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By nature, I’m not a wallflower. In fact, I like to pick wallflowers.
In any social situation I seek them out. Over the years some of the best conversations I’ve had at parties have been with people who have spoken to no one else.
Seeing someone standing alone in an active party makes me sad, so I engage them. It’s rare that I attend a social event and don’t talk to at least one wallflower. For a long time I thought I was doing both of us a favor, them because they must feel less awkward not standing alone, and me because wallflowers are often the most interesting people I speak to at a party.
A few years ago I discovered that maybe the dynamics weren’t so simple. Maybe I was overestimating how awkward wallflowers feel.
I happened to be speaking to my landlady, a woman in her 60s who had “recently” learned to tango.
Tango is a very regimented affair, especially in Argentina. At a milonga (a tango dance event) women stand on the periphery of the dance floor and the men pick their partners. Pretty women may get more than their fair share of dances, but the ones who see the most action are the women who dance well. My landlady told me that she’d been going to milongas for two years before she was asked to dance. She was not ugly, but she was new, and nobody knew how well she could dance.
One day, someone asked her to dance, and she said that it was one of the most exciting events of her life. Once other men saw her dance, she stopped being a permanent wallflower. Of course I asked her if she was upset that she’d had to stand by herself for two years and she said: “No, that’s the way it works. And I watched and learned a lot.”
So wallflowers aren’t necessarily shy. Like my landlady, some of them are curious. Watching party dynamics, they learn a lot. And like my landlady, some of them get a great thrill when they are engaged.
Last night I decided to be my landlady. I decided to be a wallflower.
I went to Toucan’s virtual social which is heavily attended by non-company people. Most attendees don’t know each other. Instead of engaging with solos, or joining groups full of strangers, I just stood there, by myself.
I could see conversations around me, all very active. At first I felt strange, but before long I felt calm and the initial awkwardness disappeared. I watched the party, for almost 20 minutes.
Finally, another wallflower-picker joined me. He was wonderfully entertaining and we got on like a house on fire. Within 10 minutes another person joined us. Before long we were five, and I’d forgotten all about being a wallflower.
Since I work at Toucan people love to tell me how crappy virtual events are. Mostly, I agree with them. I love physical presence. Online I miss smells more than anything. I also miss physical quirks that are invisible on video. But I’m grateful that sometimes virtual events teach me things I might not have been able to learn in person.
Being a wallflower online is fun. I didn’t expect that. I’m going to try it again. And as soon as this viral crisis is over, I’m going to do it in real life.
Maybe someone will ask me to dance.
Rabbi, driving instructor, and acrobat in parallel universes.
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