I was told, earlier this summer, that I’m the kind of person that “never met a stranger”. That was very insightful, but there is one caveat to that insight. The cold call. I can address a group of 100, I can do a public Q&A session without being fully prepared. I can confidently introduce somebody I’ve just barely met. And I can certainly talk to a stranger and hear and enjoy their story, honing in to capture its highlights. I can do all of this fearlessly.
But there is a tiny 10 second gap where I’m just lost. And just like in “Dancing in Bare Feet”, as an engineer I’ve done the fishbone analysis. I’ve identified the problem, traced it to its roots, and now I’m creating the exercises to correct those causes (thank you Ishikawa-san).
When I know that somebody is signed up for my conversation (a presentation, a new or old friend), I can easily share my words. Once a conversation is started I can carry it on forever. I have now spent this summer honing my skills of reading body language and nuances of speech to keep conversations on track and avoid being a “conversation hog”. I’m even getting pretty good at remembering “two ears on mouth”, something unexpectedly difficult. But I am still struggling with (but improving) knowing when to say “thanks, it was so nice to meet you” so as not to glom onto a stranger like a leech in a swamp, making them pour salt on my head and run from the room. I am really really working on that one, but at least I’m finally aware that I do it.
But its still that damn icebreaker. All conversations, where you don’t know the other party, start with you and a silent and disinterested stranger. Unless they start things, you must cut the deadly quiet by saying something out of thin air. Jee-sus, I’d rather jump into a hole and disappear.
Larissa, my dance instructor, made my summer assignment to go somewhere with live music and ask someone I don’t know to dance. I’m sixteen weeks into summer (its now mid September) and I still haven’t. And I’ve only got five week left.
Tracing the root of my fears, it keeps coming back to Schrödinger’s stalker” (and other colorful terms for the syndrome). Its the idea that every unwelcome advance from a strange man on an innocent woman may be her next crazed stalker murderer con man. I presume a woman sitting on a bar stool, after a long day at work, would like to sip on an iced tea without being chatted up by me. I know I certainly would.
And I even did a test once (I’m accused of being excessively empirical). When first putting my name on an internet social site, I couldn’t understand the mechanics of text exchanges. I had carefully authored my profile, selected photos, etc. So I then created a second profile, gave it a ridiculous name “Suzy-Q”, gender female, my age, adjoining city, NO INFORMATION OR PICTURE WHATSOEVER. Within an hour four, six, eight messages arrived. It was embarrassing. “Hey babe, drop me a note”, “Hey Sugar, check me out”. It was so unsettling I disabled the account the next morning, after twelve blind messages.
I’m accused, time and time again, of overthinking life; and its absolutely true. In the moment of launching and interaction with a silent preoccupied stranger (the “icebreaker”) I have a split second of hyper empathy and I think “Just leave that poor woman alone”. The only saving grace I call “the gift of opposites”. We all know “to get something done, ask a busy person”, and “good fences make good neighbors”. Well as I develop my skills at reading when a conversation is unwanted, it should free my worry to launch more cold calls. By being more skilled at stopping, I should become more willing to start.
So enter Jack, my coach (and host) this week. I am watching and learning, especially about those ten minutes prior to the icebreaker. I’m observing manner and dress and confidence. But its still the truth: in that critical moment, somebody still has to say something.
And he is a master of that brief leap, charging in where I sit and second guess and overthink. The first time, he walked me in, started the first sentence of the conversation, then gruffly walked off. “You live around here?”
The second time, he walked me in from my nervous position of study across the room. We sailed in formation like two F-16’s locked on a SAM missile battery (who? her?). At the last second he deked me, turning left and dropping me nearly on this poor woman’s lap. He barely paused as I was forced to start a conversation into the startled look on her face. It resembled that of a defensive lineman having a fullback block sent at her position, now face-to-face with the tailback ball carrier. “Umm, beautiful night”. “Yes … it is”.
However, the third time was hilarious. After enjoying our beer together, wondering what on earth I would do next, Jack actually got up and physically left to talk to someone else. And in the vacuum left behind, I turned and commented to the woman on my opposite side how, “oh gosh, my friend blah blah blah”. And, of course, the conversation magically started. “I have a friend just like that ….” How do you spell Irony? In the end, I still ended up using Jack as my ice breaker crutch.
But next time, next time, I tell ya, I’m prepared. I’ve got an Excel spreadsheet with the solutions all charted out.