natural language

I find you delightful and interesting. I admire you. But if it seems like I am quiet or never talk to you, it’s probably because I literally cannot.

I don’t mean “literally cannot” in the flippant way, as if you’ve done something unforgivable. I think I have an inability to react to certain conversational cues in the expected way, and it makes it painful for you to talk to me.

If you and friends have left a group of people after I tried to join a conversation, or let an opening question wither after I answer in my way, I don’t blame you in the least – it’s good signal, and helps me get closer to figuring out what’s going on.

On the other hand, I’d prefer not to skip events due to not being able to talk to most people (and the natural opposite, monopolizing a few people’s attention because they are the only people I can talk to), so I’m going to list out some observations.

Here are some things that happen in a one-on-one conversation:

  • When someone asks me a question, I answer too fast or too briefly, without asking my own questions, and what should be a conversation turns into an exhausting interrogation.
  • When someone asks me a question, I answer with an entire paragraph, anticipating all future questions. “So what do you do?” “I work for X, the location at Y, doing Z in role W — I’ve been there for about k years. It’s pretty good, I like it!” “Oh, neat…”
  • I interrupt. Horrendously. I can’t tell if the gap is for me to ask a question / paraphrase, or for you to say m–ok, I guess you were going to say more. Sorry!

And in groups:

  • In larger groups, I just. can’t. get. a. word. in.

I vividly remember one end-of-rehearsal discussion at Strictly Seattle about “conversations,” and in 20 minutes, I could not find some way to give my perspective, which was that I have a hard time getting into conversations, and that we should consider whose voices do not sound. (basically, what Jarrett Walker said)

I especially rued this opportunity because Strictly Seattle is a dance intensive, dancers are very body-aware, and maybe they would have had ideas — or maybe they would have just looked at me, “Poor awkward Lu,” left a lot of silence, and moved on in what they were all talking about before.

  • In medium (3-5) groups, I leave dead air.

I actually feel like I talk too much in medium groups, especially when other participants are women. But if I’m saying something, I don’t indicate well that I’m finished with a thought, and it seems like the other people are courteously hanging, waiting for me to conclude. This is a natural opposite of the aforementioned interrupting problem.

One thing that makes these (fairly mild, in the grand scheme of things) worse is that it seems to happen so much more with women than men, especially women who are mostly friends with women.

I fear being seen as a homewrecker or otherwise unacceptably heterosocial, but mostly, it’s a problem because I can’t be friends with so many of you.

Are men more tolerant of me because I share interests with them? Have I deliberately cultivated interests that primarily let me interact with men?  Under the assumption that people are mostly homosocial, maybe a greater percentage of men are awkward, and so, men have more practice talking to awkward people and waiting out conversational awkwardness?

Are women’s conversations more advanced: more teasing fragments, confiding of piquant opinion, and other devices I don’t even understand, arenas where a drily-delivered pun has no currency?

I guess I’m looking for a Speech-Language Pathologist, but one who deals with gestures and sentences, not phonemes as atoms. I don’t have trouble putting my lips together and parting with a pop, just once, crisply, but I do have problems answering a question and returning it gracefully, not with a kludge like “what about you?”, and not with a torrent of information.

I do realize that a lot of these ‘awkwardnesses’ I list are due to the assumption that conversations are about declaring facts. Maybe the easiest thing I can do is to think of conversations as opportunities to learn about people, and that I should ask more questions. Maybe this is what makes some people seem easier to talk to: they are comfortable with conversations composed of statements, and others feel that this shuts them out?

(addressing the smaller-eared elephant in the room: no, I don’t think it’s race or age – there are counterexamples all over the place)

Or you know, it could just be that I am still a nerd, and I forget how much of a nerd I am until I am with people who are not nerds. I like digital cats, partner dance, fitness, music, transit, and using words from science while having forgotten most of the details behind them. I dunno. This seems like a long-enough list of things.

You might be tempted to think, “well, I’ve never had a problem talking to you!” This is what makes this problem so hard to figure out: if I can’t talk to you, I can’t become good enough friends for you to take me aside and say, “Hey, Lu, do you ever notice that you do X?” It’s unfair for me to expect people who don’t know me well to do the hard work of observing and commenting.

But if it’s not a lot of work for you and this post inspires you to help, please, post just that. I really appreciate it, in unspeakable amounts.



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