I have a date tonight. A terrifying friend date with a girl. I’m going to cook dinner, she’s going to bring the wine, and together we will embark on a talk about our lives and our feelings about our lives. I really like this girl and I’m looking forward to it, but I can’t help but worry that she won’t have fun or I’ll do something wrong. Usually we hang out together in a bigger group, where I’m much more comfortable, but tonight — tonight I’m on my own.

I’ve always had an easier time being friends with boys. Boys, in general, talk about things rather than feelings. If they run out of things to talk about, they start playing Halo or Madden. Or perhaps start to wrestle on the floor. Or drink. I never feel nervous around boys, I just feel like myself.

But girls are a complete mystery to me. When a bunch of them get together, I feel like they know a bunch of stuff that I don’t, that there’s a lot more going on in the room than meets the eye. The words that they’re saying don’t exactly match up to what they mean. It’s like a code where each letter of the alphabet represents a different letter of the alphabet: it might look like English, but you can’t read it.

I think most of the issue stems from the fact that girls ask a lot more questions – questions about me. And that always makes me nervous to the point where I can’t concentrate. I love talking about myself (evidence: blog) but when I talk about myself out loud I feel like the other person is instantly 1) bored and 2) waiting for their turn. It’s exactly like this thing that happens on my cell phone sometimes during bad connections when I can hear the echo of my own voice a millisecond after everything I say and it’s absolutely paralyzing.

The panic turns into the feeling – no, the knowing — that my sentences aren’t making sense. That they aren’t clear or structured or enunciated and that the other person is hopelessly lost and embarrassed for me. (Funny how much I love and revel in the written word, right?)

I also have the opposite problem, though – when the other person is talking, I am so busy worrying about how to respond or what my facial expression looks like that I can’t concentrate on what they’re saying and I am, again, lost. It’s like when you concentrate so much on your tennis swing that you forget to focus on the ball.

Of course, I have well-documented problems with anxiety and have learned a few ways to cope over the years. Surprisingly, one of things that helped most was the old-timey book, How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie. Although it’s more about communicating to people in professional situations and although it was written way back in the 1930s, it’s a great handbook for the socially challenged. Some people think the book is too basic, not genuine, or even manipulative, but those are probably socially adept people who skip through life without a care in the world except perhaps that they have too many friends and influence too many people.

In fact, I think that everything I really understand about having conversations comes from the book. As silly as it might sound, I often use the trick of writing down conversation topics on index cards (ask about her dog, boss, new house, triathlon training!) before I make phone calls so that even when I inevitably panic, I have something solid to get me back on track.

Anyway, to return to my important girl date tonight, I think everything is set. I’m going to make some delicious lamb with a delicate lentil salad and I’m going to have a freakin’ conversation with a girl. I am going to focus on the ball.

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