Alone at Dinner

A few years ago I was at a partner conference where I was the only representative from the company I worked for.  I already felt like an outsider.  It was the first time I had been at this conference, whereas everyone else seemed to have been there many times before, and also had multiple people from their company attend.  So from the beginning of the event, I was on my own.  I’m OK with this because I always travel alone, and I find myself in this situation quite often.  But I was getting a “New kid at summer camp” type of vibe.

I’m supposedly what’s called an extroverted introvert.  That means in a setting where I know everyone, I am very extroverted.  But in a situation such as this one, I resemble an introvert much more than any extrovert tendencies.  Throughout the week, I found myself either gravitating towards the same people or around people that I didn’t know at all. Since I’m in sales, I make a very concerted effort to reach out and get to know people I don’t know.  But this conference is a little different in that none of the attendees were from companies that would be interested in my company’s product offerings.  I don’t really have a reason to get to know them outside of just general curiosity, which ebbs and flows depending on my mood.

One night the event was to get together at a local charity organization and build a bike for underprivileged kids.  The teams would be arbitrarily made up of the table you were sitting at after you went through the buffet.  I had randomly selected a group with a few people I recognized, but by no means did I know anyone well.  As an introvert, I abhor any type of team event like this.  A group getting together to build something, with the object being “team building” always rubs me the wrong way.  It reminds me of “group projects” in college, where one person does all the work and the group gets credit.  I planned my exit.

The last night, there was a celebration dinner at a botanical garden.  Again, I knew no one but was able to work the crowd a little bit from person to person I knew at the company hosting the event.  As we went to dinner, I gravitated towards an open table, as is my way, and ended up being seated with one other person.  There were many more tables than people, so there were open seats, and I was at a table with a woman I had met earlier in the week, and we started talking.  So far it was really good – I enjoy one on one communication like this.  Once they brought dinner, the woman I sat with asked a few questions of the waiter to see if they had something that didn’t have tomatoes, as she was allergic.  Upon finding that there was nothing she could eat, she abruptly excused herself and announced that she would have to leave to go get something to eat.  Her being a rather large woman, I could see that she probably didn’t handle missing meals very well.

So there I was, in a room with a few hundred people, alone at a table, with my back to the rest of the room.  I was transported back to high school, sitting by myself because I wasn’t one of the cool kids.  There was an immediate wave of self-pity that came over me, no matter how irrational it was, it hit me.  Had I not been in a professional setting, it probably would have brought tears with it.  At that moment, all I had to do was get up, and find a table with an open seat.  I’m sure there was one.  But my introverted nature was already in full bloom at this point, freezing me to my spot.  I ate the strange, tomato-filled dinner by myself.  I listened to the speeches and general thanks at attending from my singular spot.

I hate that I lack the ability to break outside my shell, to reach out and be comfortable standing up, being singled out and moving forward.  It’s kind of crazy because had I had a role in the event and needed to speak that night, I would have gotten up and done my bit, without any trepidation.  But I probably would have still sat alone.  Had I known more people, I also probably would have still sat alone, because I enjoy being alone, but I wouldn’t have had the wave after wave of self-pity that I was feeling that night.  It’s always different when we choose our fate.

I’m always shocked at how we feel we’ve accomplished so much with our lives, but it takes one single small event to pull us right back to a time where we were still forming our thoughts and feelings, into a spot that brings out our fears and failures.  I was transported back to being a new student at a high school where everyone knew everyone else, except me.  I was 14 or 15 again, and the clear outsider, unable and unwilling to break out of my own limitations and free myself from being an introvert.  I wouldn’t change my introverted nature for anything.  It’s the key to being an introspective person, that alone time drives my thoughts and analysis of the world around me.  But that night, sitting alone, I was a teenage loaner again, awkward and uncomfortable, sad and lonely.  35 years later, I haven’t progressed at all.  I haven’t accomplished a single thing.  I just transported myself into the future.

I did finally talk to some people that night after dinner, and snapped out of my self-pity and went back into professional salesperson mode.  No harm, no foul.  But I learned a good lesson that night.  No matter how hard I try, no matter what I accomplish, I’m fundamentally the same person I was in high school. That’s a strange realization to have when you’re 51 years old.  I’m still analyzing how I feel about that, and what it means.  I know I’ve read that our personalities are generally formed by the time we’re 8 years old.  This experience would seem to support that finding.  I’m sure this is great for people who were popular and charming at 8 years old.  I was not either.  Charm can be learned, popularity is a fleeting thing, and not something I worry about generally.  But the next time I’m at an event, I will make sure I don’t fall into a group that has the potential of leaving me at a table by myself.  I’m comfortable with my introversion, but society still brands us as freaks.  Someone sitting alone amongst a room full of people must have a mental disorder, right?  That’s probably not far from the truth, because I can’t control how I feel about it, and I can’t seem to break out of the introversion mold unless I can convince myself there’s a valid reason to.  Social events are just not that meaningful to me, and again, no one there was going to buy my product or become a partner.  Next time, I’ll have to lie to myself and pretend that everyone is a potential partner and customer.  Then my salesman self will take over and I will be surrounded by people.  But that wears me down in a different way.

This was, of course, all pre-COVID. Fast forward two years, and it would be completely normal to be at a table by yourself. Others would have asked to join me, realizing that I must be someone who valued their distance. That’s true, but not for the reasons they’d be thinking. Introverts have gained some standing since 2020, but I fear that will fade with a vaccine. And I’m OK with that.

Before the dinner broke up, one person I know, the guy in charge of the whole event, spotted me and came over to speak to me.  We had a great conversation that ranged from music to work, and he and I have been known to engage in debates, as we’re politically different but intellectually similar.  While it was like being thrown a lifesaver from the deck of a ship, it also brought recognition of my failing.  He knew that I had sat there alone throughout dinner at that moment, and he tried to atone for the situation.  Then my dinner mate came back, having found alternate food, she brought it back to the table and started up where we had left off like nothing had happened.  Only my self-doubt had happened, and I wasn’t about to share that with anyone.

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