Sunday, January 27, 2008

The boy who cried "Small aquatic bird of the Anatidae family!” (instead of “Duck!”)

Ok, I just figured out that I fell for an internet hoax. Damn! I hate that I did that. At least it wasn’t the one where I send thousands of dollars to Nigeria, or that one where I cash checks for people. Actually, it’s just the one where I thought I could turn Mountain Dew into glow-in-the-dark juice. No real harm done to my wallet, just some loss of self-respect.

This month’s blahg is about something that crossed my mind recently. I’ve been noticing a few things. For example, I was at an all-day faculty event that killed a Friday (so my class got cancelled which instantly put me behind by one day). Anyway, I was trying to tell someone about a gift idea and was almost immediately not taken seriously. At another meeting, I made a suggestion which was brought up later in the conversation and credited to someone else. But at the end of the meeting, I was teased for not having made any more contribution to the group than a joke or two.

Now, am I being a whiny-butt? No. In fact, it makes sense to me. Most of my interactions in these sorts of settings is driven by my insecurity. That is, I really don’t feel comfortable in groups and really hate having to talk. So, two things happen. One, I start feeling worse because I’m being so quiet, which makes me feel like I have to say SOMETHING – anything! Second, my coping mechanisms kick-in.

When I was in high school, I never EVER talked in class unless I was directly called on. My response to being called on was to turn bright red, slouch in my chair, look down, and mumble. Most of the time that got the heat off me. When I eventually got into graduate school (having done my best to navigate through college by taking classes that minimized any class presence) I found out that I’d have to give hour-long presentations to faculty and students. They were pretty awful. Find one of my graduate-student brothers or sisters and they’ll confirm that.

I needed a way to cope with the stress and I quickly learned (through observation – I wasn’t the only person who dreaded these presentations) that being uncomfortable in front of people only made a presenter look worse! So, from then on, 98 percent of my attention was directed toward NOT appearing nervous. What is the opposite of nervous? Well, you might think “calmness” but I wasn’t able to pull that off. Instead, I noticed that people who were calm tended to feel comfortable joking around. When people in the audience laughed, you could see that everyone was everyone’s friend. That helped reduce anxiety! So, over time, I worked at using some of that 98 percent to find humor; get the audience “on my side” in a way. That was over 15 years ago. So, now I can use more than 2 percent of my energy to focus on content (probably close to 60 percent).

Now, do I think that I am funny? Not so much. Actually, most of the jokes I make nowadays are to make ME laugh (if others laugh, great). To be honest, I think my sister has a way better sense of humor than I do. She can make any story hilarious if she wants to. She could be making more money as a humorist than a teacher.

OK, so back to ME.

Do I really really really care if I’m taken seriously or not? Maybe a little. Can I change my department meeting persona to one of less humor? Yeah. Probably. Will I? No. Why? Those things are too boring and of too little real substance and rarely important at all. Plus, I still get nervous talking in groups. What would my coping strategy be? (A) Turning bright red, slouching in my chair, looking down, and mumbling. Or (2) Finding something funny about the moment so the next moment is less painful? Yeah… sorry about that bump on the head… (Ok, that was a vague reference [“call-back”] to the blahg title. It made ME laugh, anyway…)

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