Monday, July 7, 2014

The Horrors of Social Hour

The worst part of meeting for worship is the part when it ends.   Someone on the other side of the room smiles and extends her hand to the person sitting next to her.  Everyone looks up and around stretching backs and legs and shoulders that may have cramped a bit in the long, quiet hour.  There is, in that moment, a sense of refreshed newness, like awakening from a deep, spiritual nap.  I like that bit.  What happens next is the miserable part.  Inevitably, like a slow motion nightmare, the person sitting nearest me who is not either my husband or one of my children turns to me with an outstretched hand and I have to shake it.  And then I have to arrange my face in a smile and say something appropriate.  Then, most unmercifully, someone else will want me to repeat this painful process.  This is the social part of meeting for worship and it is, for someone as painfully introverted as I am, an ordeal.

I have strategies to deal with this unpleasantness.  I make myself very busy with my children.  I find that by fussing over my children by brushing the hair out of their eyes or speaking to them with great concern or focused maternal interest, I'm able to avoid some of those handshakes.  I also become very busy with my pocketbook or other belongings.  Fussing over coats, hats, books, bags, and other things helps a great deal.  I think of this as my Kanga strategy.  By fussing over Roo and behaving in a slightly frazzled, benevolent, and maternal manner, people excuse my lack of social interest.

Of course, this method is less effective now that my children are much older and clearly no longer in need of my maternal attention.  I still fuss over my 6 foot 2 seventeen year old but eventually that just looks weird.  Clearly he doesn't need me to fix his hair, brush crumbs off his face, or hover over him.  He has known how to put his own coat and hat on himself for some time.  My kids' relentless maturity has necessitated the more frequent use of some of my other strategies.  One of my favorites is to become invisible.  When my more gregarious husband is making nice with the other people in the meeting, I dart through the crowd toward the door.  Avoiding eye contact, I attempt to look like I have something I need to do "over there".  I then find a way to move into a more empty room.  When that room begins to fill, I move to wherever people aren't and repeat this pattern until it is time to go.  I utilize the "Oh, I forgot something!" face and then go upstairs (and then downstairs and then upstairs again).  The point is to be on the stairs or in the hallway or just outside the door where people are not.

Sometimes people corner me and I have to talk to them.  On a good day, I manage to smile in all the right places and make the right social noises.  I remember to show great interest in them and to ask them about themselves in a non-threatening way.  Other times I mumble monosyllabic responses to their questions and look frantically toward my husband to help me.  When they turn toward him, I smile weakly and then pretend to fuss over one of my children or scurry off to a less populated part of the room where I marvel at how interesting the (fill in the blank) is.  Isn't this an interesting (window, book, pamphlet)?  I should look at it very closely and with focused concentration (at least until that clump of people threatening to notice me and maybe even speak to me moves to the other side of the room.)

Church suppers are especially awkward.  People get their food (how do they do that so easily?  I'm so afraid I'll make a humiliating mistake!) and then sit down together to eat and talk.  Eat and talk!  As if each of these activities was not perilous enough on its own!  I try to find a seat off to the side (and sometimes not with my more gregarious husband who is insensitively having cheerful conversations with people rather than helping to smuggle me out of the building.)  I occasionally get up as if I've forgotten something and go hover "Somewhere Else" and then come back into the main room to find my children and fuss over them briefly before again finding an excuse to leave the room again.  Fuss, hover, become fascinated by inanimate object, etc.  Don't make eye contact.  Stay close to the door.  Jet as soon as possible.  This is my meetinghouse survival plan.

It isn't that I dislike people or even that I'm afraid of them.  I'm not misanthropic (much) or shy (entirely).  It is just that I prefer to watch people than to interact with them.  If I could send out a beam of gentle concern to the whole meeting in a sort of non-verbal way that did not involve having to actually say anything or touch anybody, that would be great.  I'd love to be a Deeply Meaningful Spiritual Presence, but instead I'm just awkward and uncomfortable.  As hard as I try to become invisible or to shrink so small that no one notices me, inevitably, at the end of meeting for worship, someone will turn to me with an outstretched hand.

Perhaps you have met someone like me in your meeting.  Perhaps you have thought that person was unfriendly, socially impaired, cold, or distant.  Maybe you even thought they were an asshole.  Perhaps you've wondered about people like me.  Perhaps you've felt sorry for us or wondered why we bother coming to meeting at all.   Perhaps you are right.  I too have considered these very things.  Why am I so unfriendly?  Why do I bother coming at all?

 The answer is that despite my awkwardness and seeming aloof disinterest in other Friends, I keep showing up because in the silent waiting worship, I am capable of reaching out with the kind of concern and attention that I cannot show during the social hour.   Though I am uncomfortable navigating social spaces, in silent worship, I am a part of a community which allows me to feel that I can touch deeply and be deeply touched.  When you spoke in meeting, my heart was pounding in sympathy and appreciation.  I may have a tough time making eye contact with you, but when the silence deepened, I  was there with you in the stillness between breaths.  Hand shakes and hugs make me want to squirm right out of my skin, but in the midst of our silent worship, I am moved to tears by my sense of being gathered together in love.

Please accept the fussers-over-children, the corner dwellers, and the early-leavetakers.  Accept the monosyllabic responders and the frantic out-of-here darters as among the faithful Friends.  We may be awkward as hell, but we are no less committed.  Indeed, consider how in love we must be with the worship to be willing to so torture ourselves during coffee hour.   How I wish I could be a friendlier Friend!  Every Sunday when I scurry off to my corner to kick myself for not knowing just how the magic of casual conversation works, I wonder if I should forget the whole thing and just stay at home.  Perhaps, I worry, other Friends also wish I would quit.  Or perhaps they don't notice me at all.  (God knows I try not to be noticed!)  All I can say is this--and I do hope that in the end, it is enough:

I may duck away from you or look slightly panicked when you reach for my hand at the rise of meeting, but a moment ago, when no one was looking, my heart was full of love for you, and I was holding you in the Light.


Jen said...

I hear you - I have only been to 2 Quaker meetings and this is why I can't bring myself to go to another, because I can't stand the awkwardness for me. And eating and talking - ugh!!

It might be selfish, but as well as my general awkwardness I want to savour the moment a bit more.... it all becomes a bit much and I have never managed to make it out of the door quick.

I don't mind shaking hands, but I really don't like having to talk!

Daniel Wilcox said...

Hi Hystery,

So glad to have you back blogging. We've missed you.

Even though I've read your blog for several years, I don't think I really understood your inner reserve as much as this post has helped me to (I know one is not supposed to end with a preposition but if C.S. Lewis does it, well:-)

This post will remind me--the talkaholic--that when someone doesn't respond in like manner it may not be because they find me a jabberite, but because they are on the more quiet side.

How does this inner Hystery change when she suddenly puts on the professor hat and the performer hat?

And do you have any update for us on your family's economic struggles? (Not trying to be nosy, but concerned)

Would you shake a virtual hand?;-)

In the Light,
Daniel Wilcox

Hystery said...

Jen, it is good to see that my reserve in meetings is shared by others. I've found the same thing in Unitarian Universalist churches. Scary. :-)

As for trying to connect to my Pagan religious kin, forget it. If Friends are sometimes too flamboyant and loquacious for me, imagine how much I shrink among Pagans!

Hystery said...


I am always eager to shake your virtual hand. <3

Not surprisingly, you would find me as two people in terms of my social comfort. When I am being myself (mother, housewife, rural neurotic), I am reserved or even timid. When I am in costume or playing the role of "professor", then I am comfortable. A room full of people does not bother me-- if I am playing the role. That's the key.

John Halstead said...

Thank you so much for writing this. Nearly every sentence you wrote reflects my experience at my Unitarian coffee hours. It is so helpful to know that others are having a similar experience and it need not invalidate our reasons for joining in worship. Thank you, thank you!

BlackberryJuniper and Sherbet said...

Hi you, Good to read you again :-) When I used to attend Quaker meetings regularly, i would go through long phases of outright lying - I have 'an urgent appointment', 'have to get back for the babysitter' (this one mostly true) etc, so that I could leave immediately meeting ending. Knowing I was able to leave, I would be able to beam at everyone and shake hands, KNOWING I was on the way out definitely, and that people had learned that was what I do.

There was one meeting where I learned to linger (I found the other 2 shy men in the room and we lingered, quietly, restfully) together. And then they made me an Overseer - which weirdly, i could manage, as it was lots of one on one, not people in groups, and not small talk.

But eventually, politics tore apart that meeting for a while, and I couldn't face all the rancour (we were all taking sides), so I left. And at my next meeting, i found I was once again a person who determinedly, but cheerily (I hope) left immediately, by hook or by crook.

But as you say - during the actual silence, or during the short ministries - I felt a oneness and togetherness I have never felt elsewhere, and for the sake of that, I kept coming for a very long time.

Its so good to read and empathise with your thoughts again :-)

Hystery said...

I can't bring myself to break into a small group of people talking. Talking to a single person is also scary. If instead they ended meeting for worship and announced that I would be saying a few words to all of them from the pulpit, I'd do just fine, but that's not likely to happen! My calling was to ministry, but it never would have worked because being a clergyperson isn't just scholarship and sermons but also being able to work with individuals and groups in a variety of ways that are really difficult for hyper-introverts. This is the same reason I never bothered trying to find work outside the classroom. I'd love to work in a museum but then they'd probably want me to use a telephone or some other terrifying device. ;-)

Amanda said...

Thanks for sharing this. As a performer, a sometime retail-worker, and the oldest of a very large and loud family, I have fostered the necessary skills to be outwardly gregarious and maintain it for the length of most post-meeting encounters, but the can be draining, especially when, like me, you have no home meeting and are always a new remarkable presence wherever you go. Add in a "you're not from around here" accent, and the kindly curiosity and scrutiny can be excruciating. If it's been a particularly tender meeting, or if (oh goodness) I have spoken, it's a hundred times harder. One of my counterintuitive defenses to my internal awkwardness is fits of over-talkitiveness, which is often very effective, but occasionally mortifying.

I laughed to recognise some of your coping strategies, especially The Entirely Absorbing Pamphlet. I like to think I have perfected a set of body language cues that say "Oh, how I wish I could speak with you, you wonderful person but I just simply can't! What a shame!" for the times when I can't quite face a crowd. That said, I do make an effort. The kindness and interest is a gift, and I try to be gracious, because I can. I'm not quite so far on the introverted scale, though. And I resonated deeply with the (unstated) idea that the "performer" is not a presence that's fit for meeting. That gives me a great deal to think about it, because I find refuge in that role even when it may not be appropriate to circumstance.

I loved what you had to say about connecting in meeting. That silence is such a natural home for the introverted.

Avril Silk said...

Just discovered your wonderful blog. Am about to send our Newsletter to the printer here in the UK and would love to reproduce 'The Horrors of Social Hour' ... not sure how to seek permission and how to credit you if you agree...

Hystery said...

Avril, thank you for that shot of confidence! I sure did need it. :-)

As for crediting me, I suppose you could provide a web address or I could supply you with my prosaic name through email. I'm at hysterwitch at gmail. Or you could just leave it as is. As long as it is being shared among Friends, it doesn't matter too much.

Avril Silk said...

Thank you so much! Your piece will be the most exciting entry in a Newsletter which is, frankly, often Plainly Plain! Happy to add your name and website links... but the gmail bounced back... I'm (my name)with Your other blogs will be of great interest. Your writing is wry, laugh out loud, tender, tough.... I could go on.

I've just discovered Philip Gulley's books about the Quaker pastor in Harmony. UK Quakers don't go for pastors... I like PG's writing very much, but you knock his socks off. Write a best seller! Now! Your writing is so intelligent, wry, laugh out loud, tender, tough.... I could go on.

I think you'd like the Meeting I attend with a capital A. We are united not so much by faith, but doubt. I like that.

I am thrilled to have discovered you and will ensure that other people do so as well.

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