Shaking Hands, Small Talk And Other Social Horrors

It's not formal you fool, it's just a handshake.

              It’s not formal you fool, it’s just a handshake.

I can be a very social person, particularly with people I know well and if you asked most people  that know me I’m sure they’d say the same. However, on the whole I’m really not that comfortable in social situations. I’m ok with this and in a perverse way actually quite enjoy it. I don’t walk into rooms with sweaty palms and a thumping heart or anything equally as extreme. I just don’t really feel that comfortable. I guess I’d describe myself as a bit of a loner, always happy in my own company. I’m not sure where it started although I was often quite shy when I was younger.
I remember going on a summer tour abroad when I was 16 with a youth group who had all known each other for years. I walked into the room where everyone was meeting, looked around, panicked and sat down on my case for the next 2 ½ hours as one by one the room filled up and old friends greeted each other and caught up. Eventually another newcomer approached me, the ice was broken and I was fine after that.

My main problem is small talk, I hate it with a vengeance. I just find it so pointless, difficult and life sapping. I can happily sit down with someone or even a group of people and have a deep thoughtful and meaningful conversation about life, love and the films of Martin Scorsese. Just please, no small talk. As a dad who’s at home during the week I have the daily joy of the school run. Don’t get me wrong, the parents I know are perfectly nice and some are absolutely lovely. There are some that I’m sure I could be great friends with and I can imagine us laughing in unison watching Laurel and Hardy films whilst eating pizza. The trouble is that you don’t really get the chance to cultivate relationships during the school run. The morning’s aren’t too bad, especially with K in the Juniors now as she runs off as soon as we get through the gates. This means that I can sometimes get away with not actually entering the playground. A simple swivel round and I’m off home again. All I need to do is the cursory nodding, eyebrow raising  and acknowledging of other parents I know, along with the often repeated, “Hi” and I’m safely on the route back home. I also have the safety net of the back way through the woods if I really can’t face anyone. Sure it’s muddy as hell and I’ll spend half an hour back home cleaning my shoes but if it means I can walk in comfort not indulging in the nodding, eyebrow raising acknowledgment game then I’ll take the muddy shoes anytime.

Pick up is a whole different ball game. I have to actually go into the playground and wait with the other parents for the children to come out. My issue is that I just can’t normally think of anything to say. If I walked up to a mum and started talking about how I cried last night watching Maid In Manhattan as it tapped into my daddy issues and my parent’s divorce they’d likely make their excuses and leave, just like a News of The World undercover reporter. The only option is small talk so I choose to resort to various tactics to avoid this.

I arrive at school late hoping that K has already come out and is walking across the playground to greet me. The plan is that I get to do the swivel as she arrives thus avoiding any S.T.T (small talk time). This of course never happens. If I arrive one minute late it will be the day that K was let out early and has been waiting on her own for ages. She’ll be crying, I’ll feel guilty and will promise that tomorrow I’ll be bang on time. Tomorrow comes, I’m on time and it will be the day K’s teacher decides to give a speech on the benefits of cauliflowers and as a result releases them 10 mins late. Cue 10 mins of excrutiating standing still wishing the PTA had authorised the buffet table for the playground (see below).

My other genius tactic is to call someone just as I’m about to enter the school. That way I can talk until K comes out and then say I have to go. I know I’m using them and that they’re unwittingly part of my elaborate ruse but sometimes I can’t help it and desperate times call for desperate measures. If I get no answer I sometimes pretend I’m talking to them anyway and it makes it much easier to say goodbye when K comes out! Did I just publically admit to that? It’s ok, I’m sure you won’t tell anyone.

I have got another solution which is to have a buffet table in the middle of the playground continuously stocked with easy grab food. Peanuts, small sandwiches, crisps, chocolate mini rolls etc. Actually, thinking of it, just chocolate would be best. Thanks to Touch Of Chocolate for the pic below, it’s a winner.

I could just stand and graze and all awkwardness would be totally alleviated. Hmm, maybe something to bring up at the next PTA meeting. Buffet tables and food in general can be your best friend in times of social awkwardness. On many occasions I’ve been spotted doing some serious grazing and not leaving the safety of the table for fear of having to indulge in small talk.

Now to get the PTA to agree to this in the playground.

Now to get the PTA to agree to this in the playground.

Parties can be a nightmare too. I remember going to one with my then girlfriend. It was for a good friend of mine but we didn’t have any mutual friends. He and the rest of the party guests were all very drunk when we arrived and I was driving so strictly apple juice for me. We spent the entire night standing in the corner trapped by the radiator getting slowly burnt. The upside was that the radiator was by the buffet table so we got to graze the whole time we were there. Small victories and all that.

Now, onto shaking hands. The most socially awkward interaction known to mankind. I’m a hugger, I like to hug but understand that in a lot of situations this just isn’t appropriate. I hug all my friends when I see them, both men and women and most of the time they get a kiss too. Just one kiss on one cheek. I’ve never been a fan of the two kiss, two cheek greeting. It’s too confusing and often leads to awkwardness. I’ll kiss one cheek, pull away thinking that’s it and they’ll lean in for the second. Suddenly I panic. Which cheek did I kiss? If I kiss the same one again has that got some hidden meaning? If we both go for different cheeks the second time there’s the added risk of the ultimate awkward moment, accidentialy kissing on the lips.

Sorry, the whole kiss thing threw me, back to shaking hands. Just like the original James Bond villain Dr No, I’ve never liked doing it. To be fair he had better reason to dislike it than me as he had no hands. Well, he had metal hands but you get my drift. One reason I’ve never liked it is that as with kissing there’s far too many opportunities for awkwardness. I’ve been in a group of people many times where we’ll be greeting someone collectively. I’ll patiently wait my turn to shake their hand as one by one everyone says hello. I’ll spot a gap in the arm raising, thrust my hand forwards and as I do so the person will catch someone else’s eye / hand and shake their’s instead. This leaves me with my arm thrust forwards like a Dalek and a panicked look on my face. Horrible, just horrible. I spent years having to do it for business, greeting customers etc and I accepted it as it was the cultural norm and I didn’t really have a choice. “Sorry, I don’t like shaking hands,” wouldn’t have been the best way to start developing a relationship or helped me sell the newest Ford Focus.

Apart from the awkwardness I think the main reason I don’t like it is that I find it so official and formal. Whilst I was working in the business world, wearing a suit and being all serious it was ok. I’m a children’s entertainer now, I dance like a demented baboon and do dodgy impressions of Scooby Doo and Yoda from Star Wars. I don’t ever want to do formal. Don’t get me wrong, I’m extremely professional at all times and this is often commented on for which I’m very proud. Formal and official is different. When I walk into the party venue and meet the parents of the birthday child for the first time I never, ever go to shake their hand. I smile, say hi, nice to meet you etc and that’s it. If they go to shake mine and it’s invariably the dads that do I oblige. Maybe it’s my way of rebelling but I often shake hands whilst saying something like, “Let’s shake hands because we’re men and we’re very formal and serious.” I say it firmly tongue in cheek and I’m pretty sure it’s taken in the manner that it’s said. It’s weird that the mums very rarely shake hands as well. It’s almost as if men feel compelled to do so, such is the social norm so heavily imposed upon them. When I’ve finished the party I often get another handshake but I can accept that a bit more as it’s like a universal acknowledgement of thanks. One thing that totally throws me is where the mum comes up, says thank you and gives me a hug and a kiss. It doesn’t happen that often but when it does I never know how to react. Do I hug and kiss her back, do I shake her hand, do I ignore it? What I invariably do is not let her hug too tightly and apologise for being sweaty. Well, I’ve normally been dancing for the last 20 minutes.

All the Bond Films in 3 minutes, back of the net!

All the Bond Films in 3 minutes, back of the net!

Weddings, what can I say about weddings? Well, I enjoyed my own but being seated on a table full of strangers where you’re expected to eat, drink and talk to each other for most of the night isn’t my idea of fun. It’s just the small talk thing again. If I sat down and one of my fellows guests asked, “Does anyone here love James Bond / Kate Bush / Liverpool FC / Boxing?” I’d be fine. I can happily talk about them with passion all night and small talk will be avoided. Unfortunately this doesn’t really happen so I get to sit at the table and hope there’s lot of food to eat. I was actually at a wedding on Sunday night and was late as I had parties all day. They were booked before I was invited so I missed the service and reception. I was with my wife, sister and brother in law and 8 others that I didn’t say a word to. It was only towards the end of the night when I drunkenly told my brother in law that I could name all James Bond films in order including the year they came out in 2 minutes. I did it in 3 minutes but one of the 8 ignored was suddenly animated and seemed quite interested in me. He could have have been my new best friend who also suffered from small talk issues and this was his way in. Unfortunately he left immediately afterwards so I never found out if this was the case.

Before I say goodbye I’d like to recall my most awkward moment ever which was at a funeral for my friend’s father. After the service, in the cemetery the mourners were talking and I went up to say goodbye to my friend’s brother. I approached him from behind and as I went to tap him on the shoulder he was approached from the front by a number of wellwishers. He stepped backwards as they surged towards him as did I and I became trapped between him and a wire fence, just a few inches between us. Rather than simply tap him on the shoulder and move away I felt paralysed and didn’t move a muscle. For the next twenty minutes I stood rooted to the spot, my brand new suit getting scratched by the exposed wire on the fence whilst the mourners continued to pay their respects. Every single one of them looked at me as they said goodbye as if to say, “What the hell are you doing there?” It was only when I sneezed into his hair and he turned round giving me a strange look that I was able to move out and away to freedom, my brand new Cecil Gee suit jacket now shreadded beyond repair. See you soon.

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