I’m generally uncomfortable in social situations, particularly those where I’m not really in control and especially those where they are seemingly unending with little to no chance of escape. There’s a psychological term for it, but I can’t seem to recall exactly what it’s called at the moment. Essentially, it’s the scientific measurement of the anxiety one experiences while being forced to endure something unpleasant with no way to get out of it. My work environment is one of those situations.
Normally, I can rationalize the discomfort by the paycheck I receive or the benefits that I am entitled to or that shared human existence thing that everyone has to go through stuff like this, so best to just suck it up. I do what I can to minimize it as best I can. I don’t engage in conversations with people who I know to be perpetual talkers. I avoid those who I know are two-faced or back-stabbers. And, when all else fails, a mental health day scheduled every few months does wonders.
However, there are times when you simply cannot avoid these uncomfortable social situations. I have come to better recognize them from their early warning signs, but have not yet been able to find any workable solution that gets me out of them any sooner. In fact, knowing they’re about to happen often triggers more anxiety, which makes it even worse.
I recently made a significant alteration to my appearance with a new much shorter haircut. Although I knew it would trigger the busy body types in my office to take notice, I also knew I had to do something about the style my hair was in, as it was becoming too long and unruly. It was something they simply couldn’t let go.
They comment on everything, having memorized my entire wardrobe so comments like, “Oh, is that a new sweater?” or “You haven’t worn those shoes in a while,” are quite commonplace. I feel it’s because we spent eight hours a day with each other and deep down, we know we’ve run out of interesting things to discuss, and possibly that we all simply hate each other. I know I do.
And, so it was, attempting to pass by unnoticed was impossible. And, almost on schedule, the high-pitched oohing and ahhing of the collective pat on the back that each of the hens noticed something different in their tiny, boring, loathsome hen-house descending upon my quiet and usually untouched personal bubble.
It didn’t take long for them to notice. Not long into the conversation, which was really more like being backed into a corner by a clingy aunt at a family function as she pinched your cheeks and wiped her saliva flecked thumb across your face to remove some invisible food stain, hands were run through my hair and snagging it uncomfortably. I tried to be gracious and accept what I suppose were meant to be compliments.
Inside, though, I was raging. My breath became shallow and shortened as I began to suppress the panic. In my mind, I kept trying to focus that this would only be temporary. Eventually, they would grow tired of the topic, and turn their attention elsewhere. But the topic endured much longer than I had expected and I was beginning to feel myself physically pulling away, my discomfort becoming that much more difficult to conceal.
Soon enough though, they did leave me alone, but not before making me feel like I was about five years old, and again drawing attention to the age disparity between us. It would be one thing if I had just graduated college or something, but I’m well into my 30’s and being spoken to in such a condescending way is really getting old.
Unfortunately, the topic of my new haircut would come up again and again as the day would go on. As though my decision to change my appearance somehow changed the rules and people were no longer required to keep their hands to themselves, I was again touched, petted and cooed over like an infant who had gotten into mommy’s make up. It was bordering on humiliating at this point, and frankly, I’m beginning to see the appeal of adopting a modest head covering or perhaps full body burka just so people can leave me alone.
Perhaps I come off as a bit mean, as I’m sure on their own, outside of work, these people are probably well-liked by someone. Just not me, and I’d like to think I would know, because I spent more time with them than their spouses. I feel like some of it is bad behavior learned as part of a small group stuck in a small space with little interaction with the outside world. But, frankly, it’s not much of an excuse, because even in a group, we should know better. I mean, I learned in middle school that you’re supposed to keep your hands to yourself. Walking up and petting someone’s head and cooing over them like a baby is pretty unprofessional, if you ask me.