Last week my department at the college where I work had a Christmas party at a co-worker’s home. I find it hard enough to do small talk and chit-chat in the moments before and after meetings. Now I was facing a whole evening of it! Oh, we would start with a pot-luck holiday dinner, and you aren’t expected to make too much conversation with your mouth full. My one hope for the night. After dinner, we would do one of those “Savage Santa” gift exchanges with people talking loudly and taking each other’s gifts. Just the thought of that and I almost stayed home. Seriously. I made a cake and a salad to bring, and I bought a gift card to a coffee shop—surely that would disappoint no one!—and I wrapped it with a Christmas mug. Then came the moment I had to get in my car and drive there. I thought about staying home and eating all the salad and cake myself in the peace and quiet of my home.
For many of us introverted, gifted, and socially awkward ones, the thought of attending the business Christmas party, the church Christmas party, the neighborhood Christmas party, or the extended-family Christmas party can be overwhelming. “It’s the most wonderful time of the year…there’ll be parties for hosting…” Well, I have to admit that I find it easier to host a party than attend one. Hosting gives me a purpose on which to focus as well as a reason not to join in the small talk—I’m busy getting refills and making sure everyone has what they need.
Holiday parties can be hard for gifted children and for those who are overly sensitive to stimuli. I think back to my childhood when we would have “Cousins Parties” and some seventy-five or more family members, three generations’ worth, would gather to one home. All the loud talking. All the constant movement of adults and children. Having to play with and talk to cousins that I only saw once or twice year. I hated it. It overwhelmed me as a child. I would look for a corner to go hide. Oh, by the time I was ten, after some years of bi-annual encounters, I finally had located one or two other “third-generation” cousins who also wanted to hide, who also had a hard time fitting in, and we could claim a corner together.
If you have an introverted, gifted child who struggles socially, have mercy on them during events like this. Don’t force them to greet people, to talk to people. Gently prepare them before the event, reminding them of one or two or three people you noticed they enjoyed at the last gathering. Encourage them to plan to greet one or two of them. Maybe help them prepare a sentence or two about what they have been doing at school or something they are reading as a conversation element in case they find themselves trapped in a conversation. And, let them bring a book to read, if they want to.
If you are the person feeling like you don’t think you can stand the awkwardness of a social event, I encourage you to practice a little self-talk, take a deep breath, and go for it. Often the “normal” people don’t even notice that we are feeling awkward. Usually they are more focused on themselves—what will they say next—to judge what you are saying. So remind yourself of that when you feel out of place. I tell myself, “No one can see how much you feel like an outsider. They don’t know how you feel like you don’t fit in. Just smile slightly and they will never guess!”
So did I go to the party? Yup, I did. When we ate, and people spread out through the dining room and kitchen, I found a quiet corner on a couch in the living room. After a bit of time, a few other introverts found me. We ate quietly, as the most outgoing of us led in conversation and let us say as little as we wanted. Loud laughter came from the other rooms. That was fine with me. I felt safe in the quiet room.
And then the gift exchange! I’ll admit, I sat in a corner at the far end. I had decided beforehand that I was not going to care about what I got, what people took from me, and what I ended up with. The shocker? I went home with the Christmas mug and gift card that I brought—because at the very end, the young man who had unwrapped that gift swapped it with the gift I had chosen from the tree but had not yet opened. Turns out the unwrapped gift contained four pairs of men’s socks. I watched the others scheme and swap, laugh and moan. I’ll admit, I really couldn’t comprehend their delight in all the scheming and swapping. I would rather spend the time reading a book and learning something—that delights me! But when we were saying our goodbyes that night, I realized that I really DID belong. Even if I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be there, the truth was that they wanted me there. They were glad I had come, and so I went home glad that I had gone. It’s worth the risk, and you can do it!