In August, we bring a set of new full-time writers to the blog. Today, please welcome Hannah McNulty (’21), who will be writing for us on the 19th of each month. Hannah graduated from Calvin in 2021 and stuck around Grand Rapids, against all odds. She has spent her last few years singing in choir, teaching herself to love reading again, and trying to learn every fiber art simultaneously. She currently works at Eerdmans Publishing, where you can find her burying her nose in old paperwork and forcing anyone within earshot to listen to her bad puns.

I know we’ve never met, but let’s do a quick trust exercise, okay? I want you to close your eyes and picture the most mortifying thing you can think of. I’m talking, something that really embarrasses you at a ligaments level. Got it? No, you need another moment?

This is taking too long. Open your eyes.

Was your answer “Going to the cafe that you went to last week and getting the same cashier, and making small talk with them, all while looking them in the eyes and knowing that they know that you ordered a mocha last time, and now they probably think you’re trapped in some kind of Groundhog’s day and don’t realize you went to the same place twice, like a weirdo?”

Oh, it wasn’t?

What was yours?

Uh huh… mhmm… and then the whole auditorium pointed and laughed? That would be pretty terrifying but in more of a nightmarish way. I need you to think a little more every day.

Let’s try another example: You’re me, in 10th grade, and you’re walking to biology class with a couple too many books clutched between your arms and homework that’s been unceremoniously shoved between the pages of your notebook threatening to tumble out. You pretend to be preoccupied with this particular problem or maybe focus intently on the imaginary text your friend has just sent you, and you mentally prepare for the distance at which it becomes acceptable to do the Glance Up Half Smile Look Back Down. Your teacher, it turns out, has been standing at the very end of the hallway this entire time, staring down the approaching students as they slowly make their way towards her class. She presumably does this to torture you specifically, because there’s nothing that makes all the little embarrassed cells in your body squirm like having to navigate a hallway full of eye contact. Obviously, you could always loudly challenge your teacher to a staring contest, but that only works once, and there’s nowhere else to look if you lose.

The world is full of such invisible traps.

No one has ever been surprised when I mention having social anxiety. I think it’s an inherently funny affliction when it’s not a major obstacle. I joke with people that I’m a vampire who must be invited inside before they can hang out with you. I’ve never read Dante’s Inferno, but I assume one of his pit stops is a level of hell where you show up to a party whose host likes you well enough but wasn’t expecting you to come, so you have to see the slight fire of surprise in their eyes before they say “Oh, you came! Let me find you a chair.”

The agony. Satan is devouring his son as we speak!

Sometimes, the hyper-awareness around social interactions can feel like a gift. Being alive is strange and amusing and kind of inherently embarrassing. Everyone is trying to share bits of themselves at non-alarming speeds, ask others questions in a way that comes off as curious and encouraging instead of interrogative, complain with those who will get your gripes, or navigate out of conversations where all the pauses are lasting about thirteen seconds too long. And we get these things wrong, every day. If you’re not overly aware of the dynamics of a simple conversation, it’s not a big deal if it flops.

On the other hand, constantly examining the fabric of my interactions means I feel a shimmering pride when I make someone smile or navigate through five different conversational topics with a stranger with some sense of ease. “I’m doing it!” I think. “That person just said hello and I said hello in just the right timing, and we exchanged smiles and now I get to feel like how Beethoven felt after composing his 5th symphony, probably.”

It must sound alarming, if you don’t live in this mindset. But I think the illusion of the effortless extrovert is a myth. Sure, maybe some people have an intuitive ease in their laughter and conversation. But ease can be learned as well. I’ve studied enough Smart Girls Guides to socializing from American Girl as a child to know that you can always learn to make a friend, or thank someone for a gift, or ask someone about their pets.

So, I guess next time I’m horribly embarrassed because I had a weird facial expression, I’ll give myself a little shake and then after feeling worse about being perceived doing a weird little shake, I’ll remind myself that we’re all trying to figure this out.

Oops, the timer in my brain just notified me that I’ve been talking too long! Time to do the old knee slap departure and then linger in the doorway with you.

Until next time.

1 Comment

  1. Geneva Langeland

    The excruciating dilemma of gauging-appropriate-eye-contact-duration-and-timing-when-approaching-an-acquaintance! I’ve definitely been known to duck into a side hallway or pretend I didn’t see someone rather than trying to properly calibrate my casual greeting.


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