In speaking with an intelligent, creative, articulate young woman, a concept was raised that referenced her primary area of challenge. It comes in the form of discomfort with initiating conversation with new and unknown people or sustaining communication once she has engaged in it. “I didn’t get the rulebook everyone else did,” she said. “I don’t know how to act and don’t know what to say, as a result.” She wondered if some people are hardwired to be communicators.
I assured her that there is no rulebook we are given at birth. We all have the opportunity to write it as we go along. We can also edit and re-script the narrative if something doesn’t work for us.
Then we pondered if it is nature or nurture that allows people to feel at ease in communication. She was born into a family in which being reticent is the norm and into a culture that is considered by many to be reserved and keeping emotions close to the vest. Politeness is valued in her country of origin.
Body language speaks volumes as well. She described her style as walking down the street in closed posture, eyes down, looking in front of her so as not to draw attention. It wasn’t out of fear for her safety, but rather since she didn’t want anyone to notice her and begin to talk. She preferred to think she was invisible, even though she clearly knows she isn’t. Her concern was “uh oh, what if a conversation starts and there is an awkward silence that I don’t know how to fill?” Conversation is a two-way street and the other people are equally responsible for the flow of it. Like many who feel shy or socially ill at ease, she is more at home speaking with those she knows and trusts or if someone she knows and trusts introduces her to new people.
I was raised by parents who were gregarious, although my mother claimed to be shy, I didn’t notice it. They had extended circles of friends. My father was more the life of the party than my mother, although I would say he was loud, attention grabbing. A cousin observed that the party actually began when he arrived. He could begin and continue a conversation with nearly anyone about almost any topic. He could, as a friend attributed to her husband as well, “have a conversation with algae.” He also knew when to step back and let other people take center stage.
If it was something with which he was not familiar, he would listen until he found something he could latch on to and then ask about it. He was not a Rhodes Scholar, by any stretch; instead a blue-collar worker, (milkman-truck driver and bus driver) but he did have a PhD in people.
My mother was learned in listening, a skill she developed, I imagine, by being one of many cousins with whom she was raised. Her mother was one of 13 children and many of them had children who were her playmates early on in her life. If memory serves, she was also the only girl, which meant that she likely got talked over a lot. She was able to speak her mind assertively if need be, as an adult. Every one of her jobs throughout my childhood involved being able to speak articulately. She was an Avon rep, gate guard at our community swimming pool, columnist for a local newspaper, and for most of the rest of her life until retirement at 65, a switchboard operator at Sears. I almost never saw either of them at a loss for words.
I learned from masters how to listen and speak my mind, although I can’t always say I did it as assertively or in a straightforward manner as I would like to have done earlier in my life. Now in my 60s with decades of experience being less afraid of rocking the boat, I am able to jump into conversation that would have been daunting before. I envision it as being like standing on the sidewalk as others are holding on to either end of a jump rope while it swings overhead and then hits the ground, waiting for the right moment to sneak under the overhead arch of the rope before it comes back around. Once I have entered, hopefully gracefully into the exercise and the conversation, my intention is to keep up for as long as possible. I have learned to sprinkle listening in with expression of feelings. I can walk into nearly any setting, much like my father, ‘take the temperature of the room’ and get a sense of who might be approachable.
There was a time when I was reactive and sometimes withdrawn, coming from a place of fear and insecurity, rather than responsive from a position of self-assurance and calm certainty. I can safely say that the tide has turned in the opposite direction. When once I held back sharing my truth because I didn’t want to alienate, inconvenience, attract disapproval, or make waves, now I am clear that I have the right to do so, even if someone disagrees, for whatever reason they may have. I don’t blast anyone if we have differences of opinion and in the current political climate, being outspoken has its risks. Does my heart speed up as I anticipate what may be a difficult conversation? Sure, it does. The only difference is that I feel the fear and do it anyone, but not in an aggressive manner.
Talking to strangers has become the norm for me, whether on the street, in places of transportation (like airports, train stations and bus depots), at the gym and in supermarkets. I never know what will transpire as a result. I have made friends that way or at the very last, left us seeming more uplifted from the encounter. I encouraged the woman to practice making micro-movements in this area by even briefly making eye contact and offering a smile to people in the grocery store where she was headed. She agreed to do so with the intention of creating yet another ‘chapter’ in her own relationship rulebook.