On trust, ease, and meeting new people

At a party last week I had the good fortune to have several one-on-one conversations with interesting people. We talked about what we wanted, about Erik’s and my upcoming travels, and about our work. We also played several rounds of Telephone Pictionary. We didn’t get home until just before 2, very late for us. Then we went to bed…

I was standing in my room in my parents’ house (also the room in which I was sleeping), but it was daylight. People were running around the hallways and to avoid them I hid in the closet, which was full of clown costumes. I rummaged through the baggy, shabby red ribbon-trimmed overalls and colorful wigs to try to find something to wear. When I came out, there were several attractive, interesting-looking young women standing between the closet and the bed, all different ethnicities, all dressed in vivid outfits.

“So what is it that you do?” they asked me.

“Oh, ummmm…” I didn’t feel any awkwardness, but I had to pause and look at the ceiling. After a long silence I explained, “I’m trying to think of how to frame it, because I recently had a number of conversations that have changed the way I think about my life.”

Before I could come up with a new framing, I woke up. I’m not sure of the significance of those clown costumes, but I do appreciate my remarks to the ladies.

I often go to parties heavily armored in close-minded assumptions. My own parties usually have better food (and more of it), and often better music. The guest list is one of my own device, and of course I’m on my home turf. But with other people’s parties, I don’t know what I’ll get. Since dressing up and meeting strangers already puts me on the defensive, I habitually sit through the first half-hour of any party mentally critiquing the setting and wishing I were someplace more compelling. (Not a flattering attitude, but why write at all if I’m not going to be honest?)

It’s a trust issue, essentially. I like parties, but people are such unknown quantities! I’m scared. I don’t trust other people to throw good parties, I don’t trust their guests to be interesting — and I don’t trust myself to live up to others’ scrutiny! My entire going-to-party mindset is a mixed-up web of insecurity and condescension: they won’t like me. Well, I don’t like them! Or their party! Let’s go home!

Recently I began to notice that I had this attitude, and once I noticed it, I realized how much I hated it. What’s the point of going to a party all self-conscious and determined to distrust everyone? I don’t need to prove anything; I’ve already been invited. There’s no reason to fear strangers who are, after all, already vetted (as the friends of my friends). Why walk through that door with mind and heart already closed?

I remember when I was working as a library adult literacy coordinator in LA, I observed that people seemed so interesting when I interviewed them, and that they opened up beautifully when I asked them questions. At first I thought maybe it was just the kind of people who found their way into the program, but eventually it dawned on me that it wasn’t only them; it was me. As coordinator, these interviews were one of the most important parts of my job. They were my (sometimes only) opportunity to find out if anyone seemed unreliable or unstable, and they were necessary for matching up compatible students and tutors. So whenever I interviewed anyone, I gave them my total attention. I wanted to know who people were, on their own terms; I wanted to get a feel for their nature and their habits and their preferences. I spent as much as an hour or more with each new interview, and during that time, I existed for no other reason than to listen and absorb. People sensed my openness, and they responded in kind — which made them even more fascinating to me!

That was my professional demeanor, and it served me (and, I believe, the students and tutors) very well. But it didn’t fully carry over into my personal life, and with each new life change (moving, meeting new people) my ingrained nervousness and defensiveness rose more to the surface. Lately I’ve determined to change that — recognized, in fact, that I truly want to. It is so much richer to meet people where they are, rather than judge them… and it’s easier, ultimately, to trust people to meet me where I am, rather than assuming I need to act cooler or smarter or more intriguing in order to hold their attention. One of my resolutions for 2012 is to feel more at ease in different social situations, and I’ve decided the way to do that is to actually be at ease. It is sometimes not easy; the jittery feeling and the self-protective arrogant reaction are so knee-jerk trained into me. But it’s worth the attempt when the reward is to just be myself and let others be themselves too.

Which brings me back to my dream. As I said to the strange women in my room, I do reframe my understanding of my life each time I go to a party where I really talk to new people. In the act of interpreting myself to others — honestly, without trying to sound more self-assured or accomplished than I am — I get responses from them that raise useful questions, or provide answers I couldn’t have thought of myself. And if things are going well, I get to hear other people interpret their lives to me, and that’s one of the great pleasures of my social existence: learning someone else’s view for a while, expanding my mind and my world.

In the comments of Friday’s Open Mic discussion on asking and receiving, I mentioned that I want to be more trusting toward others. In writing my comments, I began to understand that my distrust is directly related to the loneliness I’d been feeling a month earlier. For me, loneliness comes from thinking there is no common ground between myself and the rest of the world. But if I open myself to others, both in offering myself and in receiving who they are, there is a lot more space for connection. Win. Win. Win.