I am not a forceful conversationalist. I’ve always preferred it if other people would take the lead. Whenever many other people are talking — especially when they’re talking loudly — I’ll never raise my volume and wedge myself into the discussion. I’ll be quiet, and wait it out, on the assumption that if anybody has any interest in what I think, they’ll ask me directly. Of course they never do, because human interaction doesn’t work like that. The person who is loudest doesn’t defer to those who are quieter than he is. As he sees it, our softness signals acquiescence to his superior wisdom. He just gets louder.
This has always made me useless in meetings. It makes me extra hopeless on video chat sessions. Zoom reinforces my feeling that nobody is listening to me when I talk — and that, chances are, they can’t even hear me. My voice is soft, and my manner isn’t imposing in the slightest. The camera makes me appear smaller and more fragile than I even imagine myself to be, and I think of myself as rather mousy to begin with. Part of the reason why people like me take to the stage to make music is because we know we’ll be able to avail ourselves of spotlights and amplification systems. We’ll be able to say what we need to say in a way that we can never manage to do in daily life. We can stop the world long enough to express something complicated.
Stages, alas, are off-limits to us right now. Video chats, and other forms of camera-based expression, are proliferating. Zoom demands that I cultivate social skills that are foreign to me. This makes me no different from millions of others who are learning, on the fly, new strategies of interaction on a planet where face-to-face contact is discouraged. But I know from experience that I don’t adapt very well. If I were a biological weapon, I’d never make it out of the lab.
Yesterday I was a participant on a video conference held by a city publication that I’ve done some writing for. Only I wasn’t; not really. A lot of talking happened, but none of it was done by me. During story meetings of all kinds, I’ve always had a hard time inserting myself. Zoom reduces me to a small spectacled face, in a box, in a Siberian corner of a crowded grid. Never am I able to speak without somebody else speaking at the same time, invariably louder that I do. The terrible truth is that I had nothing much to contribute anyway. The galleries are closed. I can’t encourage people to crowd into a basement club to hear music. I’ve already done the story about how arts organizations are coping with our new realities. The answer: they’re coping badly. How could it be anything other than that? When could we possibly expect a different answer?
Last year I made a decision to pay closer attention to the public culture of the city. Things that inspire me always compel me to write, and after months of nothing but worry, I felt like I could use a few good prompts. Beyond that, I wanted to find a way to engage with my neighbors in a way that wouldn’t be misunderstood, and on terms that I might establish myself. I imagine that desire is common among writers who aspire to overcome introverted dispositions and develop some measure of public spirit. Anyway, the important part was that it was working: arts organizers were amused and maybe even entertained by my reactions. It would be a wild overstatement to say that I’d gained anybody’s trust, because that takes a long time, and rightfully so. But I’d opened a conversation, and done it in a manner that was sustainable for me. It was a step in the right direction. With public culture shut down, I’m going to need to come up with an alternate strategy for taking another step. Feels like a doozy, does it not?