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Diary of an Anxious Cook: On Talking to People

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I know this bartender (and by know I mean encounter occasionally when I stop by the restaurant she works at) who may be one of the most genuine human beings I’ve ever met. At this restaurant in question I am almost always sitting alone at the bar, writing or reading, and I can’t help but overhear nearby conversations. The fellow patrons at this institution are a unique breed. Nerdy loners, obliviously dopey couples, wine lushes, bored housewives – this place attracts them all.

Often I will over hear a comment or request that makes me internally groan. As a former waitress I am very familiar with the: “we’re ready-wait no we’re not-yes we are-what are you having” conversation; the complaints that have no solution but just need to aired; and the conversational succubus who keeps you from your work with their endless rants on mid-century artwork and current politics.

So when I see or hear one of these types of situation manifest, I immediately feel a sense of solidarity and seek to exchange an eye roll with the poor wait staff held hostage. Not with this woman. She engages with even the most obnoxious customers with the most caring and sincere responses. She’s clearly not faking it, and appears to enjoy the conversations she has with customers. She’s relaxed and funny, never overly cheerful. She doesn’t seek to impress or astound, just listen and respond with what she’s really thinking at that moment. This amazes me.

I consider myself a helpful and kind person. I work in an industry that requires a high degree of interaction with people, as well as constant problem solving and frequent difficult conversations. A high value is placed on impeccable customer service (a term I despise in the context of higher education but still understand its philosophy) and I seek to fulfill this goal to the best of my ability each day.

But still – I struggle to be my most genuine self in these interactions. Unlike the bartender, although I am helpful, patient, and kind, I struggle to be real. I feel myself speak in a false tone, peppy and overly considerate, and despite an awareness of this I can’t seem to turn it off. I mean every word I say to students, and I find the opportunity to assist someone in a time in need rewarding in many ways, but still – my words seem just a pitch too high to be authentically me.

My tone softens, however, when the conversation turns to food. Suddenly my words flow seamlessly, and my questions come without hesitation. I lose my self-conscious affectation and I am able to immerse myself in the conversation. Whether the discussion is about how to cook rice, regional differences in spices, or the food they most miss from home, I find myself at ease and engaged. Like the bartender, I am not putting on a show or overly anxious about the other person’s reaction. I am myself, and in being so I allow others to do the same.

Whether I’ll ever be able to transfer this relaxed quality to other aspects of my work and personal interactions is a question for a therapist, not a blog post. But the moral of this is if nothing else, I know I have food. I don’t, in the moment, particularly care if you are vegan, paleo, carbophobic or meat obsessed. In the big picture it doesn’t matter that I share your particular food passion only that you have one. As long as you do, I know I can be myself around you. In these moments I find myself, and I think, find a little more of you too.

So if you’re ever engaged in an awkward conversation with me, just ask me what I made for dinner last night. I promise I’ll return the favor.

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