DEAR CA & AC —
I think I have a case of social insecurity. I have been invited to spend a week at a house on Block Island with a group of friends. Unfortunately, they aren’t my friends. They are my old college roommate’s friends. For years, she has been saying we should take a trip together. This time, she refuses to take no for an answer because, she says, everyone in this group is so smart and so interesting that we can’t possibly miss.
I, however, am neither. I an unmarried, middle-aged 3rd-grade school teacher from the Midwestern. You can imagine what a thrilling dinner partner I make. Nonetheless, first my old roommate and now my prospective host are refusing to accept no for an answer. Can you help me find something to talk about to make me more interesting than I am? I know to pepper my companions with questions about themselves, but once we have exhausted their biographies, what then? Perhaps you could give me a list of topics, or current important novels, or suggest something else that I could bring up if there is ever a lull in the conversation for me to fill.
SIGNED, MISS DULLSVILLE
How to Overcome Social Insecurity
DEAR MD —
Over my many years of watching, I have learned something quite remarkable about people. The so-called accomplished ones love to speak about themselves and their arcane activities—a trait that makes them far more tedious than your run-of-the-mill third grader, never mind third-grade teacher!
But before you avail yourself of our most excellent advice and figure out how to cope with those so-called accomplished friends, read what you wrote. It sounds sniveling in the extreme. Do you truly, at this age, have such low regard for your substantive and conversational powers? Are you a woman or a worm?
The trick, which you already seem to know, is to act friendly and interested in others first and foremost. Equally important is acting confident in your own knowledge and experience. Be prepared to drop one or two spicy factoids on almost any subject. And deliver them with firm assurance. Mouths will drop, and you will be deemed One Who Knows What She is Talking About. That’s all it takes. Just one or two stunners. And then remember, curiosity and charm are what sails the ship at these parties, not erudition and profundity.
As for reading good novels, you should seek out those that give you pleasure, not ones that have conversational utility. (How can you get through a bookyou don’t enjoy, let alone talk about it?) Google the Man Booker Prize for Fiction for clues to what literary snobs are reading and the New York Times bestsellers for a rundown of what appeals to the masses. Then pick what appeals to you.
DEAR MD —
Far-away, sleep-away parties with strangers are such fun! They are the perfect opportunity to bring to life a fantasy persona. With strangers, you can be anyone you want: a snake charmer, a countess, an opera singer. Of course, you’ll avoid a lot of embarrassment and frantic hand signals with your friend if you alert her to your assumed persona before the festivities begin.
You undoubtedly are not nearly as boring as you say you are, but if you are even a teensy boring, your friend will be relieved when she sees you are taking care of yourself in such an imaginative way.
If it turns out that she is one of those dreadful sticklers for honesty, you could deal with your social insecurity by telling her you are writing a novel about a [fill in the blank] and would like to pretend to be a [blank} for the week to get in touch with your character.
If your friend is too literal-minded for that, you could invent a fascinating hobby to compensate for your social insecurity, say, competitive rollerblading or salsa dancing, although it might be safer to choose something you won’t be pressed to demonstrate, say bug taxidermy or cross-country pigeon racing. Whatever you choose, do enough research to have an interesting anecdote or two at hand.
Speaking of research, an island off the coast New England is bound to have a rich history: epic storms, mysterious shipwrecks, evil witches, wicked adulteress, barbaric Natives, presumptuous Puritans. I get shivers just thinking about the dramatic possibilities.
To take full advantage of where you are staying, do a bit of Googling about the island before you get there. At appropriate moments during the trip, you can toss out tantalizing bits of information. (Never preference these tidbits with, “I read online …/or in a guide book…”) If your fellow guests are at all curious—and all truly interesting people always are—they’ll demand to know more. Before you know it, they will be spellbound.
If it turns out they aren’t interested in what you have to say, you can relax and open up a good book, knowing that your old roommate’s definition of “interesting” wouldn’t cut it in a classroom of third-graders.