After years of hating people, Tom Matlack is ready to start connecting.
I often find myself in rooms full of a veritable sea of people these days. My wife is a very active philanthropist who works on issues for places such as the Perkins School for the Blind and Massachusetts General Hospital for Children. What this means for me is small talk, not my native tongue. We also have a constantly growing group of adult friends with whom we go to concerts, dinner, and even trips. These more intimate gatherings require small talk on steroids.
As a way to deflect my own social anxiety I developed a party trick. I announce to a table of perfectly kind human beings, “I really don’t like people.” It always gets a laugh, in part because I like to whip it out at a moment of laughter when we all are having a lot more fun than the statement seemed to indicate. I also think it touched the universal nerve that socializing, particularly for guys, can be taxing to our lizard brains. We’d be just as happy to crawl back into our caves with a remote and a beer.
But then it occurred to me, with a little help from my lovely spouse, that my joke was neither funny nor true. I love people. In fact, I crave human connection. They just scare the shit out of me. And always have.
On personality tests I always come up an introvert—and a nasty one at that. My horoscope sign is Sagittarius, the archer who is half-man and half-horse. Us Sags are known to be tactless and restless despite our freedom-loving good humor.
On the Myers-Briggs, which looks at four key attributes, I am an Introverted-Intuitive-Thinking-Judging, or an INTJ, type. I think that means I have refined the art of retreating to my study to read a book and take a nap into an exquisite art form.
In terms of the enneagram, which breaks people down into nine types, I am a four, otherwise known as the individualist or the tragic romantic. Other fours, according to the enneagram website, are Prince, Thomas Merton, and J.D. Salinger—all men of great artistic ability (unlike me) who looked for deeper meaning in a solitary manner, sometimes fanatically so.
I’ve never been much of a joiner. I went to public high school in Western Massachusetts and like to say that I only heard about my prom in the weight room after it was over. That is stretching the truth, but the reality is that going to my prom, or on a real date, was well outside my social ability. I went to a few high school parties, but it was the rough equivalent of passing gallstones. Some people are born blind, I figured, I was just born hating people, or at least feeling profoundly uncomfortable in their presence.
In high school and college, I used swimming, marathon running, and rowing—the sports that required minimal skill and maximum pain—to cope. If I couldn’t talk to you at a party, I was going to beat your head in on the roads or on the river. Take that, you MF’er, was my thought.
I also learned to drink to excess. The beauty of being drunk is that hatred, or fear, of people disappears as the anesthesia takes hold. You can do whatever you want in any situation because, mentally, you’re no longer there. You’re somewhere in the heavens, watching this drunken fool talk to girls, dance like a crazy person, and break stuff just for fun.
After college, I took my athletic mindset—no skill other than inflicting maximum pain on the opposite team—to the business world, and it paid off financially. My only problem was I was still the same miserable SOB.
Just to give you some perspective, I recently went back to my 25th college reunion. I realized I have been fighting these demons now for decades. I have three kids (17, 15, and six) and have, on paper, a damn good life. But the “I hate people“ mantra is something I was using as a party joke as recently as this March on vacation with our dearest friends.
My joke is only funny because it is so clearly at odds with the learned behavior I’ve gutted out over these last years: teaching myself to make small talk, to find that one person in a crowd who has an amazing story to share, and to laugh until it hurts with guests at even the most mundane event. Over time, I’ve come to see that while I might complain about coming out of the darkness of my cave, the sunlight of human interaction is actually no less essential to my being than water or food.
I am dying for a deeper level of human contact. It’s not like I didn’t want friends in high school. I just had absolutely no idea how to make them or to begin to fit in. These days I don’t drink and haven’t for almost 15 years. I’m often around people getting intoxicated and a bit silly. I can use that as an excuse to check out too, wandering off into unfair judgment of friends who hold their liquor a lot better than I ever did. But that’s really no better than the hypocrisy of my running joke.
No, the person I have always hated is myself. And instead of being honest about that I just pointed my finger at you: the kids going to the prom without me, the college kids who joined the fraternity, the “in” crowd at the bar, even the sea of humanity I meet on a regular basis, working to cure cancer, among other things. And my fear has been that you would find out the truth about me.
But I think it’s time for me to put that vice down with the rest of them and join the human race. Self-hatred is every bit as much a waste of time as hatred of others. I’m not perfect, but I have arms and legs and can, when I want to be, be charming according to my wife. The point, however, is that when I actually take the time to get to know these people, I find out that we’re not different at all. Even the most stoic guy I know has shared stories with me that brought tears to my eyes and made me feel less alone.
Yes, that’s me making a fool of myself…