I am a deeply self-conscious person who spends much of the time you're speaking to me wondering, "Do I have the right look on my face?"
That doesn't mean I'm not listening, but it does mean I'm not there in the conversation like I should be. On the other hand, for instance, my brother is an amazing conversationalist. He's so present to every word being spoken to him. My brother stares piercingly into your eyes as you speak, as if he wants to wrestle your soul out of you and take it home with him.
I never know what to do with my hands when I speak. I never know where to look while I'm searching for a phrase - up, down, to one side. Whatever I do, the person I'm speaking to always ends up watching my hands thrash around and clutch the air in vain; or starts tilting their head and searching for my eyes as I frown into the carpeting by their feet, hopelessly groping for the words lost in the decaying synapses of my brain.
The thing which is most likely to exacerbate the problem is when someone asks me, "How do you get your hair that way?" Suddenly I don't only have to worry about what I'm doing with my hands; now they're also looking at my hair, an animated creature with life of its own.
So I'll start telling them, "Well, I started dreading it about 7 years ago when it was about this long," gesturing to my cheekbone. And I'll continue, telling the whole tale - which by now I should just have printed on little illustrated postcards - and at some point, my brain will just do a voice-over on my own speaking.
"Blah, blah, blah," it will tell me. "Blah, blah blah blah blah. Do you hear that crap you're saying? Just stop talking already."
It is very hard to continue speaking with someone, and be at all earnest and interested, when you're brain is interrupting in this way. But such is my torment.
At a job interview this week, an interviewer actually inserted, "And we have this artist with great hair!" into his explanation of how his freelance agency works. I smiled politely, but I prefer not to discuss my hair the first time I meet an employer. It can't lead to good things, unless of course he also has dreadlocks. Later, the same man asked me the dreaded (hah!) question, "So how did you get your hair that way?" I told him, but quickly tried to get back to the gist of the interview. It's bad enough being interviewed, without having to go into detail about hygiene. That's just personal stuff. After that, I not only worried if I was saying the right thing (normal interview paranoia); now I also had to wonder, "What's going on with my hair? I thought it was just pulled back into a nice, professional ponytail."
In my effort to not be self-conscious, I convince myself I haven't got weird hair.
I guess I tend to be kind of aloof towards strangers, partly to avoid that feeling of self-consciousness. I never feel it with friends and family. I must miss out on lots of interesting conversations with interesting people. But I get to look like I can hold a conversation without actually having to hold one. I get to have my hair without having to explain it. I get to look intelligent without having to prove it.
In short, I get to be above scrutiny.
But it doesn't work that way, does it? People talk to you whether you like it or not. It would be a lonely place, anyway, if nobody ever spoke to me without me speaking to them first. Some of the times that I've felt un-self-conscious enough to just be with a stranger and talk with them, I've discovered how incredibly cool people can be.
One afternoon I stepped onto a Market Street bus. Looking over the motley bunch of passengers of all ethnicities, ages, and odors, I chose to sit down next to a middle-aged man with a bald head and black framed glasses. He looked up as I adjusted my backpack on my lap, and I smiled at him. I noticed he was fervently knitting something on his lap.
"Wow, what are you making?" I asked, genuinely intrigued.
"Nothin'," he said. "I just like knitting."
He held up a multicolored, amorphic piece of knitting, yards long. We ended up talking the whole way to my stop.
See, I just look weird. It's always a relief to meet people who are, themselves, genuinely weird. Takes all the pressure off me.
I need lots of practice if I want to be really great with people like my brother is. I try to smile at people on the street, but a certain species of men always takes this as a pick-up, and starts following me saying things which begin with "hey, baby!" I hate that. I am married, for chrissake. And this does not help on the self-consciousness front.
But I am making an effort to turn off my analysis, of myself especially, while I'm talking with people. Analysis of that sort has no place outside of pages like these, and only interfere in real-time dealings.
Help me out. I need practice. Next time you see me around, strike up a conversation with me. If needed, ask me, "Are you thinking about what we're discussing, or are you wondering whether you have food in your teeth?"
Just please, let's talk about something other than my hair.