So it usually starts out something like this:
I am between one, two, maybe seven people whom I know, but more like know-ish. We’re not strangers, but there isn’t an established history of hanging out, laughing over drinks, or spilling tea. So there I stand, exchanging pleasantries like “So what are you up to these days?” or “How are the kids?” And then inevitably the once thought seemingly endless list of chatter-inducing questions vanishes into thin air, and that ghastly, awkward silence that makes me question why I even left the house that night sweeps in and settles over our exchange like an airflow retardant fart.
This is usually when most assertive people, fabulous folks, who give zero shits about awkwardness, say, “Well, it was so great to see you.” After a kiss on the cheek, they walk away-- a perfectly acceptable, polite exit.
Annie? Not so much.
I step in, full of confidence that I have the superpower to squash the awkward silence. I was my sorority’s rush chair for Pete’s sake! That automatically comes with a stamped certificate of conversation authority, right?
The rest of the story goes exactly like this:
Me to Person to My Right (PTMR): “So how’s your mom doing?”
PTMR, shifting her weight, a sign of uncomfortability: “She’s doing well. Volunteering a lot.”
I can taste the word vomit in my mouth. How stupid to bring up her mom! Everyone knows she was recently let go after decades of service to her employer, that it was a nasty split, and PTMR probably doesn’t want to talk about it. Still, I think, “I can fill the silence valiantly. You got this, Annie.”
The briefest pause continues as I regroup.
Everyone shifts their weight.
Me: “Good for her! She probably loves the volunteer work.”
PTMR: “She does.” Her voice insinuates that there could have been a “but” to follow.
I don’t take the ideal exit. I don’t think to switch topics, switch mingle groups, or even go to the freaking bathroom. What do I think? I think it’s exactly when I should say, “Well, especially after everything that happened.”
As the words tumble from my mouth, I don’t even hear them. What I hear is an alarm, an obnoxious repeating siren like in a submarine. “Abandon ship! Save yourself!”
PTMR makes eye contact with Person to My Left. They exchange the same unspoken question: “Did she really just say that?”
I think, “Did I really just say that?”
Everyone looks from me to PTMR, thinking, “I can’t believe she just said that!”
I, feeling the mounting pressure of yet another gaffe, now acutely aware of my garlic breath or that pimple on my chin forming a whitehead, make a final attempt to not go down with the sinking ship that is my big, fat mouth: “She must really need this volunteer work to take her mind off of…”
But I don’t finish my sentence because PTMR interrupts me: “Thanks so much for thinking of her.”
She walks away. I’m left with the remains of my word vomit at my feet. One or two stragglers stand by me, stunned into silence and stillness.
I croak out a weary “I’m gonna...go...check out...the food. That crab dip looks...good.”
I walk away, lightheaded and thinking, “I can’t believe I just said that.”
Only, I totally can. I unequivocally believe I did. And the question should never be “Did I just say that?” It should really be “Why did I just say that and why do I think I needed to say anything at all?”
Wherever I go, I gab. I’m a hairdresser’s dream. I will talk to you about whatever you want. I will ask you myriad questions and follow them up with life experience stories that will make us newfound friends. My kids have tried to tame me. “Mom, please don’t talk to anyone. Can’t we just buy our shoes and go?” But, I boast this gift for gab. I tout that my very favorite people are strangers. I’m that one in the checkout line who will strike up a conversation about what’s in your buggy. I’m the one who stands with her keys in her hand, yapping across the street to her neighbor, who eventually turns on the ignition in her car five minutes later than planned, all for a nice catch up. And I think in a place like New Orleans, we expect this in most people. We’re a community of gabbers who enjoy all socializing, even if it’s at a pharmacy counter. They don’t do this in other cities. When I lived in Manhattan, no one gave a damn that I thought the roast in their cart looked like a particularly good cut or that the weather that day was unbearable. They’re not bad people. They just aren’t into it. They have trains to catch and ten blocks to trek before reaching their next destination. We have an easiness here that lends itself to charming exchanges in the simplest of places.
But, the story I retold above isn’t charming and it has nothing to do with growing up NOLA-raised. It has everything to do with my perceiving silence as a problem.
What’s ironic is that I happen to crave silence like one would a juicy book or hot tea. I love uninterrupted periods of just being in my head. I sort out good stuff when no one is around, but in a social setting I can’t let sleeping gabbers lie. And, I’ve come to the conclusion that my persistent silence-breaking stems from the same problem I’ve always had: The tremendous burden I, alone, place on myself to keep everyone happy.
Just as I have the jaded belief that it is my responsibility to carry the cross for everyone--a chronic people-pleasing quality that in recent months has reared its ugly head to a point of no return--I consider it an act of kindness to break the ice. I will find that shred of commonality between us even if it kills us, in an effort to let you know that I am a comrade and I intend to put us all at ease. Awkward silence is my unspoken trigger word. It means I haven’t done enough to make you comfortable.
But here’s the problem, besides the fact that my line of logic is bat shit crazy. In the same way that I say “yes” to something before my brain registers the ramifications, hurling me into future frenzy, my filter is often broken. I don’t mean to say the wrong thing. I just wanted to say anything so that you know I care enough to not keep us in awkward silence. Also, just as over-obligating myself ends up hurting those I love more than helping, my back-peddling word blunder hurts others, too. What’s strange is that I can be quiet with my family and closest friends, but among acquaintances, my filter is shot.
And I know I’m not alone. You suffer from the same run of the mouth as I do, or you know someone who does. For some of us it’s a family trait. Oh the horror of Mom blurting into the silence and me standing by wide-eyed, looking for an evacuation route for the two of us. I’m told my great-grandmother was next level. She hated cigarette smoke, but if a guest was coming to her house who was a smoker, she would light up first so that they felt comfortable to do the same. At a dinner party, if someone spilled their glass of wine or dropped their fork, she’d wait a few minutes and follow suit, wine stains running rampant on the linen and forks flying. And I wonder what she would say to her great-granddaughter. Well, God forbid what she should say because it would likely be worse than my blunder--a self-sacrifice to make someone else feel better, which is exactly my only intention and the goal of gab gaffers everywhere.
I know enough to know that it’s not my responsibility to keep everything running smoothly. Just as I can say “No” to something to which I shouldn’t obligate myself, I can say “Yes” to awkward silence. And, the truth is that it rarely is awkward anyway. It’s actually pretty straightforward. People run out of things to say. It’s nothing to be afraid of and it doesn’t mean that you or I are not enjoying one another’s company. It’s just a freaking lull! Some people like lulls. Some people who aren’t crazed gabbers need a moment to collect their thoughts.
And maybe, just maybe, if I soaked in the awkward silence, and gave us both a moment, the person to my right would get a word in too.
Originally published in New Orleans Magazine online.