The other day, I was on the phone with my friend from undergrad, S. I was telling S about a recent dinner party I had gone to. I had not known most of the people invited to the party too well. So the only times I had opened my mouth was to put some food into it. S was amazed. "You are kidding me!" she exclaimed "You did not open your mouth to talk? All the times I have been with you, I have found it hard to shut you up!"
Ah, there-in lies the difference. While I am very garrulous with people I know very well or when I am talking with people on a one-on-one basis, putting me in a room with more than two people who I either don't know or I am not comfortable with is the most surefire way of shutting me up.
I have always been one of those shy people. I used to hate drawing any kind of attention to myself. I used to recede into the corner of any crowd. In class, I hardly ever volunteered answers (even if I knew them) unless I was called upon. I preferred to keep my thoughts to myself for fear of being ridiculed. Basically, the shy-people works. You can get some understanding of exactly how shy I was when I tell you that, to this day, most of my sneezes are either completely soundless (really) or almost inaudible. You see, I was so embarassed about the attention my sneeze could draw to me if it got any louder that I somehow managed to quell it!
Of course, in smaller groups, consisting of people I knew well, I had a field day. In order to make up for all the silence otherwise, I guess I did more than my share of talking then! Obviously, my friends saw me in those situations the most and refused to believe I had a different side to me at all!
Anyways, given my aversion to speaking in public, all through school, as much as possible, I tried to avoid any activity which involved standing up in front of a crowd. I would have become a total introvert if not for two things: 1. In the age-old tradition of opposites attract, I always had more out-going friends who involved me in all their activities 2. I was good at studies. Since teachers usually love students who score well, I was pulled into many activities even without volunteering! Net-net, I did not miss out too much on account of being too timid to speak up. Still, public-speaking was one domain where I absolutely refused to put my foot into.
Then, when I was in ninth standard, my banker dad got transferred to the small town of K in Tamilnadu. I joined a convent school there. I caused quite a stir as the Madras-girl (hahahahah). To the residents of small-town K, Madras (it was just recently beginning to be called Chennai) was the Big Bad City :-)! Anyways, life went on. I was finally learning to speak up a little - had to keep up the hep (!?!) Madras-girl image you see ;-). Everything was going on hunky-dory and life was a bed of roses, so to speak.
Till, one fine day, I was called by the headmistress (or HM Sister as we called the bespectacled nun) who told me casually that I was to represent the school in the town-wide public-speaking contest. What!?! When I recovered from the shock, I hurriedly told her that I had never participated in a speaking competition before and that I was sure that I would be very bad at it.
HM Sister dismissed my arguments. "Your spoken English is so good," she said. "How can you not be good at public-speaking?" Hahaha! If only she knew. So, after I had hurriedly written up something on the proposed topic with mom's help and mugged it, off I marched to the HM Sister's office (this competition being town-wide and all, HM Sister wanted to oversee my efforts herself), quaking in my shoes, to present the speech.
Once there, HM Sister gave me the signal to start. So there I stood in the office, reeling off the words from memory, without taking my eyes off my shoe laces for even a second. I am sure any parrot would have been proud of my recital powers. I had zoomed somewhere into the second paragraph before HM Sister could get my attention and make me stop. I looked up and saw HM Sister staring at me with dismay. She finally realized what she was up against. Ha, now I would be let off.
Early celebrations I guess. Turns out nuns are made of sterner stuff. With an effort, she said that I was not bad (yeah, right) but I needed a little coaching. So for the next couple of weeks, till the competition, HM sister with the help of other teachers, told me how not to stare at the ground and instead look at the audience while speaking. And how full-stops and commas were there in sentences for a reason. About how to modulate my voice so that I would not sound like a flat note. In short, everything except how I could walk up in front of crowd and still not lose my voice.
D-day finally arrived. We students were taken to the venue from the school. My parents promised to arrive directly at the venue to watch me in action. My turn was somewhat towards the end. We had arrived early as the members of the dance-team needed time to dress up. I was having fun watching all the dancers get made up. However, as the time of competition approached and I saw the huge crowds, I began having panic attacks. Would they throw me out of my school if I turned from the stage and fled? And then, to add to my misery, I was told that my spot had been advanced. Oh well, at least the torture would be over faster.
The speech competition began. I watched the other speakers with a sort of detached sensation. Finally, my turn. I climbed up the steps to the stage, my knees quivering. I saw the huge crowd and my voice stuck in my throat. As they adjusted the mike, I had hopeful visions of the earth opening up and swallowing me. Finally, I had to begin talking.
And I started. Then, something strange happened. I was no longer on the stage. Instead I was in a huge classroom. I was the expert on the topic I was talking about. The audience depended on me to do a good job of explaining it to them. I spoke confidently without any sign of nervousness. And I went on and on.
Finally, I finished and with a sigh of relief (all my nervousness returned as soon as I stepped away from the mike) got down from the stage. I had done it! I couldn't believe it - but yes, I had participated in a public-speaking competition! Miracles would never cease. As if one miracle was not enough, I actually won the third place in the competition too :-D.
After that, I participated in other public speaking contests too. I was amazed to find that for someone so intimidated about talking in a crowd, I was not too bad talking to a crowd. So, that is how my dear school brought out a talent (if you can call it that) that I never knew I possessed. I am grateful!
Anyways, given my other talent of self-analyzing, I soon figured out that I am comfortable speaking in a crowd of strangers, as long as I am confident of what I am talking about. So work-related presentations are a total breeze usually. But work related meetings result in me usually having a stuffed-frog look as I analyze and re-analyze whether i should state my opinion or not (what will others think). Similarly, polite conversations with a bunch of strangers also finds me sporting the silent-as-a-tomb avatar (what if I say something dumb) as I keep waiting for a quote-worthy sentence to pop into my head. People I know well, of course, don't care (I think ;-)) even if I talk nonsense so I can always talk nineteen-to-a-dozen with them.
These days, I am making a conscious effort to not be quite so self-conscious. I think I should stop placing so much value on other people's opinion of me. Like I read somewhere: Don't worry over what other people are thinking about you. They're too busy worrying over what you are thinking about them :-D. However, I am eons away from reaching my goal. Wish me luck :-)!