I've never been one of life's great socialisers. In any of those personality tests where you're asked to place yourself on a scale of "small company of select friends" to "large crowd of people who love you," I'm with the small select every time.
Various things have compounded this effect. Constantly coming home from school and finding we'd moved house was one of them; it wasn't a great incentive to establish new relationships. Another is being a Christian public school science fiction fan from a military background - four very key areas of my identity about which the world at large knows and understands nothing. Even those who are knowledgeable in one of the above will probably be completely ignorant in the others. So it was never easy to find people with something in common to talk to.
Didn't stop me trying, due to the unspoken pressure that this was in some way abnormal. Even if the threat of "if you don't accept invitations, you won't get invitations" sounded more to me like a promise, I cheerfully made my way with gritted teeth to teenage party after teenage party, and then student party after student party, always wondering if this would be the one where I learnt to get on with strangers. It never was, and probably would not have been even if there hadn't always been a steady background of loud pulsating music that made conversation impossible except by semaphore. I find it hard enough to hear in a crowd anyway, without music, when the general buzz of conversation is somewhere around my shoulder level. If I tell you that 6'5" me once spent the night on the back seat of a Ford Fiesta rather than stick one of those parties for another minute, let alone all night like it was meant to be ... that's how fond I was of them.
Until, the crunch ...
How well I remember it. New Year's Eve, 1996. A black tie occasion. Turn up at six, chat to strangers till 12, go home. The direst, most crashingly dull, boring and uninteresting party I have EVER been to. I can do this for a couple of hours ... but SIX? And not even a sit-down meal in the meantime, just nibbles. Also, to the four key areas mentioned, I'd by now added a fifth and sixth in my life - writing and publishing - which didn't help.
But there was more to my inability to communicate, and I finally realised it when at one point I was talking to a woman I vaguely knew and it went something like this:
- "So what are you doing, Ben?"
- "I'm ..."
- "Are you going to get any taller?"
- "I ..."
- "What did you do for Christmas?"
- [draw breath]
- "Would you like to nail me to the wall, gag me and answer my questions politely in the order that I asked them?"
Sadly she didn't actually ask me that last one because the answer was yes, and I would have. Politely. I was brought up to be polite, unlike her, or a friend of hers who then turned up and proceeded - by some magic - to have a conversation in the same clipped, coded manner. Somehow they were communicating information that maintained a relationship. I have no idea how, but on the plane on which they exist, that was how it was done. It was almost interesting to watch. But eventually I turned and walked away, fighting the urge to walk between them. Which would not have been polite.
And that was when it sunk in. I am not abnormal. I am not (that) unfriendly or grumpy. My brain simply isn't wired to the social expectations that these people live in. For some people, this is normality. For me it is not. I don't need them, they don't need me, we have zilch in common so why force it? Live and let live, and hopefully meet them in heaven one day.
So I actually made a new year's resolution, and have kept to it. No parties that I don't want to go to. Ever again.
I can and do go to conventions, publishing events etc, and even parties, which may still be full of strangers and only very passing acquaintances, but where I can reasonably expect that we will all have something in common. But I no longer have to subject myself to the sheer hell of socialising for the non-fun of it.
January 1997. Exactly ten years ago. Happy anniversary.