(When Small Talk Scares You)
I am a textbook introvert, with a generous helping of social anxiety thrown in that makes me cautious with interpersonal situations, especially unplanned ones. My husband is also quite content to go quietly about his business with minimal interaction. We’re both selective about with whom we spend our limited social energy and need solo time to reset when we’ve been mingling or having to make *gulp* small talk. Imagine our surprise to discover that our 4.5-year-old son has blossomed into a gregarious little extrovert!
When we are out walking, it’s pretty much guaranteed that he will enthusiastically greet unsuspecting people working in their yards from at least 50 feet away. As they look around, trying to figure out where the booming little voice is coming from, my son commences The Questioning: “What’cha doing?” “Why are you doing that?” “What’s your dog’s name?”…you get the idea.
Caught off guard by his intensity, most people answer right away, as if they’ve been hauled up in front of the principal. Thank goodness they are, by and large, friendly and good sports about it, and cheerfully engage with his sometimes intrusive enquiries. (Although, even if we meet the odd grumbly pants, my son seems unfazed.) When his newest best friend actually gets a chance to ask him a question, he regales them with a detailed story in response, often with cringeworthy personal details thrown in for extra effect.
And yes, I am dying during all of this.
Every instinct I have about steering clear of unexpected social encounters is thrown into conflict with my protective instincts—I’m not just going to watch from the sidelines or hide behind a hedge as my son walks up to strangers; I have to engage with these people with him. He clearly needs more social interaction and some guidance with the conventions of two-way conversation. These situations are incredibly powerful teachable moments; however, oh my goodness, I’m so uncomfortable. As soon as he bellows out, “Good morning!” and rings his bicycle bell at someone I feel blood rushing to my cheeks and adrenalin shooting into my extremities, a persistent voice in my head imploring me to, “Run away!”
My grandfather, after whom my son gets one of his middle names, was known for his social largesse. In his senior years he would do daily rounds of the neighbourhood on his scooter, visiting with the local businesspeople, neighbours, and anyone who crossed his path. When he passed away, many people remembered him for the jovial twinkle in his eye and his plentiful jokes, all told in a lilting Cape Breton brogue.
Introversion has its positives, but so does extroversion. I have fond memories of so many people who, like my grandfather, treat everyone they meet as someone they are genuinely happy to interact with, laugh with, and shoot the breeze with. This generosity of spirit is a true gift, and I’m happy to see it emerge in my son, even though it sometimes makes me want to run away and hide.
Recognising the joy he brings to others helps me relax in these situations. To see someone’s strained, weary face light up as my son tells them all about “My big boy bike that I ride because I’m four (going to be five in…how many months, Mama?) and I’m growing sooooo fast that Papa had to put the seat up and I don’t need the stabilisers (training wheels) any more, and listen to the bell that Mama got me for my birthday—it’s ‘bewiful,’ isn’t it?”—it’s kind of magical.
And so I grit my teeth and come along for the ride—the quiet, shy sidekick to my super social child. We talk about safety, and how we never, ever go with someone without Mama and Papa’s permission, but, for all of his outgoingness, he’s actually really careful and observant of his surroundings. I’ve learned the names of many of our neighbours (and their dogs) that I would not otherwise have known. They seem like lovely people. It’s as if my young son has pulled me into the community, like someone pulling a wallflower out onto the dance floor. I am grateful. Uncomfortable, but grateful.