June 5, 2016 by Jean
I was surprised when several readers responded to my recent post on friendship by saying that I seem to have a knack for making friends. That’s not how I think of myself; for years, I’ve considered myself an introvert with fairly high needs for solitude and as someone who tends to be somewhat anxious and awkward in social situations. Comments suggesting otherwise made we wonder if I have changed, and particularly how my retirement and my move back to Maine may have altered my responses to social situations.
During my working years, I often struggled with the rules of upper-middle-class etiquette. I grew up in a working-class family and a working-class town, and working-class etiquette was my native social language. I first became aware of social class differences in social etiquette during graduate school, when one of my friends expressed frustration at my recurring rudeness because, when I was invited to others’ homes for a meal, I never asked “What can I bring?” I was shocked to learn that I had been guilty of bad manners; I came from a world in which, if people wanted you to bring something, they said so. For example, “We’re having everyone over to our house on Saturday; it’s going to be pot-luck, and we’re hoping you can bring one of your great apple pies.”
I remembered my friend’s etiquette lesson when, during my first month in my first academic teaching job, my department chair and his wife invited me to a Saturday evening dinner at their house. “What can I bring?” I asked. “Nothing,” my host replied, “just bring yourself!” Although they didn’t want me to contribute anything to dinner, I was very proud of myself for remembering to ask – until I arrived at their home on Saturday evening and realized that I was the only one invited who had not brought some kind of hostess gift. I felt as though I was in the middle of a game that I didn’t understand the rules of.
My struggle to understand those rules was a recurrent source of social anxiety for the next thirty years. For a while, I had a faculty friend who was the son of a prominent doctor and the grandson of a college president and whom I used as a consultant in these situations. No matter how much he coached me, however, I never developed good instincts about what to bring as a gift. Many of my colleagues would bring a bottle of wine in these situations; but I don’t drink alcohol and find it difficult to select a type of beverage I don’t drink. My choices of gifts when I relied on my own instincts usually turned out to be all wrong. I still remember the agonies of trying to choose the right gift when, during my Gettysburg years, I was invited to dinner at the home of a pair of Japanese colleagues known for their elegant dinner parties. After giving a lot of thought to the gift problem, I went to a local florist and bought several stems of a beautiful, understated iris that seemed like just the kind of flower that would fit a Japanese aesthetic. My aesthetic instincts were good, but I realized just how lame my gift was when I arrived at my colleagues’ home to find a garden full of beautiful irises and elegant arrangements of these flowers throughout the house. My little handful of florist irises looked pathetic in comparison. (I was sorely tempted to stash them in a dark corner before my hosts opened the door!) I was trying to behave properly, but I continued to have a tin ear for the nuances of upper-middle-class etiquette.
When I retired from teaching and moved back to Maine, I left most of these social anxieties behind. What changed? My social life in Gettysburg consisted almost entirely of interactions with faculty colleagues and their families; this was very much an upper-middle-class world. My social circle in Maine is much more varied. Moreover, the part of Maine I live in, a rural town on the outskirts of the old industrial heart of the state, is an area whose economy once rested primarily on hardscrabble farms and blue-collar jobs in textile mills, shoe mills, and paper mills. Working-class culture is dominant here, and the working-class etiquette I learned as a child is the local social vernacular. It’s a relief to be back where my instinctive responses to social situations are appropriate responses.
Being in a place where I don’t feel continually wrong-footed has helped me to relax and be myself. This has, in turn, made me feel less socially awkward and more open to new social situations and social relationships. If I have developed a knack for making friends, it is at least in part because I am just acting naturally without feeling the need to second-guess my responses.