Want to chit-chat? I’m not your guy

When I was 22 and working in Lenoir as a reporter, my boss recommended me for a reporting job in Wilmington. I drove down and spent a few hours interviewing.

The editor in Wilmington reported to my boss in Lenoir that during the interview he had the impression I was mentally disabled.

Alas, though my condition has improved since then, at times it feels as though I’ve made no progress at all.

My problem during the interview was that when I answered questions, the answers were short. I was quiet to a degree that was uncomfortable for the interviewer.

It wasn’t that I was nervous. My nature is to be introverted. During any conversation, my unconscious inclination is to sit quietly and wait for questions.

Many of the people who work in newspapers are introverts. Not all, not most, but many. They are writers first. They feel most comfortable in quiet spaces, expressing themselves on paper. Few professions exist for those who only want to write, so many come to news.

The problem about news for the most introverted is the part about asking questions of other people. Some can’t. But for some, including me, the job becomes a shield. Doing my job allows me to walk up to anyone and talk to them about the thing I want to find out about.

Of course, being able to express yourself well in writing leads readers to the expectation that the writer in person will be the same as he is on the page. When the topic is something I know well or feel strongly about, I can live up to that. But whether on the job or off, I’m terrible at casual conversation. A typical bumping-into-someone-at-a-public-spot as often as not goes something like this:

Other person: “Hi!”

Me: “Oh, hey! How’s it going?!”

Other person: “Great! How are things with you?”

Me: “Good.”

And then the other person waits for me to ask a question. It’s my turn. I know it. I just have no idea what to say. Time slows. I can feel the Earth rotate. Dust motes float in the air. The other person may fill the void and ask a question. I can answer it. But then I may go quiet as the wheels in my brain spin.

Me: “Well, gotta go. Good to see you!”

Then I spend days agonizing over what I should have said.

I have tried over the past 20 years or so to loosen up and get better at casual chat. This past spring I joined the Lenoir Rotary Club, and the club’s weekly lunch is my small-talk practice. A little more than a week ago, at one point another club member waved her hands in front of my face because I was just staring at the table.

In a small town, social shortcomings like this are hard to hide.

Which is the long way around for me to say to everyone I have been and ever will be awkward with, I’m not aloof, I’m not avoiding you, I don’t dislike you. It’s all on me. I’m just built that way. Forgive me.