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LAME AND QUIRKY IS BETTER COMPANY THAN SAFE AND DULL

Carolyn: I'm shy by nature, until I get to know someone. This is not an asset in meeting people or, more specifically, women. Cheap lines aside (I'm incapable), how does one chat someone up? From what I've gleaned and/or attempted, it goes something like this:

1. Introduction and compliment (not necessarily in that order).

2. "So what do you do?"

3. Follow-up questions.

No. 3 is the problem. I generally get as much mileage as I can by asking specifics about the nature and enjoyment level of her job, and then it fizzles and I bail. It feels lame and quirky to ask about movie/music/book preferences out of thin air. I guess what I need is a new, more flexible line of questioning. Any ideas?

-- Muddled in Manhattan
A: I don't know, I'd rather have Lame and Quirky buy me a drink than Safe and Relentlessly Dull.

Or Rote. Carving your woo-script in granite is perfect -- for women who yearn not to be special. You're shy and I'm sympathetic, because it's a real and difficult thing that a lot of us struggle with. But it's better to be yourself with the occasional unfortunate spittle incident than to cut out everything real but your pulse. Compliment something when you're impressed. Ask something when you're interested. Risk something when you're scared.

And meet someone when there's someone you're eager to meet. So many people see finding love as the end, and turn their activities into the means -- but then they find themselves at some bar several light-years from their natural habitats, asking me how not to be shy. Find things you feel comfortable doing, do them, share them.

Not that you're wrong, when you do run across someone new, to start off with the job question. Contrary to those who slam "What do you do?" as intrusive and (gasp) unimaginative, I see it as the human 411. Hearing doctor, teacher, bus driver is like finding out somebody's age -- from one fact you get multiple, though obviously not enough, useful details. When you consider that work or school tends to fill about half our waking hours, it's almost weird not to ask.

Just don't belabor it. People who already spend too much time at an office aren't going to want to spend their conversations there. Move on when a more leisurely question strikes you, like, "When you're through working, what makes you happy to leave?"

Cutting the power trip

Carolyn: You once wrote about the very routine "power trip" a lot of guys pull: gush all over you, ignore you, and sit back and watch you torture yourself. Since it is so common, what's your advice on how to deal with it? Call them on it and try to work it out, get revenge, or just run like hell as far away as possible? This problem has caused me much pain.

-- B.N.
A: Admire in your question the beauty of the power trip: You're in much pain precisely because it leaves you with no satisfying way to respond to it. What are you going to do, call him up and ignore him back?

Romantic neglect is really no different from any other disappointment. What else can you do but fish your high hopes out of the Dumpster (you'll find them next to your ego), hose them down and try to start living again. "Working it out" can't work when only one of you shows up, and revenge is simply embarrassing.

And when you're tired of rooting around for your ego, you deal with the problem -- before you're up to your neck in brown lettuce. Adjust your hopes to reflect your experience, the way you already do constantly and reflexively in everyday life. When the sun rises, you expect daylight; when it sets, you expect the dark; when you get swept off your feet, expect that you'll land on your butt.

Then adjust your behavior accordingly. Maybe be more skeptical of the gushing and let him accept (or not) your own, manatee pace -- or enjoy the ride, understanding upfront it will end. Sometimes early, abruptly and hard.

Or, refrain from lining up the next relationship until you grow out of the headrush-or-bust mind-set. For every girl on the tortured end of a power trip, there's a "nice guy" on the tortured end of a string-along, and I can't help but think everybody involved would feel a whole lot better if the concepts of love at first sight, instant chemistry or "the one" were expunged from the collective cultural brain. Spend time with people you like, for no other reason than liking them. Then have yourself a Mona Lisa-smile moment when, someday, you feel a growing attraction to a genuine friend. Notice the absence of pain.

The ego-bruising kind, at least; the sadness of loss finds us all.

In memory of Murph.

Write to "Tell Me About It," c/o Washington Post, Style Plus, 1150 15th St., NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or e-mail: tellme@washpost.com.

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