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The awkward years

/ 09:05 AM May 02, 2019

In an old graduation photograph, a long-lost artifact of my elementary years, there stood a group of kids in white togas and white caps, smiling as best as elementary students could to commemorate this memory for their parents.

All were indistinguishable except for one, who smiled without his hat. That kid never realized he should have had his hat on for the camera. That kid was me, and the picture was a testament to my awkwardness.

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I do not consider this cute or unique or dreadful. Social mishaps, insecurities and anxieties happen to all of us. Yet it is one thing to commit the occasional fumble before somebody that you can just laugh off, and another to see every person as a bombardment of stimuli.

Small talk isn’t just small talk; it is about the eyes, the handshake, the body language, the gesture, the slight snicker or laughter, the silence and the timing. The timing! Just the challenge of balancing between reacting promptly then looking panicky, and letting things sink in and looking oblivious.

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And if a person is a bombardment, a hall of people is hell. Granted, it is easy to just tune out the people around you. Yet when you are in an event like a party or a small gathering where anyone is a potential chat, you just begin to shatter all over the place and pray to be able to hold it in, as you would with your bladder or your fart, before it’s done.

I’d wish it is just as easy to learn to fake social graces. Yet socialization is a skill like singing or painting. Some people get more experience with it than others. Some people are more attuned to it than others. Some people just fumble with it. Like me. It’s not like I don’t want to; it’s just that I can’t get it right, or go through it in a comfortable way. I just don’t get it.

And yes, I bought the books, listened to the MP3 lectures about small talk and making friends and doing conversation. I know about the value of listening, the topics to avoid, introducing icebreakers, among other things. I made efforts to address comments about my character: “Learn how to be more polite.” “Learn how to interact with different types of people.” “Learn to be confident.” “Learn to be humble.”

Life feels like a massive rehearsal for every person you have to talk to, for every situation you have to attend, which just falls apart into wild swings of arrogance and timidity.

Growing up didn’t help with the awkwardness. There were just so many opportunities lost because I just could not get what was before me — how I should react to it or deal with it.

But growing up helped with coping. Even when an interaction is just a pile of your actions shattering into “Huh?” or “What?” or that other person’s stare of bewilderment with matching eyebrows raised, the best way to deal with it is to not dwell on it too much.

You are doing fine even when you are all over the place, because the mistakes you earn and the memories of embarrassments past help in some way to try again and get it right with the right person.

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You also realize how useful formalities and social conventions are, such as the “po” and “opo,” the “mamsirs,” the “kuya,” “ate,” “adings.” These set the tone of the interaction from the start; you have a means to fall back on when a gesture or reaction fails. You rely on being nice, because it is safe.  And you rely on gestures, because words are a lot easier to screw up, and take more effort to use than what people give credit for.

It is also great to have friends who let you get comfortable first than put your awkwardness in the spotlight. For those like me, the best contact is simmered slowly to perfection rather than boiled quickly for quick consumption.

Letting things sink in and embracing the silences help a lot to ease the panic and the stimuli. You get to know where to focus, you get to know what matters, and you know everything will be okay even if you make the occasional mistake.

Yet it never really gets easy. You could never really get comfortable with teachers or bosses the way some others do. You often second-guess what is appropriate to ask or not, even when you are just there to let others do the talking. And it can wear you down when you find yourself in the wrong profession.

But because we cannot deal well with people as much and as well as we could, we awkward people can easily focus on other things, be it an object, a craft or a skill. It’s a crutch that can force us to hone other parts of ourselves.

Libraries and books have been my anchor throughout those childhood years; they help me understand the world in ways no person talking can. Writing kept me connected to the world around me. It kept a portion of my communicative skills afloat. It reminded me that I am just as passionate about talking and being with people, even if it refuses to translate into actual talking and socializing.

And what growing up taught me most is that people come and go; what matters is the memories you had with them when they stayed. You are the constant in this coming and going, so what will always matter is that you become a better person than yourself, and that you find meaning in all this clumsy struggling. You just have to build value, either through becoming more well-adjusted or just becoming more skilled—or just keeping yourself going through the day.

I do not think I can get being socially adjusted, but I get finding and building meaning in this absurd life we live in. It goes for you and all of us, too, awkward or not.

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Ace Z. Alba, 26, works as an analyst in between the occasional midlife crisis.

Stories from the young Filipino

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TAGS: Ace Z. Alba, awkwardness, grade school years, Young Blood
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