It’s the tail end of the party, and I’m chatting with a spiky-haired guy who’s standing across from me. There’s a guy to my left with whom I’m making vague attempts to keep in the conversation—meaning, I’m making occasional eye contact when I’m talking—and two guys to my right who are talking with each other. All four of them are work colleagues, and are waiting on the rest of their group before they take a group Uber home.
Spiky-haired guy—let’s say he’s named Ted—has just finished with literally quizzing me on his friends’ names. I get it right, barely.
“So you’re actually quizzing me now,” I say, incredulous. He shrugs. “Though I almost didn’t get that right.”
He grins and asks me about mindscapes. I sigh internally, because I already have complicated feelings about this guy and this interaction, and he’s just adding on. Specifically, he’s just asked me about what it feels like for me to think—mental voices, imagery, etc.—which I call “mindscape” discussion. I like mindscapes. It’s one of my favorite topics. And not only is he asking about it, but he probably has a good description of his own and has thought about it, and I always like to hear about those. I sigh again, and award him some mental kudos points for good topic choice.
He listens attentively to my description, and, as promised, has a good description of his own. I’m enjoying this interaction, and am not sure how to feel about this.
When the topic comes to a natural finish, I start the next one. “I was talking about something related in my last conversation. I found the whole conversation surprisingly interesting,” I tell him. “I’m still trying to figure out why.”
“Why it was surprising, or why it was interesting?” He shoots back.
“Why it was interesting…”
“Why was it interesting?”
“Well, yeah, that’s the question, but there’s also the question of why I found it surprising that it was interesting.”
“So why it was surprising?”
“No, I guess why it was surprisingly interesting. I think we were talking about meta-social stuff too, but that wasn’t all…”
He’s watching me carefully, listening, and the intentness of his gaze plus the fact that I’m still unsure whether this other guy to my left is in this conversation or not reaches a breaking point.
“What are you thinking right now?” I ask, turning away from Ted and towards the guy on our left. His name’s Andrew, I remember. Quizzing actually does help a lot with learning names (a phenomenon which has research on it and everything.)
“Sorry,” he says. “I’m actually just feeling tired right now, and am not holding up my end of the conversation.”
Ted slings an arm around Andrew, no hesitation. “This guy’s the best,” Ted says. “We spend far too much time together.”
Andrew and Ted glance at each other, friendly and easy. Good friends, then—that makes me feel better.
“No problem,” I reassure him. I’m pleased about something else as well, and tell him so. “I’m glad I had an accurate guess for what you were feeling.”
(I’m proud of myself, because I generally don’t seem to intrinsically understand “tiredness” as a state of being at parties. I think this is because I tend to ramp up my social energy to match the engagement level of the other person, and assume that everyone else has the capacity and desire to do this as well. This is not a correct assumption, and frequently means that I’m not good at dialing down my energy in group settings, or recognizing that tiredness cannot always be fixed by jumping to a better topic.)
Andrew nods agreeably. Ted asks, “What am I feeling?”
I look at him. “You’re engaged. Challenging. But in a way that you’re enjoying yourself.”
(I know this one. I know this one so well. I know what it feels like directed at me, and I know what it feels like when I direct it at another person. In my previous conversation, I’d been doing it at someone else, but Ted’s leading the charge on this one. It’s so high-energy, and very dynamic, lots of topic switches – rapid-fire questions – complicated third-person interactions – fast emotional processing – idea generation – challenge– intent listening – tug and pull – quick.)
“That’s Ted,” Andrew says fondly, and Ted looks at him.
Ted is lost for words for long seconds. “Aw, I’m blushing,” he says, finally, and I feel the pace come down.
He gets back into it soon enough, though, and now Andrew’s in tow. I’m glad Andrew’s in the conversation now, even if it’s mostly watching. I’m always uneasy when I’m not sure if someone’s in or out of the conversation.
“You have a lot of energy,” Ted tells me, after we’ve topic-switched a couple more times. He’s getting better at them, hitting topics I care about faster. “How much have you drunk?”
I smile to myself, used to this question. I’m quite fond of it.
“Guess,” I tell him.
We bounce back and forth for a while, then move on. He starts in on athletics, keeping the focus on me. At one point, he announces the following:
“Now you’re lower energy.”
I startle. I hadn’t realized he was tracking my energy levels. But in retrospect, of course he was—that’s what this game is, isn’t it? And also why it’s fun?
He topic-switches, and moves on to talking about failure modes. He asks me what my failure modes are, and I get stuck.
“Uh, wait, what? “Failure modes” wasn’t actually what I meant, but, like, what kind of failure modes are we talking about here? …What?”
“Is that one?” He teases, watching me literally search around for words. I do seem to do this more than other people—have too many thoughts all running into each other, trying to figure out what they want and what the social expectations are and which of my thoughts fit into that and what I actually meant and do I want to engage with the other question anyway. The result is that I end up with my mouth open, making syllable-long sounds at people, while I try to figure out what to say.
It’s not an unpleasant experience for me. I don’t like when my mind is blank, but this is the opposite of blank: it’s just sorting through thoughts really quickly, discarding and generating really fast. Now that Ted’s reminded me that tracking my energy level is something I can do, I notice that I’m actively ramping up right now. Where I was medium-energy level before, getting stuck like this has pulled me into super-engaged territory. I sigh at myself.
“Not—what I meant—“ I say, and go with my usual method, which is clearing the initial thoughts by saying them really quickly and then going onto whatever I’ve decided is what I actually want to respond with.
At this point in the discussion, a new guy slides himself into the conversation. I’d previously had a decently-long conversation with him—Jacob—and he’s less of a stranger to me than most people here. He hadn’t been involved in this conversation, though, and had probably just finished a previous one.
“Jacob,” he says, introducing himself, since he doesn’t know anyone else in this circle.
“I’ve met two other Jacobs tonight,” I inform him, as Ted and Andrew introduce themselves.
“You didn’t,” Jacob tells me, and I raise my eyebrows at him.
“You’re just gonna assert that?”
“I am the only Jacob here,” he says, and I continue to raise my eyebrows at him. “Who else have you met?” he asks finally, relenting.
I make a swooping motion in front of my face, which he instantly copies.
“No, he had hair like this,” I say, still doing the swooping motion, which he is still repeating, in a playfully mocking motion.
“Oh really?” Jacob says, and that’s it, I’m done with him.
(…I’m writing this right now, and I’m wincing a bit at how little it took for me to be done-with-him. He actually lost my respect the instant he said “You didn’t,” and then just got additional strikes from there. I feel bad, because when I complain about things in other people—actually, who am I kidding, this was an active dismissal, it’s worse than that—I like to be able to say why exactly I was unhappy, with details and instructions so that I’m only condemning one tractable thing. My “official” reason in this case is that I don’t like when people deny my subjective experience, especially when I know I’m right about it. And I get that that’s being especially earnest, and teasing as a concept exists. But I like teasing, and this… like, wasn’t a thing to tease about? It was a statement of fact. And then I let him know that I wasn’t happy—“So you’re just gonna assert that?”—and he didn’t acknowledge that. …But damn, this seems like an especially high bar for people to meet, and kind of unfair to people. I gave this guy a total of two sentences before I decided to basically ignore all of his further engagements with me in that conversation. And he did, twice more—was being challenging-in-my-face but I wasn’t really responding after that point. …I’m also proud of myself for being able to identify this sort of thing so quickly and not feeling much guilt about it. I still feel like it’s unfair, but I also don’t care? If I met him in another conversation I would hold it against him a little, but it was one interaction so I’d be happy to layer new impressions on top of it. Probably people just being drunk, right? Or something. I don’t know what’s the right thing to do.)
Ted’s been watching this and throwing in a comment here and there, but I turn my body towards him soon enough and he’s back to the races. “How much do you exercise?” he asks, and I give details. We’re a decent amount into my sports history when the last guy to my right speaks up.
His name’s Pete, and he’s sitting on a chair with his phone in his lap (Ted and Andrew and I are standing). We’d been introduced, but he hadn’t been in the conversation at any point before this—we’re something like 20-30 minutes in.
“I’m Pete,” he tells me suddenly, holding out his phone. “I know we’ve just met, but you should add me on Facebook.”
I focus on him. “Um,” I say.
“You’re Monica, right?” He says, as I stand there.
“Yeah,” I say.
From the corner of my eye, I see Ted and Andrew exchanging glances. (I can’t help but check in on all the people involved in conversations, see where their attention is.)
He holds the phone out, and I fail to reach for it.
“Uh, so I don’t actually post things on Facebook,” I say.
“Oh,” he says, drawing back.
“But those two over there have great posts,” I say, pointing to two friends in the corner.
Ted’s giving Andrew a kind of incredible face which is like: aw, man, oh no, poor buddy, an out-loud wince crossed with I’m-very-amused-right-now crossed with incredibly-knowing-full-bodied-grin crossed with we-know-a-secret-right-now-OUCH.
…Oh. Shit. Until I saw that glance, I hadn’t really realized.
“No, no, it’s a dumb social ritual anyway,” Pete says, pulling back completely.
I wince. I generally don’t add people on Facebook unless I’ve had a good conversation with them, but this is like watching a trainwreck. Except I’m the one wreaking it, and I can’t figure out if I’m in third person or first person or not.
“No, I mean, if you really want to—“ I say, making a halfhearted reach for it.
“No, it’s all right,” Pete says.
Ted reaches over and pats Pete on the shoulder. In a comforting “tough luck, buddy” kind of way.
I want to bury my face in my hands. I have just realized what has happened, which is that two guys have just attempted to come onto me, I have just rejected them both, Ted has vastly won this competition, and Andrew has been observing this whole thing.
Oh. My. God.
“…So what were you talking about?” Pete asks, rallying gamely.
“Ted was asking me about athletics,” I say, glancing at Ted.
“Oh, did he tell you that this guy is crazy about athletics? Not sure if you’d gotten to that yet.”
I turn toward him, and learn that apparently Ted works out 4 hours a day. I ask him how he has time for that. I internally feed bad that I hadn’t known that information already.
(That night I think about it, and I realized that really shouldn’t feel bad about not knowing it. Ted was driving this conversation, and he was enjoying driving it, and he was keeping the attention on me. In a normal conversation, I try to make sure to reciprocate whenever someone asks something about me. Thus, I’ve set up a system where I get negative feedback when I realize that I didn’t. But this isn’t a normal conversation, and the expectations aren’t exactly the same here, since Ted was playing this whole thing to be based on my interest levels. I’m sure it would have been good and appreciated to ask, but what seemed to be just as good was for me to react to things, and I had my attention full.
Ted had touched on the tone earlier in the conversation, shrugging. “You’re sort of novel,” he said. “I know these guys.” I’ve heard the statement “you’re novel” as the reasoning behind intense interest from at least two other people in this community since I’ve gotten here.)
I’d actually been planning to leave ever since I got talking to this group of people, but had been enjoying it so had stuck around an extra 45 minutes. At this point though, it’s trailing down, so I say my goodbyes. No hugs this time.
I shake my head at myself on the way home. Conversations that Monica enjoys: focused attention on me, fast-paced, and manageably challenging. I have concerns, because a big part of me doesn’t think that this is a style of conversation I should enjoy. It’s not sustainable, for one. It’s self-centered, for two. It can set certain relationship norms up in place that I really don’t like in the long-term. It’s unequal. I don’t control it. Friends don’t approve. It doesn’t feel like the “right” kind of interaction to like. It feels kind of illicit and submissive, conceptually. It feels like weakness, conceptually. (That seems to hit the accessible ones. I just did a scan of my emotions, trying to answer the question of the reasoning underneath the statement “I don’t like liking it”. None of the listed reasons should be necessarily considered “endorsed beliefs”: ideas I’ve thought deeply about intellectually and agree with. These are just some of the emotional mess underlying “I don’t like liking it”.)
Let’s sort through a few of these pretty quickly. Are conversations like these sustainable? Meaning, are there people who are going to be willing to have them with me, and will these people continue to be willing to have them with me? Intellectual answer: this is not going to be indefinitely available, but there are currently lots of people around, and a small subset of them enjoy leading these types of conversations. So opportunities are available but it’s not indefinitely sustainable. Okay. Seems like a fair worry. Conflict #2: it’s self-centered. Intellectual response: …um, fuck yeah it is? This conflict doesn’t seem to be an emotional conflict, this seems to come from my intellectual centers. But this is drawing from an emotional understanding of “how conversations should be run”. If we’re instead saying that the point of conversations is to enjoy them (which, this seems to be what getting-to-know-you conversations like this are about, since it feels much more flow-based than content-based to me.)… Back up. Why do I have rules about how conversations should be run? Presumably so they can be enjoyed. And most of the time, most of my rules are correct in that conversations should be run pretty equally in order for them to be enjoyed. But we need to go back to the base objective here, and this type of challenge-one-person-focused conversation is a non-standard case of a conversation that is also enjoyable for both parties, otherwise both parties wouldn’t be engaging with it. Emotional part, are you buying it? (Emotional part is sort of buying it, and really sort of not.)
Third conflict: one person leading and challenging sets up bad norms. Intellectual response: my intellectual side says that this is an intellectual argument and so it’s already fully endorsed. I’ve recently propagated this intellectual argument down to my emotional side, which is a reason why I’m so wary about this whole type of conversation in the first place. Okay, leaving that one alone since it’s new and I think it’s good on the whole.
Fourth conflict: It’s unequal. Oh boy. This is an old argument that seems like it pops up from my intellectual side but is actually deeply emotional. This is basically tied in with the “weakness” and “submissive” and “not right kind of interaction for me” arguments, in a big ball of “ugggggg I don’t want to look at this.” (Okay. Okay. Let’s just look briefly at it and see if there’s anything immediate we can do.) What objective is this section of emotions trying to protect me from / pursue? …Okay, nothing fast is coming out of it, this whole section just keeps on flashing a “dangerous!” sign at me and telling me to continue not looking at it. This whole ball of things is also sort of alongside ideas of control, so that can get lumped in too. Well, I know I’ve had worries and blocks set up around this thing for a while, so I guess I’ll just update that I really haven’t resolved any of this stuff, and spend some more time on it later. (I haven’t done any emotional introspection stuff recently, actually! I’ve been working instead. I really should be working now :P. But the rest of life also exists!)
And that’s most of the conflicts—happily, this does seem to mostly center on the ball of later listed conflicts! As per usual, they didn’t pop up first, so I’m glad I did at least a little searching as to why this whole interaction was making me feel uneasy. (In addition to the facebook-adding thing. …ug that’s awkward. Also, I love that they’re all good friends with each other. Watching people who like each other interact often makes me happy, especially if they’re strangers to me.)
But it was a good interaction over all, felt comfortable and interesting, and I’m glad to have had it. This whole thing has also encouraged me to attend more parties like this when available.
And with that, happy holidays times two, readers! I’m not heading out until the end of the week, and am looking forward to pushing ahead on as much work as possible before then :).