By Shelley Powers
I am an introvert in extrovert’s clothing.
To the untrained eye, I appear to be the epitome of an extrovert. I can converse easily with others in line at the supermarket. I can speak publicly with only the smallest amount of butterflies. I have no problem holding my own in meetings. Heck, I’ve even fooled ye olde Meyers-Briggs, which has permanently stamped me with a scarlet letter “E.”
But, when the time comes to attend a high-brow event that has no purpose other than to engage with people on a social level, I become one, big, massive ball of anxiety (complete with heart palpitations and shortness of breath), and I want nothing more than to hide under my covers…way…far away…from all other human beings.
I grew up in the South; so, one would think that parties and social settings would just be in my blood—that a balmy evening spent under twinkling party lights and conversing with soft-spoken belles and beaus would be my exact cup of sweet iced tea.
Not so much.
My perfect Mississippi evening is actually one spent sitting on my couch with my dog, watching an action flick then hitting the bed around 9 p.m. (okay…8:30)
Little wonder I’m still single at 44.
Truth be told, I can tamp down my anxiety pretty well for casual gatherings with friends, but the fancier things get and the less people I know, the higher my level of stress. And here in the South, I find myself faced fairly often with having to attend fancy parties, because we like to go big or go home when it comes to soirées here. Don’t get me wrong, we have no problem partying in flip-flops while serving drinks from a beer tap and gathered around a table draped in newspaper to catch the carnage left behind from devouring pounds of boiled crawfish. But when celebrating life’s big events (marriages, golden anniversaries, new babies, etc.), we pull out the silver, iron the linens, and default to the “grander is better” tradition.
One Saturday not so long ago, I found myself attending just such an event at an old country club in Jackson, complete with high ceilings, heavy brocade draperies, elegant floral wallpaper, and a ridiculous number of botanical and Audubon prints in gilded frames lining the walls. I was warmly and sincerely greeted by my hosts, who hugged me tight and gave me full rights to be there; but, as more and more people packed into what was becoming a very crowded room, I realized that, other than the family who invited me and exactly two fellow guests, I knew no one. Slowly my brain began to register that I was about to spend two full hours standing nose to nose with people who acted as if they had known each other for years, and my heart began to pound as the panic set in.
I went into survival mode and immediately put into action the five techniques I’ve cultivated over my lifelong experience of attending bridal teas and baby showers. Follow these tips below and even the most introverted extrovert should be able to gracefully handle punch bowls, serving lines, and the dreaded “balance your cake plate and cup of coffee while you chit-chat standing up” predicament.
SURVIVAL TECHNIQUE 1 – FIND YOUR COURAGE/SHOW NO FEAR
Anxiety isn’t pretty. A flushed face, shortness of breath, and flop sweats make remaining dainty at a chichi-lala event near impossible. That said, I’ve learned that physical responses to anxiety are rarely noticeable to anyone other than myself. Most people don’t realize that I am kvetching on the inside; so, I play that to my advantage. I just stick out my chin…and grin…and saaaaay…”the sun’ll come out tomorrow, and this will all be over even sooner than that!”
SURVIVAL TECHNIQUE 2 – FIND A TASK
For me, attending an event just to visit with other guests doesn’t compute. I can make small talk and converse with people fairly easily, but having to do this for hours with stranger after stranger completely wipes me out. However, as long as I have a task (be it cutting the cake or keeping track of whether Great-Aunt Louise has tipped back one too many sherries), I can blissfully maintain my sanity. This is why I love to throw parties, but cringe at attending them. When you host (or help the hostess), you can flit and float around the room and not feel awkward talking to strangers, because, after all, everyone loves the person handing out cheese cubes and finger sandwiches.
SURVIVAL TECHNIQUE 3 – FIND A FACE IN THE CROWD
If your courage has completely locked itself in the john (see Survival Technique 4) and the wait staff refuses to let you do their job, you will have to actually make conversation with another human being. First, look for a wingman, hopefully someone you know, or at least another person who looks as lost as you feel. Second, have topics ready to cover that you can fall back on when comments about the weather stop as quickly as an afternoon thunderstorm. “Isn’t the house lovely?” “How do you know the host?” “I spent last September working as a carnival barker. How about you?” You know, just some easy conversation topics that will spark chit-chat.
SURVIVAL TECHNIQUE 4 – FIND AN OASIS
Okay, so this one can be a little tricky, but when it works, it’s fantastic. There are times when your anxiety is so overwhelming that you want to run, but you know you haven’t been at the event long enough to exit gracefully. For these times, it’s important for your sanity to find a place where you can tuck yourself away to catch your breath and resume a sense of peace. A back porch. A corner chair. Or, if you are me at that country club, the ladies restroom. Fair warning though, you can only stay in your oasis of safety for a short time. Long stretches make folks wonder if you’re in the kitchen pocketing the good silver, or, in my case, you scare little boys who walk in wide-eyed to the ladies restroom and are completely freaked out because a) they just walked into the ladies room by mistake and b) they have discovered one very weird lady seated at the vanity taking pictures of herself (see above photo) and jotting down notes on the back of the party invitation envelope she had shoved in her purse. “It’s okay,” I told the poor kid, who was dancing the tinkle jig and unsure of how to proceed. “Go ahead and go to the bathroom.” He did, and I prayed I had not scarred him for life.
SURVIVAL TECHNIQUE 5 – FIND THE DOOR
When you have exhausted techniques 1 through 4 and when you have been in attendance long enough to let your hosts know you care about them and appreciate being included, it’s perfectly acceptable to leave. And, for Southerners, this in itself can extend a stay by another 10 to 15 minutes, as good-byes always…I mean always…last longer than hellos here.
Not only has my Southern upbringing taught me to never wear linen to a sit-down reception; it has taught me to appreciate the need and importance of interacting with others socially. I fully realize that no man is an island…maybe a peninsula…or even an isthmus…but not an island. When friends actually care enough to ask me to leave the safety of my couch to attend a social event, I know that I must shove aside my panic, throw some antacid in my purse, and find the strength to oblige the kind request. And truth be told, 10 times out of 10, I’m so very glad I went.
This article is dedicated to Connie Joe and Auline Hontzas. Congratulations on 50 years together. The party was lovely…and so are y’all.