Wednesday, July 18, 2012

"Hello. My name is Heather, and I am socially awkward."

Today, I decided that I must now approach all potential conversations with the official disclaimer: "Hello. My name is Heather, and I am socially awkward.  It's best you know that upfront, for both our sakes." 

That way, when I kick off a sandal while tripping over that invisible nothing in the office carpet, or accidentally pick up my all-purpose purse/lunch bag/personal life catch-all tote by the bottom and empty its contents all over the lobby floor, or choke on the oatmeal husk that refuses to reveal itself until the precise moment I try - and fail - to say "Good morning" to a suited-up professional in our shared office kitchen, there will be no surprises.  As you might imagine based on detail alone, each of these experiences happened quite recently, and represent three in a long line of similar socially awkward moments that should no longer surprise or embarass me. And quite honestly, they neither surprise nor embarass me -- until I see the faces of the shocked/horrified/concerned/confused bystanders doing their best to look without staring or assist without panicking.  Or ask if I am okay ... without laughing.  And that is when it sinks in and the shame hits - at that precise moment when a public official in a business suit stands in front of me debating whether to perform the Heimlich or simply let the oatmeal war of 2012 play itself out. That is when I realize I need the kind of help that basic First Aid cannot provide.

So here's the thing about social awkwardness: I think it should be recognized among the medical community as a diagnosable (and marginally treatable, if detected early) medical condition.   As a point of clarification, I am all too familiar with social anxiety.  Generalized anxiety disorder is my own particular brand of suffering.  But that's not quite what I'm talking about here.  This isn't about fear of death in a public place (or, if you are anxious enough, in any place) and it's not about feeling absolutely sure that the nervousness you are experiencing is the beginning of a massive heart attack that will inevitably require a triple bypass likely to go horribly wrong and and result in lifelong debilitation and severely reduced quality of life.  No, this is about awkwardness.  Pure and simple.  And though it seems less severe than the paralysis of a true anxiety disorder, it is equally threatening to one's ability to navigate the world and live a semi-normal life.  And here's why.

After this morning's oatmeal situation in the shared office kitchen with the slightly frightened, slightly worried, impeccably suited-up man, I assumed that the event was over once I finally hacked the oatmeal husk into my hand, apologized profusely for my disgraceful - though totally unexpected and uncontrollable - display, and left through the opposite door so as to avoid putting either one of us through unnecessary, prolonged eye contact.  Sure, the Assemblyperson - whose name I do not know and whose face I had never seen until today- was gracious and kind, even when I capped the world's most indelicate performance off with a "Wow!  Oatmeal husk!" explanation.  (Because the true mark of social awkwardness is never knowing when to go silent.  When to stop sharing non-essential, unwanted information.)  Yet based on 38 years of experience, I should have known that this morning's kindness came with a price tag, the cost of which I would later learn, when I entered the kitchen once again, to heat up my afternoon coffee at the scene of the crime.

As I stood literally waiting for water to boil, the kitchen door opened and in walked the very same man.  Now, if I were at all able to cope with my social awkwardness, I probably would have nodded casually, said "Hi there" and moved on, regardless of the uncomfortable oatmeal elephant in the room.  But instead, I felt shame.  And some embarassment.  What must this person think of me, standing here in the kitchen yet again?  Maybe the only thought was "I can't believe she's back for more."  Or maybe, I decided in a rare moment of non-narcissistic reframing, the only thought was "I have to get to my 3:00 meeting."  And just as I decided that yes, that's it, this person, this stranger is thinking about meetings or legislation or deadlines that need to be met, I heard them.  Five words that landed in the air between us like a great big "SOCIAL AWKWARDNESS" diagnosis.  "Hey, Oatmeal. How's it going?"

So now, it appears - at least on the 11th floor of this building - I am known, quite simply as "Oatmeal." A moniker that will undoubtedly follow me through these halls until one day, after much time has passed, and finally someone asks "How did she ever get the name 'Oatmeal' anyway"? the only response will be "I don't know.  She's just always had it."  Like the husk itself, the name will attach to me until it gets lodged in the folds of my identity as a forever reminder of this one, undeniable truth: My name is Heather, and I am socially awkward.

Yours in awkward affection and genuine embarassment,


  1. I love this post. Most people have no idea, but I really suffer from social anxiety. I can hardly eat when I'm with other people in public. I can totally relate to the nickname "Oatmeal." Good thing you weren't eating something else. "Oatmeal" is actually pretty charming. Could have been "Pickles" or "Turkey". :)

  2. Socially awkward turned into socially funny—a very amuzing post. Thanks for making me laugh!


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