Imagine you are at a social gathering of some kind. It could be a party, the foyer of a theatre, or even at work. You are in conversation with one other person – let’s call them person A. Suddenly, a third person whom you know walks up to the two of you and says hello. Let’s call this person B.
What do you do at this point?
a) Ignore person B and carry on talking to A.
b) Say hello briefly to person B and then continue talking to A without any further acknowledgment of B.
c) Say hello to B and then ask if they know person A.
If you chose option ‘c,’ what happens next?
d) You tell B the subject of your conversation and invite them to join in.
e) You start a new conversation that includes them.
f) You carry on your conversation with A and make no further reference to person B at all, despite the introduction.
If you picked options a, b, or f, then you are an asshole because basic etiquette demands that you welcome person B into your conversation.
Of course there might be good reasons why you don’t wish B to join in. Some examples might be:
i. B is a colossal bore
ii. You loathe B
iii. The two of your were gossiping or complaining about B
iv. You didn’t want your scintillating observations on life to be interrupted
v. You were engaged in a personal/private conversation with A and didn’t want anyone else to hear
All of those are great reasons to be sure, and number two is particularly challenging, but the only one that stops you from being an asshole is number five.
If your conversation was private/personal, then you should preferably stop it, or explain politely to B that you really need to talk to A about something and could you catch up with B later.
The reason I bring this up is that it has happened to me three times in the last three months.
In each case I was person B, everyone involved knew who I was and all of them have had business dealings with me over many many years. I wouldn’t say we are friends, but we are definitely more than mere acquaintances.
Upon reflection I have decided not to take these incidents personally because I’m fairly sure these people respect me, but being human and prone to moments of self-doubt, I have wondered if I am indeed a colossal bore.
What amuses me about this, is that all three of the people involved have very responsible jobs which brings them into contact with people on a regular basis. One is a CEO, one is a relationship manager, and one is in public relations.
It would be a safe bet to assume therefore that each of them has the necessary skills and experience to handle complex social situations and react with politeness to people they meet, especially when they are ‘on duty.’
But here’s the deal, I understand how complex human beings can be. Ever since I was a child I have suffered from social anxiety and I know there have been times when I have appeared awkward and probably aloof because I didn’t know how to handle situations. I was brought up to be polite to people, but when I was younger I didn’t really learn how to hold conversations, particularly with strangers.
As I got older I learned those skills, first by doing a lot of customer service work, and then over 25 years of interviewing people I learned how to make small talk and how to put people at ease prior to an interview.
To this day though, I still find many social interactions challenging, and I find crowds of people intimidating. Even though I know how to approach people and start a conversation it can still be a difficult thing for me to do.
On those occasions, I channel my ‘interviewer’ personality and that gives me confidence and reminds me I actually do have the skill to talk to people.
And I have to say, my upbringing and my career has taught me something very valuable: I would never ignore someone who walked up to talk to me even if I was in the middle of a conversation with someone. That also includes people I don’t admire or like – and trust me, there are quite a lot of them in this world!
So where does this leave me?
Well, writing this has been quite cathartic.
As I mentioned earlier, I have chosen to believe that the people mentioned above didn’t mean to be rude.
There could be any number of reasons why these things happened and I suspect in one case the person was completely oblivious to having snubbed me.
But on the odd chance that they are reading this I would like to offer the following, and I apply it to myself as well.
Social interactions are not easy. We are all complex and our moods and sense of self fluctuate all the time. There are lots of stresses in our lives, and sometimes we just find it hard to handle all the experiences we have and the people we encounter. We often seek out the company of people we know really well because it’s just plain easier.
But remember this – if we are in social settings, our conversations are going to get interrupted. We shouldn’t try to doggedly stick to them, but if we really must then just politely explain that to a third party – I guarantee they will understand.
When encountering another human, let’s be aware of our own shit and develop the understanding that other people are dealing with their own shit too. Share a bit of caring and kindness.
Etiquette was invented for this very reason. The rules around politeness were developed so that people knew exactly how to deal with social situations. Even if you were shy, you knew to say ‘hello,’ ‘please,’ ‘thank you,’ ‘have you met so and so.’
Now that doesn’t mean we have to behave the way they do on Bridgerton or Pride and Prejudice, and bow our head upon greeting or require single women to have chaperones. But, being polite to someone is actually really easy and it’s a way of healing anxiety and vulnerability in ourselves and others.
So… Even if you are socially anxious, when it comes to dealing with other people, remember your manners and don’t be an asshole.