Photo Credit: Cynthia Lively 2014

August 19, 2020–After months of isolation, I am venturing out in public more often. It reminded me why I stopped venturing out in public. It has nothing to do with social distancing. It’s more about social “closening.”

It’s not because of any virus. I have a fear of being trapped in a conversation.

I first experienced this phenomenon during my days as a road musician. During band breaks, I no sooner stepped off stage than I was approached by someone wanting to talk.

Many were wannabe musicians who wanted to discuss the finer points of my instruments or how to get into a band. I empathized with them because I had been that kid not long before. It’s just that 5 minutes was not enough time to have a meaningful exchange of ideas.

More annoying were the older musicians, who thought you were eager to hear their tales of when they were on the road, how great they used to be, and what famous musicians they “shared the stage with.”

I was a nice young kid, but path from the stage to the bar was a minefield of people wanting my attention. All I wanted to do was refresh my drink and go to the bathroom in the 15 minutes allotted. I soon learned I dare not sit down, or even slow down, as that always attracted someone who wanted to visit. Or, more accurately, to force you to listen to a litany of their medical conditions, politics, or how gifted their grandchildren were. They were like remoras on a shark.

I’ve carried with me this fear of getting trapped in a public place. On this recent experience I was cornered by a person who started by asking questions about a piece of equipment I carried. (That, by the way, is a favorite tactic–ask you a question, then use it as a launching pad for their lecture.) He soon was off on a TED talk on that entire field of engineering. I had carelessly left myself with no lines of escape. I considered faking an injury or pretending my phone was buzzing, but in the end I panicked, and just rudely walked away.

I’m usually more careful in social situations. One trick I’ve learned is to always carry my camera. That way I can politely excuse myself on the pretense of needing to take a photo

Now by writing this, I realize I risk coming across to readers as a pompous boor, too full of myself to suffer fools. The reality is exactly the opposite. I love to listen to people. As a columnist, listening is the first and most important step to writing. But that type of listening is active listening. I am engaged in a two-way conversation, genuinely seeking information about a specific topic or theme. And I am not in a social situation where I’m trying to enjoy a performance or meet new people.

The type of conversation I abhor are monologues where it wouldn’t matter if I were present or not. A cardboard cutout of me would serve as a suitable companion. (Note to self: bring a cardboard cutout to next outing.)

To help others avoid being trapped in a social situation, I’ve compiled a list of opening lines that serve to warn you of impending monologues:

“Have you seen this movie…?”

“Do you know James Jinglemeyer Von Happenstance…?”

“I’m writing a book…”

“I want to show you these videos of a project I’m working on…”

“Have you ever tried essential oils…?”

“I’ve stopped eating gluten…”

I’m sure you can think of others.

In the end, I have only one social fear greater than being trapped in a one-sided conversation.

It is that I am the person trapping someone else.