Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Social Awkwardness Dread: Part 1 of 2

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The Social Awkwardness Boogeyman

All right, here it is: I am break-into-a-sweat-all-over-and-roll-my-eyes-up-into-the-back-of-my-head neurotic about forgetting people’s names. The mere idea of the possibility of this horrible socially awkward situation happening can send me over the edge.

This is how it plays out: I’ll glimpse someone I recognize across the room at a party, and if their name doesn’t immediately pop into my brain, I’ll quickly escape from their line of sight and start muttering to myself, Jaclyn? No. Jadeen? Nope. Jardina? No, dammit! Jacinda? Bingo! Yesss. Then I’ll feel triumphant and confidently reassured, armed with a name at the ready whether or not I actually speak to the person in question.

I’ve given myself a bit of leeway: If I’ve only met the person once before, it’s fair to come clean and admit straight out that I can’t remember their name, and ask for it again, with profuse apologies. However, if I know that the person has told me their name on more than one occasion, and I have therefore already used up my leeway, I will do everything in my power to avoid the person until I either remember their name, or (joy!) I overhear it in conversation.

And yet I pretty much never expect people to remember my name, even if I’ve already met them several times. I’ll find a way to blurt, “It’s me, Jessica!” before they have a chance to speak.

There’s a story in And Also Sharks called “The Plant Lady” in which the main character, Mandy, forgets the name of the after-hours plant-waterer at her office. Each time Mandy runs into this woman, she desperately cycles through various (incorrect) names in her head. Unfortunately, the plant lady remembers Mandy’s name, and makes a point of using it in most of her sentences. This tale was partially inspired by an encounter I had with a real-life office gardener, who gave me a very hard time about forgetting her name once (the second time I saw her). She was terrifying, and heartless.

Social awkwardness features prominently in my collection, because I’m intrigued by the self-conscious, twitchy discomfort that accompanies so many human interactions.

Curious about other people’s social tics, phobias, and hang-ups, I asked 13 writers the question: “What is or was your most dreaded awkward social situation?”

Here are the first 6 responses—the next 7 are to come in Part 2.

Caroline Adderson, most recently the author of the novel The Sky Is Falling, said: “My boyfriend’s car broke down on the way to the university, obliging the two of us and my housemate to walk. As we trudged along, yesterday’s underwear steadily worked its way down my pant leg and out into the morning light. We all noticed at the same time. I swooped and stuffed the panties in my jacket pocket, but the men, unaware that today’s pair was still in place, were gob-smacked. How great is the mystery of women’s undergarments! I carried those panties around for a week, always forgetting they were there until I chanced to stick a hand in my pocket. Blush!”

Linda Besner, author of the debut poetry collection The Id Kid, said: “When I polled my friends on my most socially awkward quality, someone said, ‘What about how you can never hear what people are saying?’ To which I responded, 'What?' True story. I have terrible hearing, which is ironic since the only thing I’ve ever done that makes any money at all is radio work. I have trouble especially with low frequencies, a failing that makes me involuntarily sexist—when men talk, I just can’t hear them. On the other hand, I seem to be unusually keenly attuned to high frequencies. This means that if you and I are having a chat in a subway station, when a train pulls in, you might have to hold on for a moment while I clap my hands over my ears to shut out the deathly screech of the train wheels rubbing against the track. People stare, and probably say rude things when I do this, but luckily, I can’t hear them at all.”

Sean Dixon, most recently the author of the novel The Many Revenges of Kip Flynn (and the guy I borrowed this great polling idea from), said: “I’ve racked my brain but I just can’t think of anything awkward that I’m afraid of. In my life I’ve said inappropriately intimate things to virtual strangers, nearly taken someone’s eye out while acting like a buffoon, been unable to keep myself from laughing during what was supposed to be a serious moment, bombed at camera auditions, had my whole family come out to see a one-act play I’d written about a man with a permanent erection, grew a misshapen Van-Dyke to act in a Shakespeare play, burst into tears in public, gotten up to give a speech in front of people with whom I did not share a language, and wandered around a high-school dance floor while concussed. Seriously, I can’t think of how I could embarrass myself. I’m too busy making other people die of shame on my behalf.”

Rebecca Rosenblum, most recently the author of the upcoming short story collection The Big Dream, said: “I’m terrified of medical emergencies in social situations. I once got a fishbone caught in my throat at dinner with friends, and was more worried about ruining the meal than about choking. I just gasped and coughed quietly, trying not to draw attention. Of course everyone noticed, but they just wanted me to live, dinner-table propriety be damned, so it worked out okay in the end.”

Matthew J. Trafford, author of the debut short story collection The Divinity Gene, said: “Being gay can be really socially awkward—and not just because people expect you to always be wearing the fiercest fashion and wielding witticisms as clever and concise as Oscar Wilde’s, or, depending on your situation, to always be on the lookout for roving mobs of homophobes coming to kill you. These days I find it the most awkward when people don’t perceive me as gay. When a woman hits on me at a bar, or a straight guy asks if I have a girlfriend—these are the moments where I feel so awkward that I stammer and blush and don’t know what to do.”

Teri Vlassopoulos, author of the debut short story collection Bats or Swallows, said: “I remember details; I just do. This can be good for writing, but awkward for real-life living. Sometimes I will see someone I’ve met briefly or only know online, and their face or name will trigger a flood of useless information about their lives. The name of their dog, for instance. What they made for dinner last week, maybe. I try to reign this in, but every so often a random detail will slip, and there is nothing more deflating than the person you’re talking to kind of narrowing their eyes as they briefly wonder how the hell you remembered such a thing. It’s awkward! Either that or having food on my face in mid-conversation, which is unfortunately another far too frequent occurrence in my less than graceful life. That one bothers me less, though.”

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Jessica Westhead

Jessica Westhead's short stories have appeared in major literary journals in Canada and the United States. "Unique and Life-Changing Items," which appears in And Also Sharks, was shortlisted for the 2009 CBC Literary Awards. Her first novel, Pulpy & Midge, was nominated for the ReLit Award. Westhead lives in Toronto.

Go to Jessica Westhead’s Author Page