By Erim Akpan
In high school, I was incorrigibly shy. By some miracle, I wasn’t friendless. I made a handful of close friends through clubs and church activities. But it seemed I had reached some sort of barrier that made it impossible to develop any more friendships. The thought of trying to talk to someone new terrified me. Although I wanted to meet new people, I never knew what to say. The right words never seemed to come.
Even if there was a perfect opportunity to meet someone, like if a classmate was standing nearby in the hallway doing nothing, I was too terrified to try saying hello. Thoughts like It’ll be terrible, you’ll only embarrass yourselfor (S)he won’t like you, you’re boring, held my feet frozen in place and made my voice disappear. After a long internal struggle, I usually gave up and simply pretended to be interested in something off in the distance to avoid making eye contact. Sometimes I felt like a failure as a human being, wondering why no one else seemed to have this much trouble talking to others.
When I started college, I expected to have the same problem. Going to college meant being plunged into a new world, without knowing a single person there. But on the first day, my father gave me his own homework assignment. “Meet two new people every week,” he said, “And visit two old ones.” Naturally, I protested– it seemed like being tasked with climbing Mount Everest twice a week. I didn’t have the faintest idea where to begin. (You can’t exactly walk up to someone and say, “Hello, I’d like to get to know you better” or “Will you be my friend?”) But my father insisted. At the end of each week, he grilled me about the “homework,” prodding me to give details about the lives of the two people I’d met. Any thoughts of simply ignoring the assignment were quickly squashed. There was no avoiding it.
I had to learn how to approach strangers despite the suffocating fear that tried to keep me away. Through no small amount of trial and error, and listening to what other people said, I came up with a list of questions to start a conversation. It seemed like cheating somehow, but it worked. Hello, my name is X, what’s yours? What’s your major? Why did you pick that one instead of this other similar major? Oh, that’s interesting. Where are you from? Wow, that’s really far away! Why did you choose this university? What do you want to do after college? Knowing what to say made me feel more confident about striking up conversation. My fear of talking to people didn’t go away, but it got easier to act in spite of the fear.
Surprisingly, I often found it easier to relate to older people than to people my age. I loved hearing stories about the way things “used to be,” before the internet or even touch-tone telephones. They asked me what I aspired to be in life, gave me advice about doing well in school, and encouraged me to get involved on campus. In contrast, most of my peers only wanted to talk about the latest celebrity gossip, which sports team had beaten some other sports team, or the latest “hot” music album with unintelligible words– all topics that did not interest me in the slightest.
I also found that it was easier to connect with people outside my major. I particularly enjoyed the company of Art Majors, who almost invariably had the same interests in comics, video games, anime, manga, superheroes, and the other “geeky” stuff I liked.
Meeting new people became easier and easier. I started meeting three people a week, then five. Eventually, I stopped keeping track. It actually started to get hard to keep up with everyone! I met students as well as professors, staff people, and random professionals visiting campus. By the beginning of sophomore year, most students were convinced that I was an extrovert because I knew so many people. Once, it took me about twenty minutes to walk twenty feet in the cafeteria because so many people (professors and staff people included) kept stopping me to say hello. I felt proud that I’d come so far.
When I graduated from college, the change was staggering. Even though I lived in the same city, it felt like I was plunging into a new world all over again. Friends scattered across the country. We no longer bumped into each other on the way to class, or in the cafeteria, or at events. Only a few consistently kept in touch. I started to feel isolated even though I was surrounded by people. It was like the first day of college all over again, but without as many convenient settings to get to know people. Most of the conversation-starter questions didn’t apply anymore, either. Nobody had majors anymore, or post-college aspirations. I wasn’t sure what to say.
I realized I would have to make a conscious effort to meet people and cultivate friendships. People build lasting friendships over common interests or shared experiences, not just because they happen to be near each other every day. With this in mind, I looked for clubs in the area to join so I could meet people with similar interests. I found a quarterly Comic Creators night sponsored by the library where I could meet fellow geeks, a writing group specifically for fantasy and science fiction writers, a video gaming group, and so on.
I’m still learning to navigate the new world of post-college life. Things are getting better. Gradually, the strange new faces are starting to become familiar. I’ve even begun recognizing people from clubs at other events. It will take time and effort, but I’m confident I’ll get the hang of this strange new world. If there’s one thing that “homework assignment” taught me, it’s that I can do anything– as long as I keep trying.
ABOUT THE WRITER: Erim is a North Carolinian writer with a background in Marketing and Entrepreneurship. In her spare time, she enjoys editing books and practicing a variety of arts, including storytelling, origami, and— of course— writing.
HEADER PHOTO: Gerd Altmann at Pixabay.com
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