I’ve got a business meeting this week with someone I’ve never met before but who could be hugely important, and yet again my social awkwardness has arrived to trip me up at the most inopportune time. I’ve spent years reading studies on human behavioural interaction to try and understand what seems to come naturally to other people, the kind of subconscious social cues that I feel I should have learnt by immersion rather than second hand.
I think it’s nerves more than anything make me second guess my behaviour now.
I remember being so conscious of everything I did or said when I had to talk to people in my teens – don’t fidget, don’t cross your arms, speak slowly and clearly, don’t avoid eye contact but don’t stare, mirror the person you’re speaking to but not too obviously, discuss the weather because it’s an inoffensive topic and not because you have any particular meteorological feelings, don’t tell people they’re stupid just because it takes them 3 times longer to reach your conclusion – but in the last few years much of that has become automatic.
I forget sometimes, when I’m around the people I’m used to, and then that uncertainty sneaks up on me out of nowhere. It can still sometimes seem like a lot all at once, trying to remember all the social cues as well as keeping up the flow of conversation. It’s become a lot easier to manage in recent years, and I think that is mainly down to my acceptance of it. With age comes perspective, and I realise now that stuttering through the odd sentence or forgetting the odd word or even having to explain something that seems remarkably simple to me (but not to the entire rest of the world, it seems) is not the disaster I once imagined.
That said, I have no idea how this meeting will go. It’s a genuine business meeting which is really important, so I have to make a good impression. I have to leave this man thinking that I’m capable, intelligent and responsible, and splitting my focus between explaining my business plan and remembering to make the appropriate amount of eye contact may be difficult.
This is why I hate first impressions – the physical image of a person will stay in your mind for years and could potentially taint your entire relationship. Not only that, but conversation in person is spontaneous. Emails, texts or even Facebook chat can offer a little time for contemplation, for the beloved edit and rewrite, but speaking is immediate. The words are out with little to no time for planning and if something goes wrong, the only option to correct the error is to continue talking. You must push the poor little conversational canary further into the condemned mineshaft of misunderstanding, at the same time hoping for the fresh air of mutual perspective while also dreading the moment the bird croaks on its own confusion and silence falls.
See what I mean? I could never have come up with that metaphor without time to think.