science of us

How to Be Sociable

Photo: Thomas M. Barwick/Getty Images

The man sitting next to me is good-looking. Tall, dark, and handsome. Kind blue eyes. Plaid shirt. Jeans, rolled up.

We glance sideways toward each other and lock eyes. I take a deep breath.
“I live far away from my parents, and they think I’m happier than I am, and I can’t bear for them to know that sometimes I literally don’t know what I’m doing with my life,” I say to him.

He blinks. And then says, “I haven’t seen my family in ten months, and I
just realized that I don’t miss them, and I’m afraid that makes me a bad person.”

My turn again.

“I fear I’ll never make enough money,” I say. “No matter what, it seems
like after I pay my tax bill, I have no money left over. Ever. I fear I’ll always
struggle with this.”

Your turn, buddy.

“I feel inferior to my wife, because she earns considerably more money than
I do,” he says.

He was really going for it.

“All of my closest friends have moved away or we’ve grown apart, and I’m
afraid I’m never going to have a new close friend who I can tell anything to, and it makes me sad,” I say, my voice slightly shaking.

“I find it very difficult to make new, genuine friends. That’s why I’ve come
tonight. I told my wife I had a work thing — she doesn’t know I’m here.”

A bell rings.

Chris and I both signed up for the same workshop. The advertisement
promised the class would teach us how to make better connections with other people. Neither of us knew this meant confessing humiliating, personal secrets to strangers. They didn’t mention that in the brochure.
“If what you’re saying makes you feel like a loser, you’re doing it right!” shouts our group leader, Mark, encouragingly.

Chris and I nod at each other in agreement, as we sink lower into our chairs.
Nailed it.

Sitting in the classroom, I steal a glance at the man in the plaid shirt and rolled-up jeans as the instructor, Mark, sets up the next slide in his presentation in front of us.

The class is called “How to Be Sociable,” at the School of Life, the
brainchild of best-selling author Alain de Botton. This is where I meet the tall man in rolled-up jeans who I will confess all my fears and insecurities to.
I didn’t know what to expect at a class that promises to teach you how to be sociable. I’m a shy introvert and when I was twelve, my mother made me attend one evening at a Cotillion class, an etiquette program popular in the South for teaching manners. I think it may have also been an effort to make me less shy.

I spent the night scared that the teacher, a dainty woman called Mrs. Flowers, who prowled the room in kitten heels with a microphone, was going to call on me. Then she put her mic down, and I spent the rest of the night catatonic while being forced to dance the fox-trot with a twelve-year-old boy with sweaty hands. It was mortifying, and it set me back years. I prayed this night will not be similar.

The evening class takes place in a basement, and there are about forty people of all ages there. Our instructor, Mark, is jocular and confident as he stares out at us.

I don’t know what brought these thirty-nine other people to this class in London, but Britain was recently dubbed the loneliness capital of Europe, so I’m assuming one factor is loneliness. Recent studies say that staring at our phones and ignoring people has become our new normal, which is probably also why we have forgotten how to be around our own species.

I’m there because I’m an American freelancer in London (see: loneliness capital of Europe) and found myself nearly friendless at the ripe age of 32. All of my friends in London moved far away, had babies or moved far away and had babies in the last few years. I also had a fear of talking to strangers, which means that I live in a city of nine million people and spoke to only one: my barista. My career was stagnating, my social life non-existent and my sofa had melded into the shape of my ass. Something had to change — this class is the first step.

Loneliness has been declared a health epidemic, and spending time with each other is the obvious cure. To do so, Mark tells us, we need to talk to each other. But, he stresses, that doesn’t just mean everyday small talk, but deep, meaningful conversation that makes us feel connected to another person.

During the class, we’re told that we can engineer conversations to be more emotional and interesting by understanding that we all have a “Surface Self ” and a “Deep Self.” The Surface Self talks about the weather, facts, what we had for dinner, our plans for the weekend. The Deep Self talks about what these things actually mean to us and how we feel about them.

Deep Self holds on to our fears, our hopes, our loves, our insecurities, our dreams. Surface Self is preoccupied with logistics, facts, details, admin. Deep Self is the wedding vows; Surface Self is the wedding planner. Deep Self likes to stare into your eyes talking about your secret desires, while Surface Self keeps checking out of the conversation to plan their shopping list.

A man in his thirties raises his hand. “But people don’t always want to share their personal feelings and life, right? Some people might hate that.”
Mark turns to him. He tells him, sure, maybe, but the fear of being intrusive is hugely exaggerated. The more important point is this: what we should actually fear is being boring and dying having never connected with anyone.
Then Mark stares at all of us, meaningfully, and says it again, slowly. “The fear and bleak reality of being boring and dying having never connected with anyone is vastly underestimated.” We all stare at Mark, stunned into fear and silence.

And then comes the kicker: “vulnerability tennis.” Mark explains that to forge true connections with people, we must share our failures, rather than our success.

In an exercise to demonstrate how vulnerability brings us together, we are to face a fellow strangers in the class and bat our insecurities and fears and emotions back and forth, like Serena and Venus Williams, except instead of volleys and serves flying at 120 mph, it’s deep confessions and secrets, which actually hurt about the same as getting pegged by a tennis ball straight in the boob.

The only rules in this game are that we can’t comment on the other person’s statements. Our only response is an equally embarrassing confession. Like a loser-off.

And that’s how I meet Chris.

“Sometimes I think I just want to have a baby because I’m afraid of dying alone,” I say to him.

He takes this in, his face giving away nothing.

“I feel inferior to my coworkers at my job and have regrets about not going
to college,” he says. “Actually, I’m not sure I’m smart enough to have gone to college.”

Wow, Chris really is a worthy opponent.

And as Mark had predicted, I feel a connection with Chris after our “tennis match.” We’ve just been through a brutal series of personal revelations and have crawled out on the other side, exhausted but filled with endorphins. It feels like that deep relief that comes after a really good cry.

During the exercise, we were both aware of how ridiculous this scenario was, and before each of us said our statements of truth, we both did a weak little laugh, so it sounded something like, “Hahaha here goes my deepest, darkest secret that I truly hate about myself — enjoy! Haha … sometimes I cry myself to sleep at night so hard it wakes up my neighbors … Hahaha …”

But, awkward laugh or not, it is so much easier to say these things to a total stranger. Someone who knows nothing about you can’t judge you properly or tell your secrets to anyone you know. It’s liberating, and it’s also surprising what they’re willing to tell you, too.

If you saw Chris on the street, you would assume he had everything. He’s good-looking, he has a respectable job, he’s married to a successful woman, and he supports a sports team that consistently performs well. And he’s as lonely and lost as any of us.

At the end of the class, there’s a collective sigh of relief. It has been a very heightened emotional roller coaster, but I feel like I’ve been given a new outlook on life. It’s OK to go deep. It’s OK to share our worst failings. In fact, it’s encouraged — and it feels kind of great.

Although it means that Chris is out there in the world, just walking around knowing my deepest insecurities. Knowing that I fret about being broke, inferior, and childless.

What have I done?

Excerpted from Sorry I’m Late, I Didn’t Want to Come: One Introvert’s Year of Saying Yes by Jessica Pan. Copyright © Jessica Pan 2019. Reprinted by permission of Andrews McMeel Publishing. 

How to Be Sociable