"The way you get to know yourself is by the expressions on other people's faces, because that's the only thing that you can see, unless you carry a mirror about. But if you keep saying 'I' and they're saying 'I,' you don't get much out of it. They're not really into you, or we, or they; they're into I. That makes conversation slow."
- Gil Scott-Heron
I can hardly bear to look at the group when I speak every morning at work. It's a meeting involving anywhere from 15-20 people, and we all talk about the stories we want to feature. When my turn to talk comes, looking around only exacerbates the shaking in my voice, the redness in my face and the awkward transitions. Some days are worse than others. No days are easy.
There are reasons that I can sing in front of a group of people at a karaoke bar with alacrity, or sell an events company over the phone to a complete stranger, or talk quite forcefully and colorfully in other circumstances (work and personal), yet cannot do so in this particular meeting with this particular group. I leave those aside for now.
The main issue is that sometimes, time slows down, every word echoes, my perspective shifts outside my head, and self-consciousness nearly overwhelms me. It makes me think of a friend who struggled with a serious stutter for most of his life. He learned tricks for hiding the stutter, which made him able to tell when other people were hiding one too.
"If somebody had a stutter, even if they sound totally normal, I could tell," he said.
"Really?" I said, a little skeptical.
"Absolutely," he replied.
Then one day I was sitting in a meeting with someone my team had met with a few times. I'd heard him speak before and never noticed anything. But this particular day, as he was talking, I realized it: He was a stutterer! From that moment, I couldn't process anything he was actually saying. Only the sheer accomplishment of his perfectly easygoing speech -- the way his pauses and breaths flowed over the stutter -- stood out. I was transfixed, and hoped he couldn't tell how closely I was watching him.
So this is probably the genesis of my anxiety: I know what I pick up on when other people are talking, so I shudder to think what others notice when I am forced to subject myself to scrutiny. If I allow myself to break the frame, even for a second, and think of what is actually happening in that moment -- that people are evaluating me, however mildly, and that their faces mask thoughts no one could know -- a small breakdown begins and I may as well have a stutter (not that there's anything wrong with that; I find some stutters quite appealing) for the amount of strife that results.
"That happens to me all the time," said another person on the topic. This person speaks a ton in public, is extremely self-assured, and is the last person you would ever think turns red-faced in a meeting for no good reason. The "all the time" part of his admission was probably added for my benefit. Still, it was soothing to hear. Meetings just lend themselves to UncMos for all of us.
Gil Scott-Heron is all too correct in his comment above. This is why so many people prefer e-mail these days.
Music: Piano Concerto No. 3