…(or at least the hand-shaking part)

“I always go to the bathroom during the hand-shaking part, even if I don’t have to go. I just hate that part.”

I made this confession via phone to my college friend awhile back. I felt silly, as I had never admitted it aloud before—I had hardly admitted it to myself. (I guess I had managed to convince myself that I really do have to pee that often.) To my great delight, her response was ecstatic. “I do the same thing!”

We were discussing the difficulty of moving to new areas and making new friends. I had asked her—feeling slightly motherly—whether she and her husband were attending a church and whether she’d met anyone there yet, and that’s when we got to talking about the hand-shaking.

Of course you must know the part of church we were talking about? Somewhere toward the beginning, after a few songs but before the pre-sermon prayer, the congregation is encouraged to “greet one another in the Lord” or something like that.

Some churches take this more seriously than others, of course. At some, all that’s required is a brief handshake with a few people around you—you can probably get by with two handshakes and a handful of words. At others, it’s a half-hour-long gab fest reminiscent of a sorority reunion.

It is from the latter sanctuaries that I make my escape.

Now I know it doesn’t make sense—after all, weren’t my friend and I talking about how hard it is to meet people? Wouldn’t it be sensible, then, for me to take advantage of those 2-30 valuable minutes to make a new friend?

And I actually love that part of the service…once I already have friends. It’s that awkward first handshake and next few lines of conversation that I just can’t seem to get past.

It’s not that people at my new church aren’t nice. In fact, after attending small group for the first time, I cynically found myself thinking, “these people are too nice. It must be fake.”

Somehow I just can’t shake the feeling that even though these people will smile and shake my hand, they are just doing it as a means to wade their way toward the people they really want to talk to. After all, that’s what I do. Once I have found one person I feel comfortable with, I make a beeline straight for her or him and make sure the conversation lasts the whole time. I suppose this probably says more about my own lack of confidence than it does about other people’s friendliness.

My profession probably doesn’t help me. As soon as people hear about my triathlon endeavors they seem to put me into some kind of “other” category—whether it be “weird” or “awesome” or “crazy” doesn’t really matter; all that matters is the distance I feel it creates. They seem to think that all I will want to talk about is bikes or how many miles I ran that week. Or they put me onto some kind of pedestal that makes me want to scream, “Nooo! I’m just like you, please be my friend!”

But often I do find myself talking to guys about bikes—and feeling bad that I can’t figure out how to talk to girls. It’s not so much that I can’t keep up with the subject matter—I do wear cute clothes and now and then I paint my nails (albeit once every five years or so).

The part I can’t get the hang of is the gushing. The oh-my-gosh-I’m-so-interested-in-you-can-you-tell-how-interested-I-am-yet?!! It’s not that I’m not genuinely interested—I am! I just don’t seem able to express my interest in a manner exuberant enough to be convincing. Instead, I have been told by many (now) friends that when they met me they thought I was a little “aloof,” or even worse, “stuck up.” I have yet to figure out why I give off such a bad vibe, and the only explanation I can come up with is my lack of “gushiness.”

My friend tells me I’m really not as bad as I think—he even tried to tell me that I’m good in social situations, a point I must beg to differ on, and will exemplify in the following anecdote:

Not long ago, I was rushing off to the restroom after church (a time I would dread perhaps more than the hand-shaking part if it wasn’t that it’s an appropriate time to make my final escape) and a pastor’s wife made an obvious point to approach me. This was an especially sweet move on her part because I had heard that she is shy.

She brought a prepared line; she said she’d been meaning to compliment me on my haircut. Smooth on her part—I won’t pretend I’m not a little vain or that I don’t think my haircut is awesome. I, of course, returned the compliment (her cut is similar to mine, so how could I not?). Then I was at a complete loss—she had done her part in starting this conversation, now it was my turn to help, and I couldn’t think of a single thing to say.

The silence grew long and awkward until she said, “Well, I know you were on your way to the restroom, I wouldn’t want to keep you.” And I scurried away, bladder perfectly dry, thinking, “If I’m good at social interactions, what the hell does ‘bad’ look like?”

I recently read the book Quiet:The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking. In one of the early chapters, Susan Crain uses Rick Warren’s church in California as one of many case studies for the relatively recent phenomenon she calls “The Extrovert Ideal.” She talks with a pastor about the difficulty of being an introvert in the church, and his words rang true with me.

“The evangelical culture ties together faithfulness with extroversion. (…) The emphasis is on community, on participating in more and more programs and events, on meeting more and more people. It’s a constant tension for many introverts that they’re not living that out. And in a religious world, there’s more at stake when you feel that tension. It doesn’t feel like. ‘I’m not doing as well as I’d like,’ It feels like ‘God isn’t pleased with me.’”

It’s not that I’m so introverted I don’t want friends, it’s just that my introverted tendencies impair my ability to make them.

And at church, the tension is different yet—I find myself frustrated, thinking, if I can’t make friends at church, what must be wrong with me? How can I have nothing in common with these people with whom I have the most important thing of all in common?

For awhile, this thought had me legitimately worried. It even made me doubt my passion and personality, made me feel like maybe I needed to try to change myself. But really, that’s silly; over my twenty-odd years I have made plenty of friends—and of such a huge variety of types and walks of life that it’s hard to think I’m really so terribly uninteresting and dispassionate, or that I can’t find anything in common with other people. I was in ‘Nam, for goodness’ sake. It’s not like I don’t have any talking points. My problem is just getting through the dreadful awkward stage.

Perhaps being a late bloomer has affected me in ways not just physical; in making friends, the “awkward stage” lasts longer and is more painful for me, but once I’m through it, I catch up quickly and even excel.

Maybe, like Moses, I need to find myself a spokesperson—someone to shadow me at church and get me through the awkward beginning part—also known as the hand-shaking part. Someone to say, “You’ll have to excuse Calah. All these people are giving her information overload right now. Please join her in the ladies’ room for a deep conversation about this week’s scripture reading or an overview of her most recent hysterical inner dialogue—she really does better one-on-one…” and then she could lean in a little closer and whisper, “She’s really a cool girl, I swear.”

Because, as far as making friends goes, I guess I’m still a late bloomer. But if I do say so myself, once I get through the awkward beginning part, I really start to shine.

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