“Dude, he just looks so awkward all the time…”
We’re a little obsessed with awkward, aren’t we? How many times did you say awkward today? An awkwardly large number?…Err, awkward.
Anyway, hi. In this, my first column, I want to tell you about the beginnings of my obsession with human interaction. And it all began with an exploration of awkwardness.
My sophomore year, I had a job as a “Peer Network Engagement Intern” through Hillel. In practice, this meant that I was paid to take Jewish undergrads out to coffee (although I always went to Jamba Juice because I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to say Jamba Jews) in order to further a sense of Stanford Jewish community. Before you exclaim in astonishment, remember that my wages came from the same people who fund free trips to Israel for Jewish youth. Moving on. Yes, the job undoubtedly changed my perceptions of Judaism. But more significantly, it completely changed the way I have viewed my interactions with people, with particular focus on the “awkward.”
Have you ever been on a blind date? Pretty awkward, right? How about a blind platonic date? Wayyy more awkward.
On a blind date, there is a purpose to your meeting. You arrive with the expectation and goal of evaluating the other person, perhaps as your soul mate or perhaps as your next one-night stand. Physical attraction matters in addition to some level of personality compatibility; I would imagine that personality matters less if you’re looking for a fun night and is of somewhat greater importance if you’re looking for your future spouse. But personality also may be less important than the physical attraction because you can either ignore it (one-night stand) or be forgiving of what you don’t like (soul mate) because, hey, the next date might go better!
My platonic dates with random Jewish undergrads didn’t have these advantages. Both my Jewish Jamba recipient and I knew that we would not call each other back for a second outing — the point of my job was to reach out to as many students as possible. Thus the idea of platonic dating, or becoming friends, was not really our focus. We also knew that physical attraction would not really play a part in our interaction because we didn’t have aspirations of hooking up later. The best we could hope for was an hour of good conversation, and thus personality compatibility was of great importance.
Let’s just say I met my fair share of people with whom I was not particularly compatible on any level. A few of them made that hour of conversation seem longer than my two-hour Econ lectures. I would ask questions and receive monosyllabic answers in return; I would embark on my own brief monologues and see boredom; I would attempt to make jokes and see that quizzical look of, “Oh, was that supposed to be funny? Um, yeah. Not laughing.” Dare I say, I felt awkward.
But several of my dates were fantastic. And, interestingly, the success of our Jamba dates did not necessarily hinge on our compatibility as much as something else, the ultimate secret, the Holy Grail.
They were able to talk to me as if we were friends already. They ignored the fact that we were strangers and talked to me freely, without reservation or hesitation. And that prompted me to reciprocate. We shared stories and opinions; sometimes it became clear that our personalities were not very compatible, but for that single hour, how could we possibly run out of things to share so long as we were comfortable with sharing them?
After that, I couldn’t have a conversation with someone without referring to my Jamba strategy of pretending we were already friends. And I tried it out on everyone — the cashier at Olive’s, people I met at parties, my professors. It became easier to meet new people and also more rewarding when I forged new friendships. I realized something key — that “awkwardness” lies in your expectations of an interaction. Do you expect to be bored? Intimidated? Awkwarded out? It might happen. But if you expect a good conversation with a friend, it might just turn out that way.
When I realized I could talk to strangers as if we were already friends, everything changed. For one thing, I now friend-holler shamelessly at anyone and everyone (some restrictions apply). And for another, I convinced myself to start writing a column, because writing a column is kind of like treating all my readers — a bunch of whom will be strangers — as if they are my friends. So here it goes.
Miriam hopes you won’t be awkward — go ahead and e-mail her with your feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.