I’m not, by most accounts, a classy guy.
I don’t dress particularly well, I use an old cardboard box as a bedroom nightstand, and my eating habits are so poor that one of my two best friends in the world recently requested I photograph the contents of my refrigerator and email them to her so she could put them on her blog to allow her “high-minded” readers the chance to “find endless supplies of amusement at the absurd notion that someone with such a ridiculously unrefined culinary pallet could inaccurately convince himself that he is leading a worthwhile existence*.”
So naturally, I was less-than-enthusiastic when just two weeks into a new sports writing job, my employer “suggested” I spend a rare night off attending a Chamber of Commerce-sponsored business casual shindig of “all the Big Whigs of (my residing) county,” some of whom I would be expected to make professional connections with.
The evening garnered mixed results.
I’ll begin by saying the gala did have some highlights.
I live alone and don’t possess a shred of cooking ability, and my diet tends to suffer as a result. And seeing as how I had exactly one can of Chef Boyardee Spaghetti and Meatballs and a disgusting, half-eaten, week-old Quiznos sub I hadn’t yet worked up the energy to either finish or throw out (*While I wanted to previously bash the friend who requested I photograph my food contents for being a bitch, this sad inventory of dining options proves that bitchiness is not always synonymous with inaccuracy.), I enjoyed being served a free chicken and potato meal.
Also, during the pre-dinner introductory portion of the evening, one member at each of the dining hall’s 16 tables was asked to stand and wave on their company’s behalf when their name was called, and I must admit I took an odd sense of joy in being selected as our table’s designated waver. (Side note: the 180 degree pivot “queen wave” into a hearty thumbs up I executed clearly struck a chord, as I received applause from two separate tables even though applauding was strongly discouraged until all introductions had been made).
Lastly, seeing as how I own exactly 32 plain white t-shirts (18 of which are significantly stained) the phrase “Business Casual” is of minimal significance to me and I was worried I would embarrass myself by being woefully under-dressed. Luckily, the shirt I chose to wear, an off-the-rack, long-sleeved light-green affair, seemed to meet the criteria, as I would say I fell right in the middle of the classiness hierarchy, somewhere between the guy in the tuxedo and the guy in the short-sleeved flannel t-shirt.
Then there were the low points.
Though we were told it would be wise for us to arrive at least 15 minutes early, I was the only representative of my company to do so. I was also the only one to show up on time; or within 15 minutes of the event’s 7 o’clock start (it should also be noted that the individual who “suggested” I attend was conspicuously absent without explanation).
Unfortunately, my co-worker’s lack of punctuality clearly wasn’t shared by many of the hundreds of others on the guest list, as upon my entrance, the ballroom, which was said to have the capacity to accommodate as many as 250 people, was packed wall-to-wall, with patrons relishing the chance to mingle before being confined to their seats for the 7:30 meal.
It is difficult to put into words just how slowly 30 minutes passes when you are sitting alone at a table surrounded at all angles by hundreds of (mostly) well-dressed strangers who are engaging in conversation that holds no interest to you. It’s even worse when you are feeling some sort of obligation to interact and make significant business connections and are unable to do so.
Sadly, I’m not kidding when I say that the closest thing to a conversation topic I devised in this half-hour period came when I overheard a nearby woman say “I’m freezing” and it literally took every bit of restraint I had not to interrupt her with the response “Nice to meet you, freezing! I’m Clay.”
While I avoided the social embarrassment that likely would have accompanied the unleashing of this so-called witticism, I was left with the more nagging, internal humiliation that I’m 27-fucking-years old, and that was the closest thing to an unprovoked conversation starter I could come up with at a formal party.
And while I avoided public embarrassment in that instance, I wasn’t able to do so for the full duration of the evening.
I did successfully loosen up a bit once my co-workers finally arrived, developing the comfort one feels when he is presented with the opportunity to do more than creepily lurk on the outside of other people’s conversations. Feeling more at ease, the possibility of creating a networking opportunity no longer seemed impossible. I decided by night’s end, I was going to make at least one professional connection.
After confiding this goal to a woman from my office, she pointed out a man at a nearby table she believed to be the coach of an out-of-season athletic squadron at one of the schools whose sporting events I professionally frequent and suggested I introduce myself to him, advice I chose to follow.
I made my way to the gentleman’s table, in which all seven of its occupants were engaged in what sounded like sparkling discussion. Not wanting to interrupt, I hovered behind him for what I assume was 15-20 seconds but felt like about a year-and-a-half, waiting for a conversational opening that simply wasn’t coming. Finally, one of the other gentlemen sitting with him halted the group’s chat, asking if I needed something.
I was already nervous about this type of interaction, and it was made all the worse now that I had to attempt it with 14 unfamiliar eyes focused squarely on me. Undeterred, I calmly told the supposed coach who I was and why I was attempting to speak with him, hoping I would be able to accomplish the evening’s goal.
After my shpeal ended, he informed me he did, in fact, hold the position my co-worker believed he held. I say “did” because as it turns out I had interrupted his and his tablemate’s evening to inquire about a position he’d actually retired from…three years ago!
Embarrassed and with the eyes of the entire table still focused with a sense of increasing disbelief at me, the moron who rudely interrupted them to bring up a topic which had been irrelevant since 2009, I slunk away.
Perhaps I could have salvaged some of dignity had I explained I was new to the job or attempted to pin the matter on the imbecility of the co-worker who was had sent me on this fool’s errand with such embarrassingly dated information. But I didn’t feel it would be of benefit to anyone if I continued talking. I simply offered a muffled apology and a cowardly wave as I backpedaled to my seat, likely enhancing their belief that I was inflicted with a severe case of mental retardation.
With that, I decided my goal of making waves with any of the local Big Whigs and business proprietors was an unobtainable one on that evening.
I spent the rest of the night, which consisted of an awards ceremony commemorating local business excellence (perhaps due in part to the stunning attention to detail certain employees were lacking, the company I work for came away empty-handed) and a keynote speech which had something to do with road repair, pretending to have to use the bathroom, taking imaginary phone calls and doing this to a distributed photo of the “Platinum Sponsor” of the event:
Assuming I work for my current employer for a significant amount of time, I will probably have to attend this soiree again in the future. Perhaps working in the same place for an extended amount of time will create more familiarity, thus making me more adept at interacting with the business professionals of this area.
Then again, the impulses that cause one to want to make “nice to meet you…” jokes and ignore keynote speakers so as not to distract themselves as they manipulate the photo of a stranger so it looks like they’re some kind of toothless pirate are ones that probably left most socially competent people well before they reached their late 20′s.
Perhaps my days of social embarrassment are far from over.
Final Score: 3.5/10