The Unexpected Pleasure of a Social Fail

Last week I was invited to a publisher’s event in London and despite my terrible track record at attending such things, I decided I would go. There are plenty of reasons why I hardly ever attend, beyond my chronic fatigue. They all seem to start at 6.30 p.m., for instance, which is a dreadful time if you are a creature of habit and like to eat regularly. To arrive in good time, I need to leave my house about half past four, which is too early for tea beforehand, and then if one stays to the bitter end at 8.30, this means eating dinner at home around 10.30 p.m. which is even past my bedtime. Obviously other people find their way around this, but I admit it perplexes me.

Anyhoo, I boarded the train with my emergency supplies of a Marks & Spencer wrap, made it to London and walked to the venue which was just off Charing Cross Road. I visited the new Foyles as I had a a little time to spare, and found it very spiffy to look at, but a tad confusing in layout. Mind you, it’s definitely a step up from arranging books by publishers. Then I walked to the venue, eating half the wrap as I went (and trying not to drop lettuce into the folds of my scarf) and still arrived a bit early. I cased the joint, as the old gumshoes used to say, from the other side of the street, and saw people going in. At the door there was a young woman with a clipboard taking names, and I feared things were not going to go well when she could not find my name although I had written to rsvp. I had my invitation printed out in my bag, but it seemed she didn’t want to challenge me, just hastily added me to the bottom of her list and waved me on to coat check. The people in front were having their coats taken, and when that young woman never returned, I thought it wouldn’t hurt to keep my coat with me, which was a good decision in the end.

I sat in one of the alcoves in the bar, watching London publishing people arrive and flicking through the publicity brochure. This is when I realised I had made a mistake in not checking beforehand whether any other bloggers were going to attend. I’d been so sure somebody would be there who I knew, but as jolly partygoers poured in, I realised there was no face I recognised. They all knew each other though. They were doing that social clumping thing, where they separate into little, dense groups of furiously chatting people. When I finally saw a face that was familiar it took me a while to place it. Then I fervently hoped I hadn’t been staring. I think it was the owner of a book store who I met several years ago now, offering to create content for a website for the shop. This person was dead set against any idea of a website and we parted company less than pleased with one another. Yikes.

Well, half an hour had passed and I was very bored, and nothing seemed to be happening and I really had no desire to talk to the only person who might know me. And so I put my coat back on, slipped through the crowds in the room, and left without anyone noticing. Then I walked back to the station, got on the train and ate the other half of my wrap for dessert. It was one of those sleepy trains with the final few commuters of the evening all happy to nap in their seats or read. Across the aisle from where I was sitting an Indian gentleman slept through the first half of the journey and then when he woke up, he took a book from his bag. Inevitably I craned my neck to read the title and was intrigued when I saw it was a memoir by Michael Greenberg called Hurry Down Sunshine about a severe breakdown his daughter suffered. I’ve had it on my shelves for a couple of years without having read it yet (same old story!). Well, the gentleman saw me looking and smiled, and I smiled back at him and it was clear we both were on the brink of saying something but were a little too reserved. Ten minutes later, as the announcer said we were arriving home, and we were all shifting and leaning forward in our seats, we just started chatting (he was enjoying the memoir, though it was very sad, so maybe enjoy was not quite the right verb). And I had my bookish conversation after all.

When I told this story to Mr Litlove with the stated intention of blogging about it, he wasn’t sure I should mention it. I think this is because Mr Litlove is an alpha social animal, who would never be intimidated by a room of strangers and would find an easy, natural way to enter a conversation other people were holding. I do admire him for that. But that’s not me. I dislike parties, and travelling, and I fear being stuck in social situations I’m not enjoying. I was quite pleased that I took the decision to leave and to conserve my energy which is still in short supply and precious to me.

And it’s very intriguing why I should have found it easy to talk to the stranger on the train and impossible to talk to the strangers at the party. All I can say is that the train felt like a level playing field, socially. At the party, the people there knew each other already and I was at a disadvantage. And on the train, we had made a connection over the book; it was a tiny thing, barely perceptible, but it made all the difference. Something real had occurred, and the real is always simple to capitalise upon. When the connection is artificial, you have to work so much harder.

In case you’re interested, I had a bowl of cereal when I got home, to round off my nutritionally impoverished evening and I still managed to come down with a chronic fatigue relapse a few days later, which goes to show that evenings in London are probably still beyond me physically as well as socially.* But the experiment was interesting in all kinds of unexpected ways.


* And yes, Dark Puss, you are top of my list for when I am able to spend a bit more time in London!


51 thoughts on “The Unexpected Pleasure of a Social Fail

  1. I know exactly how you feel. After fifteen years of being invited to these events I’ve yet to attend one and suspect I am unlikely to start so kudos to you for turning up. Reading Susan Cain’s Quiet made me feel that I’m not some peculiar social misfit, just an introvert for whom such events are excruciating. Your chat with your fellow passenger sounds much more rewarding. I do hope you’re feeling better after your relapse

    • I admire you for not turning up! I’ve always had this nagging feeling I ought to go, but… well, now I can see why I don’t need to! I loved Susan Cain’s Quiet – it really was balm for introverts and explained so much to me!

  2. I’m relieved to know that I am not the only person who finds it almost insurmountably baffling to plan food around social events that start in the early evening. I never want to eat at the event, even if there is food, because it’s never anything I’m comfortable eating, and also…I’m terrified of food poisoning, and also, I don’t like to eat in crowds of people, and I don’t much like watching the crowds do it, either.

    I can usually find a way to wedge the blade of my personality into some small crack at a party, but—I rarely think it’s worth the effort. I can’t tell you how many events I’ve gone to, flitted around the edges of, made some small courtesy to the host or whoever invited me, and then…vanished. It’s much easier and better to talk to a stranger reading an interesting book. Plus there’s some intimacy automatically created by watching someone sleep for a while, even if that person is accustomed to napping on commuter vehicles.

    • David, I can just imagine your lip curling in exquisite disdain at the unseemly spectacle of strangers eating canapés. Oh, how I *wish* I could encounter you at one of these things.

      • It would be epic, wouldn’t it? The very best thing would of course be for you to meet me, not know who I am, and blog about the incredibly annoying man you met. I would love that so much.

    • Oh what lovely solidarity! I do my level best never to eat at anything ‘potluck’ because that name says it all. And I think you’re absolutely right – there is something bonding about watching another person asleep. Perhaps that’s why I can never fall asleep in public! I also agree that there has to be some tangible reward for all the hard work involved in socialising. I will think very carefully about that the next time I get an invitation..

  3. Gosh, Litlove, it must have cost you a whopping great serve of fatigue to come to London to meet me that day – I so appreciate that you did it anyway. It’s one of my treasured memories of the whole Grand Tour. But like David, I know exactly what you mean, though personally I tend to resolve beforehand to simply launch myself at the nearest poor unfortunate/s and strike up a conversation based on whatever we’ve gathered to see/celebrate/discuss. It must be alarming for the other person or people – judging from the near universal expression of enormous surprise, you know the one, raised eyebrows and all – but I like to think it’s sporting of me to try. Plus I’m a bit perverse.

    • Di – it was actually such a lovely visit with you that I went home feeling refreshed. We introverts can have very positive social experiences, but they’re just more rare and unusual! I admire you for having the courage to strike up conversations with strangers; its a great skill to have.

  4. I am so glad that in this case you didn’t listen to your husband and that you blogged about this evening. That must do for today. So thanks for sharing this episode.

    • You are welcome! I always consider Mr Litlove’s words carefully, but when I realised they came from his vastly superior social skills, I knew there would be others who might get a chuckle out of the story! 🙂

  5. Like you, I would have been well out of my comfort zone with something like this. At the end of the day, we are readers not people in the publishing biz etc and it’s not surprising that you should make contact with another reader rather than at the big do. Well done on going home! 🙂

    • Karen, this made me laugh. I congratulate myself often on going home! Nice to have someone else do it for me. Now another reader, well, there is evidently a kindred spirit, and that is a big help! 🙂

    • You would have been fab in the same situation, Mrs C! But in my defense, chronic fatigue syndrome means I have to go through all social situations stone cold sober. What a handicap! 🙂

  6. >>>All I can say is that the train felt like a level playing field, socially. At the party, the people there knew each other already and I was at a disadvantage.

    This is it exactly. I’m a hundred times better at social situations where I feel the playing field is level (and I’m prone to thinking the playing field is slanted in favor of other people unless there’s a very good reason for me to know it’s slanted in favor of me); when I feel at a disadvantage, I become useless. Poor you! Going to parties where everyone knows everyone and you don’t know a single other soul is an impossible situation.

    • You are a sweetheart. Unsurprisingly I feel exactly the same: a disadvantage does rob me of what few skills I possess. I find it very disconcerting. Here’s to level playing fields and an even chance!

  7. I have been to a number of events over the years, but increasingly out of a sense of duty. I’ve talked to many people who I’ve forgotten and never met again about totally empty and pointless subjects to fill in the space. I used to believe this attitude was terribly anti-social, but I think that is nonsense now. Far better to have a small circle of people you know to at least some degree, with a potential future, which doesn’t have to rely on some sort of social respectablity for its justification, just pleasure and friendship and support. Then again perhaps I’m just perverse!

    • I know exactly what you mean. Friends who’ve known me for a long time say, but you used to be more sociable! And really, all it means is that I used to feel social pressure more acutely than I do now, and then chronic fatigue has made it very hard for me to go out evenings and means I must choose wisely when going out in daylight! I’m completely with you on the small band of proper friends – much more rewarding.

  8. I’ve read Hurry Down Sunshine a couple of times now. I’d definitely recommend it, but yes, it is fairly heart-breaking. I’d love to read a post of yours talking about why we like reading these books (and movies I guess).
    Re the party – unless it was part of my job or I knew enough people there, I wouldn’t even seriously consider going. I never even went to any Xmas parties at my old workplace.

    • Wise you! I try and get out of Mr Litlove’s Xmas parties whenever possible, and yes, always avoided my own back in the day. I really MUST read Hurry Down Sunshine now, then I’ll see what I can do about that post!

  9. Sometimes you can find another lone individual who looks just as uncomfortable so you can strike up, a conversation. But of everyone is in a group that’s really tough.

    • I completely agree – I did look for other wallflowers like myself but was unlucky enough in the time I was there not to see any. If I’d seen anyone sitting alone I would definitely have tried to say hi – out of solidarity!

  10. Throwing oneself into a crowd is a tough thing to do. I was just talking to my daughter yesterday about what a party town Savannah is and how uncomfortable I often am going to them…alone as I invariably do. But I find people so fascinating that I can usually strike up a conversation with someone and let them do all the talking. They eventually walk away thinking I’m a brilliant conversationalist without my having said anything about myself at all. It’s a gift!! P.S. How do the Brits eat breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea and dinner and stay so thin?

    • Grad, you’ve clearly got a gift! As for staying thin, my family all have fast metabolisms, and I think if you look back in (historical) time a bit, our houses were cold! My metabolism is finally slowing down and I don’t like it one bit – there’s scarcely a pair of trousers I fit any more!

  11. This journey of yours reminds me of the age-old structure of wonder tales, myths and fairy/folk tales where the protagonist leaves home on a quest and ends up re-discovering what home means and is to her, on her return. Or, in your case, on the train home. But I’m sorry for the cfs aftermath.

  12. Eek! I would have left just like you! Bookman, the consummate salesman, would have been working over all the publisher reps, getting names and numbers and handing out his and making them promise to send him books. The conversation on the train seems so much easier because you had a conversation starting point and something already in common. Plus, you knew the interaction was going to be for a limited time and that neither of you were expecting anything from it other than a brief exchange with a fellow book lover.

    • This is so true! Anything time limited, not to say brief, with low expectations is pretty much my definition of an acceptable social event. You are so smart!

  13. Dying to hear more about this non-event when we next talk! I know how you feel – that do at the Groucho Club I went to was excruciating for me without the fatigue to deal with too – I stuck it out until I’d had a chance to meet the author of the evening, but was bored and ignored and couldn’t even drink as I would be driving at the other end. It’s not always like that though…

    • I remembered the Groucho Club! I actually thought of you at the time, while I was sitting, bored, in London! You did well to stick it out. Gory details next time we chat! 😉

  14. I think I know how you feel, Victoria. I too find these kinds of events rather intimidating and consequently I tend to shy away from them. I’m far better in smaller groups or one-on-one situations. I’m glad you made a connection with the chap on the train home, but it sounds as if the evening took it out of you. I hope you’re feeling a little better now.

    • Jacqui you are very sweet. Thank you. I am indeed feeling better now (and I certainly should be – I’m horribly late catching up with comments!) and it is a great comfort to know I’m not the only person who much prefers small, safe gatherings!

  15. Out of curiosity, and for the uninitiated, what was the event itself supposed to ‘be’? It all sounds like an art preview, but without the art, though previews could easily function the same without it. Was there some literature (un)involved?

    • Ha, yes, well I imagine that at some point in the evening (knowing my luck, probably the moment I stepped out the door) a handful of authors talked about their recently published books and were prepared to answer questions if there were any. There were little pyramids of books positioned all around the room, and I noticed name badges as I came in the door, which I should think were for the authors. It just had an unusually long lead-up time for a publishing do!

    • I’ve had more fun getting my legs waxed, for sure. But the best thing about less-than-ideal experiences is that you can often get a blog post out of them! 🙂 But it was a bit on the tiring side.

  16. I also enjoyed (if that’s the right word) Hurry Down Sunshine and I would definitely recommend it. I know it was sad but I don’t remember it as particularly harrowing. His daughter did get better in the end (or make a recovery of some kind as I remember). Mental illness can be so baffling. And the drugs can be hectic.

    As for the social fail, good on you for making the effort to go and then deciding to quit when it wasn’t working out. I’m glad the conversation made it worthwhile after all.

    • Okay that does it, I absolutely have to read this book. Consider it placed very near the top of the pile! And thank you for the lovely comment, Pete. Hugs to you.

  17. I have exactly the same problem with coordinating food with events. I either end up eating at odd times when I’m not really hungry, or way too late by which time I’ve crashed so much that I eat ridiculously.
    Social events like that are completely exhausting, and for me, rarely worth the energy that they demand. i also find it very hard to edge my way into existing social groups. There have been times when networking was part of my job and I went so far as to look up some tips. But the whole thought is just so ghastly. Maybe you were more relaxed on the train because it was all behind you and you had the security of knowing you would soon be at home?

    • That’s very astute. I was a lot more relaxed coming home, and I also remember sitting in the party place, cudgelling my brains for some sort of opening question I could ask people (and could only come up with: is there only one exit out of this club?) and getting nowhere. So I was definitely exhibiting symptoms of frozen brain that then thawed as I neared home! I’m so glad it’s not just me who struggles to eat – the timing is always so wrong for me. And to think you had to network as part of your job! My heart goes out to you.

  18. I react the same way you do to gatherings where people are mingling. Some people seem to do it so easily! At the SF convention I went to this weekend, they tried to make it easier by putting books as free gifts on the table for each of the scheduled lunches and the banquet. Part of milling around trying to find someone to sit with became finding a book you wanted to look at and asking the other people there if they’d heard of the author (they were new books, so few had already read them).

    • Now isn’t that a nice idea? I am warmly appreciative of any function planner who tries to find ways to help people mingle. And that’s exactly the verb at the heart of the matter – mingling is NOT easy to do!

  19. That party sounds like hell! You were very brave even to go in. I agree with Jenny about the level playing field. It’s hard to be outside all the groups.

    I don’t really consider myself an introvert and yet I have always hated parties, even when I know people. What with the food thing, and the nerves, my general strategy has always been: arrive, drink about 20 gallons of wine in nervous terror within the first 10 minutes, become ravingly drunk, annoy everyone around me with my crap attempts at humour, spill wine, fall asleep, leave. Unsurprisingly, I don’t have a social life these days!

    • Helen, how you make me laugh! I swear that having to be stone cold sober at social events ever since CFS has made them infinitely harder. Though I would gladly have been a fly on the wall at one of yours. 🙂

  20. Sorry to hear that the evening had consequences chronic fatigue wise. I doesn’t sound like an event that would have seen me swim like a fish in water either.

    • Thank you for the solidarity! I think the chronic fatigue is there to remind me to choose my social events more carefully…. which is definitely a point to remember!

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