind the prepared foods counter, with whom I once in a fit of bravery exchanged names, but whose name I then promptly forgot and have never remembered because she doesn’t wear a name tag and obviously I am not brave enough to ask her again. Or the cashier who is really terrific at fitting every single thing into the exact number of bags I have no matter how much junk I’ve loaded into my cart. Or the guys who load my bags into my car, and who are always super nice to Carla (seriously, they have been so kind to her I have sent positive comments to the store manager). But I barely know their names, let alone any details of their personal lives.

(My grocery store is pretty great. I have only ever had three negative experiences with the staff there. One is with a different, non-Dan fish guy who has NO IDEA how to butcher a fish properly and leaves scales all over the fish he cuts for me. Yuck. And ALSO, probably because he is not a good fish butcher, he made a snide comment about how lucky I was that he was removing the skin from my salmon because most stores charge for that. No one had ever once told me that wasn’t a thing a could ask for at the fish counter! And yes, I DO appreciate that they do it, and do it for free! Blah! Thanks for making me feel guilty about something I have asked for literally hundreds of times!!! This is the most privileged paragraph in history! My Coping Mechanism has been to refuse to buy fish when he is on duty. The other was with a cashier who kept insisting that I could – and should – get Carla a free cookie one afternoon because Carla was crying. Crying because she was not allowed to have the free cookie, the eating of which had been contingent on her good behavior during the shopping trip. “Awww! She wants a cookie!” * heaving sobs * “I know she does, but we’re not getting a cookie today.”  * pitiful sniffles * “You can get one right over there!” * wailing *  “Yes, I know, but we’re not getting a cookie today.” * enormous tears * “But they’re free!” “She can’t have a cookie.” * louder wailing *)

Whatever. Maybe more in-depth relationships with my local grocery store staff will come, after I’ve been shopping there for a few decades. Or maybe my relationship level is perfect as is. I don’t know – it can go too far the other way, I suppose.  There’s a checker at my Target who is WAY too overfriendly. She could be the inspiration for that old Kristen Wiig Target Lady sketch on SNL. She’s always commenting on my purchases and asking me where I got them and what I’m going to do with them. And while I am not averse to the occasional curious question or comment – I mean, if you just bought the exact brand of nail polish I am buying, I would love to hear how it looks out of the bottle – this particular checker comments on Every. Single. Item. The last time I saw her, we had a long conversation about couscous and what to serve it with and she also praised my choice of wrapping paper and then asked me if I like the eye drops I was getting. It’s very tedious and I don’t think the people in line behind me appreciate it too much.

Worse than the running commentary is that she makes these vague upsetting references to her life that I don’t know what to do with. Like she’ll say, “How are you today?” and I’ll say, “Fine! How are you?” And she’ll say, “Well, as good as can be expected, I guess.” And then at the end of our transaction, I’ll say, “Have a great day!” and she’ll respond despondently, “I doubt that I will, but thanks anyway.” And she’s been even more gloomy than that, with broad sweeping comments about how life certainly isn’t fair for everyone is it. And I just don’t have any idea how to respond! Am I supposed to ask, while the line grows behind me, while Carla gets more and more antsy, what’s going on with her? Part of me wants to take her out for coffee and let her vent for an hour. And the other part of me wants to say, “We are not close enough for you to say things like that to me!”  My strategy so far has been to listen to whatever she is saying and nod empathetically and then say, “See you next time!” as I leave. On a human level, I want to be kind to her and help her in any way I can. But on a reality level, I don’t have the bandwidth to be a stranger’s support system. (Are there any little, low-bandwidth kindnesses I can extend to her… without being condescending or overly familiar?)

This whole long build up is all to say that I already have anxiety surrounding my interactions with the staff at my grocery store.

So the other day, I put the divider on the conveyor belt to separate my groceries from the person before me. The cashier was still scanning the items for the person ahead of me. But she smiled at me and said, “Hello!” And I smiled and said hello back. A minute or so later, as I was finishing unloading my cart, she handed the prior shopper her receipt and looked at me and said again, “Hello! How are you? Where’s the little one today?” in this super cheerful way. Everyone at the grocery store loves Carla. And so I smiled at her and said, “I’m good! Carla’s at camp today. How are you?” And reached into my cart for the last bag and in doing so saw the person behind me to whom the cashier was actually speaking.

Then of course I had to endure the shame and humiliation of THAT as she rang up my entire cart of groceries and asked me again — me, this time — how I was, and instead of responding — AGAIN — to her pity question, I kind of shrugged and smiled and said NOTHING.

And then I burst into flames.

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Yesterday we had a Parent Appreciation Luncheon at Carla’s school and I am still reeling from the experience.  Reeling may not be the right word. Perhaps “steeped in self pity” is more accurate, I’m not sure, I am destined to fail at all things including appropriate word choice.

At the top of the luncheon, all the kids in the entire grade got up and did a little song and dance routine. It was very cute. And then they got to usher us to our seats in the cafeteria and then we all ate lunch(eon) together. There was a lot of down time at the beginning while the teachers corralled all the kiddos and got them pointed in the right direction. Which meant that there was plenty of time for me to be SUPER socially awkward and inept and anxious about it.

Let’s just get one frustrating thing out of the way right up front, which is that my husband wasn’t able to make it to the luncheon. And yes, he’s on call, and yes, I’m sure there were single parents in the mix, and even in the case of two-parent households, I’m sure that other parents weren’t able to make it, and/or they have been at their jobs longer than my husband has been at his and feel more comfortable taking off in the middle of the day and/or have spouses who were more persistent about reminding them to find some way to take the time off, but it SEEMED like every child there had two parents except Carla, including two other physicians, which at baseline made me a) feel guilty and b) feel lonely. If my husband had been there, I could have at least talked exclusively to him, instead of sitting there mentally rending my garments as I tried desperately to gather the courage to go talk to someone.

While we were waiting for the kids to set up, I saw another mom that I have been friendly with in the past. If I’m being honest, I wish she were my best friend: she’s so lovely and put together and smart and friendly and kind. She started talking to me, which was nice. But then one of her friends came up to us, and the two of them started talking, and I started to panic. Was I supposed to join in the conversation, about things they have in common and about which I know nothing? Was I supposed to excuse myself and go… stand in a corner? I ended up doing neither, and just stood there silently with what I hoped was a calm, friendly, I’m-a-good-listener smile plastered on my face and nodded along with them. They were nice about it, making eye contact with me occasionally as though I were part of the conversation. It’s not like I was entirely mute; I tried to make interested-sounding noises even though I was much too panicked to focus on what they were saying. And then another friend of theirs came up and joined in and I just kept standing there, my anxiety flinging itself against the inside of my brain like a fish trying to escape its tank, and I tried to ask questions where I could – but they were obviously “I am making conversation” questions and not “I’m part of the conversation” questions, you know? – and tried to laugh and continue to make “I’m totally taking part in this discussion” noises. And the cafeteria was super hot and I started sweating and I became uncomfortably aware of the inside of my mouth and how my breath could not be great even though I definitely brushed and flossed before I came. And I didn’t know the other moms at all, or who their kids were, and – as is always the case anyway – I couldn’t figure out the rhythm of the conversation well enough to interject with a new subject or a related anecdote or a pertinent question. Not that I could properly follow along with the conversation anyway; as I mentioned before, I was too focused on all the THINGS going on in my head to focus on what they were saying.

Finally, a teacher called us to attention and we got to watch the kids’ little performance, which was a nice break. The ladies I’d been “talking with” drifted off to find their spouses and I stood by myself, clutching my sweater (why had I brought a sweater when clearly I’d entered one of the flaming hottest circles of hell???) and my purse and my desire to leave immediately and/or melt into the floor.

And then it was “luncheon” time, and once again I had to navigate the extreme horror of talking to a parent I don’t know that well. This time, across the table. Unfortunately, this parent was either as shy/uncomfortable as I am, or she had already written me off as no use to her. So my lame attempts at conversation were met with single word answers and apparent disinterest. You’d think this would be a good thing! Lets me off the hook, right? But instead, I kept trying to make lame small talk because I wanted her to like me. Obviously she wasn’t talking to me because she’d written me off as Not Worthy of Her Time, right? Okay, okay, so possibly she was having her own inner freak out about having to talk to me and fending off similar worries. Either way, I don’t hold it against her.

Fortunately, Carla was with me at this point, so I could direct most of my attention to her. But as we lunched, I was very aware of all the other parents in the room, laughing and chatting and having a great time. I mean, I’m pretty sure I wasn’t the only person in the room who doesn’t like groups/crowds/forcible mingling. But it never FEELS like there are others. Instead, it feels like everyone else finds social interaction super easy, and, not only that, but fun, which I find incomprehensible. I long for “easy.” Fun is a pipe dream.

Finally, when I was able to escape, I ran into a couple of familiar couples on the way down the hall. They are all super nice and friendly, but they were in couples, and seemed to be talking to each other, and plus one of the women was the woman whose friend-group I’d horned in on earlier and she was almost certainly done with conversational babysitting, so I tried to smile and make nice friendly noises, but then I motored on past to leave the school and get in my car and go far far away. And as I was doing that, I was mentally chiding myself for avoiding them instead of trying to interact with them. You can’t make friends with people if you dart past them every time you see them! Friendships are not built on awkward smiles and waves and “have a great day”s tossed over your shoulder! (Why not, though?)

And I DO wish I were friends with more of the parents at Carla’s school. So many of them seem great! But the way you get to know people is by talking to them during these school events, and I get so flustered and self-conscious that I just can’t do it. It’s moderately okay one on one, but when there are two or more people, I stop being able to think. I have no idea how to join the flow of conversation. I have no idea what to say. I often walk past little clusters of moms in the hallway after drop off and wonder what in the hell are they talking about?!?! I have no clue, absolutely none.

And then I go home and feel horrible, as I did yesterday. And the bad feelings remain. I feel lonely and isolated, which are terrible feelings to begin with. But then I also feel culpable, because it’s my own fault I don’t have friends. It can’t be THAT hard! Other people do it all the time! There must be something wrong with me that I am always and forever on the outside.

Hence the pity party.

We have a big Parent Breakfast coming up, as part of the kids’ transition into kindergarten. (KINDERGARTEN. Let’s reserve that panic attack for another post.) So I anticipate more of the same sweaty awkwardness and wallflowering and self-loathing to follow in a few short days! Yay!

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