I was having a great night out at the bar — I was with mostly men, a situation that would have once tied my tongue completely, but I was doing great! I left the booth to use the bathroom. I was so pleased with myself for being social, and relaxed, and non-awkward, and normal, that I congratulated myself in the mirror.
For being so normal.
Then I heard the toilet behind me flush. I left the bathroom very quickly.
Conversation is like using a public urinal: the less attention you pay to it, the better it flows.1 I don’t mean Deep, Meaningful Conversations (DMC’s)2, I mean what’s usually called Shooting The Shit (STS). It’s something I’ve always been bad at.
In high school I occasionally got invited to all-male sleepovers, where the conversation followed a predictable pattern: first poop jokes, then talking about girls, then loopy dreamspeak until the last person passed out. I could very rarely get into the rhythm of these things, and would divide my time equally between being terrified that I’d say the wrong thing and terrified that I wouldn’t say anything at all. It was like a first date, all the time.
I was discovering coffee around the same time, and on one occasion I found that being heavily caffeinated lowered my inhibitions a little bit.3 so I would prep for these gatherings by drinking no fewer than three cups of instant Folger’s. Horrible stuff, and it didn’t usually work, though it did help with the paruresis.
Later on I somehow got the idea that conversation wasn’t Really Conversation unless it involved either half-baked metaphysical theorizing or profound self-revelation. The college I attended was a hotbed of seekers, oddballs, and eccentrics — among I tried to cultivate a reputation as King of the Oddballs — so this served me pretty well during those years. It worked less well after graduation, when I was confronted with the vast throng of more-or-less normal people.
And, again, it wasn’t just a problem of of talking to people: it was a problem of talking to other men. I’d freeze up, just go completely dry in my effort to say the right thing. I always wanted to talk theory and generalization, but conversations between men seem to consist in telling each other facts, and I seemed to be ignorant about most of the facts they cared about — and terrified to expose my ignorance, or to say something unmistakeably fruity.
Do most men talk that way because it’s how they’re wired, or is it a smokescreen, a way to avoid the important things? Probably some of both. But, really, it isn’t just men: even back then, I could do it too, when I wasn’t talking to someone I was desperately hoping would like me.
Besides, talking about Important Things all the time isn’t how people work: humankind cannot bear very much reality,4 or anyway not on a typical Thursday afternoon. It’s not how we usually get to know each other, and doing it all the time would be exhausting.
I’m getting better at it, the talking, the relaxing, but I’m still new at being good at it. Any time I get through a few hours of Shooting the Shit with my male friends and realize at the end that I wasn’t thinking about whether I was nervous or tense or awkward or fruity — wasn’t thinking about much, in fact — I feel great, and grateful, like I’ve done something worth celebrating.
It’s the little things. Like not being a tense neurotic nervous oddball maniac.
1 Yes, I am an occasional sufferer of paruresis, commonly known as “stage fright.” Sometimes I find that trying to silently recite Kubla Khan helps me get going, but I usually get stuck after “gardens bright with sinuous rills.” What the hell is a rill? That must have been some good dope STC was smoking.
2 Or DMC’s, as we used to call them in college. The term was coined by my friend M. to describe the kind of conversation that was always going on at 2am after heavy doses of alcohol and heavier doses of Hegel. DMC’s usually ended in tears, mutual professions of deep fondness, the forging of entire new paradigms of thought, or all three. Or sometimes you’d just pass out.
3 I know, alcohol does the trick a lot better, but I didn’t figure that out until college. Just as well.
4 See TSE’s Burnt Norton.