I bumped into an old classmate yesterday while I was wandering around a local bookstore. This girl was the Marion Hawthorne of my elementary school (for you Harriet the Spy fans) – not exceptionally pretty, but tall, smart, and athletic. Within the little world of my grade eight class she wielded enormous power, and not always benevolently. The last time I bumped into her was about six months ago at a demonstration class for the local "Preschool of the Arts." Her five-year-old daughter was in attendance; lanky and confident, she was a reproduction of her mother at that age, moving with great seriousness through the steps of her dance, kerchief waved aloft over her head. Bub, meanwhile, hung back nervously on the outskirts of the circle, unconsciously mimicking my own younger self.
So when "Marion" and I crossed paths this morning we recognized one another easily and stopped for a brief chat. While we made small talk I took stock of my appearance: unwashed hair and glasses (bad); blue jeans and white t-shirt (could be worse); plastic Gerber spoons sticking out of my jacket pocket (didn’t actually notice those until later). By the time this assessment was complete, we had basically exhausted our limited repertoire of topics (her daughter, my son, the bookstore), and the familiar social anxiety kicked in: What is my exit strategy in this situation? How do we signal that it’s time for the conversation to end? We cast about in increasing desperation for new topics, and in the end it went something like this:
Marion: [awkward pause]
Me: [awkward pause, eyes flicking away]
Marion: Well, have fun looking through the store!
Me: [awkward attempt at mildly funny repartee, followed by hasty exit]
It was almost as bad as the worst of all exit-strategy dilemmas: popcorn prayer. For those of you unfamiliar with this ritual of the small-group Bible study, popcorn prayer involves six or seven people sitting, heads bowed, while people randomly pray as they feel so inclined. It’s designed, I think, as an alternative to praying in turn around the circle and is meant to alleviate the pressure on people like myself who feel uncomfortable praying aloud in front of an audience. Most of the time it works – but only if there is someone clearly designated both to begin and end the session. On one memorable occasion, I recall, the designated prayer-ender had to go out and answer the phone. My heart-rate escalated; I started to sweat. My exit strategy had just left the room, and it seemed quite plausible that we would have to stay here, praying aloud, or else sitting in awkward silence while everyone waited for me to take a turn, until it was time to leave for work the following morning.
This anxiety of being without an exit strategy has only been exacerbated by the advent of the electronic age. As an email conversation proceeds back and forth in a flurry of epic-length tomes over the course of a couple of days, my stress-level gradually mounts. How, exactly, do we terminate the conversation? Who will be the one to "kill this thread" as the BabyCenter lingo goes, to send that final, unanswered email? Generally, there seem to be two options: either one person goes abruptly silent (awkward, no matter whether you’re the silencer or the silencee), or else there is that torturous petering out, the brief notes of "Thanks, I’ll have to try that!" and "No problem – good luck!"
So if we’re having a great conversation and I suddenly go silent, don’t worry that I’m offended by something you said. It’s just that I’ve never known how to make a graceful exit.
Friday, September 29, 2006