The ‘how to be charming and work a room’ article was a mainstay in the teenage magazines of my youth. “For some people, walking into a room full of strangers is their biggest fear,” is one line I remember reading in one of them — Jackie, Just 17, Minx. They were right, of course, but I’d never been one for that fear.
If anything, I’ve thrived on the thrill of walking into a room full of strangers and being a social blank canvas.
I’ve always been hopeful that I’ll make a new friend, find common ground with someone, or at least find someone with an interesting story to tell.
Which is why I was surprised when cold anxiety settled into my stomach ahead of a night out last week — my first proper night out in 18 months. This was a new one on me, this sense of weird foreboding before a social situation. And I had every reason to feel anxious, because it turned out to be one of the most unsettling nights I’d had in some time.
I realised my conversational muscles, once taut and lean from regular use, had become slack and atrophied. How did I get boring? How had I completely forgotten how to socialise? I couldn’t tell if it was new(ish) parenthood, sleep deprivation, perimenopausal brain or Covid that was the culprit.
It was a friend’s book launch, and so the room was full of mutual acquaintances, former colleagues and publishing industry folks. Within minutes of being in the room, I was overwhelmed and exhausted. I found a port in the storm thanks to my artist friend O, who is a queen at holding a conversation with anyone. I watched on as O chatted effortlessly to people we’d just met, finding common ground, empathising, laughing generously. I loved her for it. To think I used to be able to do this small talk too. Instead, I babbled, repeated myself and told people way too many times that I’d left a young child at home to be out tonight, as though it was some sort of notable thing. No one cares if you’ve left a young child or four dozen manatees at home to get out tonight. It’s boring. I felt like I was underwater, trying to talk with people through a diving bell.
For months and months, I had dreamt of a social situation like this. Warm wine, conversation with people I don’t share a house with, the promise of the night stretched out ahead of us.
During lockdown, I knew my friend’s book launch was coming at some unspecified point in the future, and the very idea of it sustained me as I looked at shuttered pubs within my government-mandated 2km. Cometh the hour, the bookshop was full to the corners of love and goodwill for my newly published friend, and there was something so lovely about being part of that energy. Still, full disclosure, I couldn’t help thinking that this being-around-other-people business wasn’t as fun as I thought it would be.
Worse was to come. Have you ever had that moment where someone calls your name and approaches you, and while you know that you absolutely know them from somewhere, your mental Rolodex just gives up the ghost and draws a blank?
Well, have you ever had it happen repeatedly, in a short space of time? And with people that you have worked with for years?
A friendly, youngish woman made a casual approach. “Hey Tanya!” she called, standing next to me. Now, in this split second, I had one of two choices. I could reply, “Hey You!” and chat along, hoping that the penny would drop and I would pick up a clue or two as to how I knew this person. That would be the polite, smart and nice thing to do. Or, I could simply stand there like a gombeen, showing myself up as the idiot I am. And as I have just pointed out, the social part of my brain wasn’t used to having to do much work at all. My face contorted into a sort of apologetic blankness. “Sophie,” the woman offered, socially savvy enough to look unimpressed for only a split second. Turns out she had been a colleague of mine for years. It was an excruciating moment. And then it happened again, twice.
It wasn’t all bad. In fact, there was a moment that night where I met a new person — a woman who had recently moved to Antrim from New York — and was utterly taken with her whole shtick. It’s rare enough when you meet someone in your 40s and enjoy a platonic spark, thinking, ‘I’d love that person as a mate’.
We all repaired to a nearby restaurant and I started to understand that tired old phrase ‘nature is healing’. A bottle of Pinot Noir and the knowledge that at least some of my friendships haven’t completely collapsed after Covid is definitely healing. We’d left behind the womb-like life of 2020.
And, overwhelming and intense as it sometimes felt, that night was like being born all over again.