Help me not be perpetually awkward
August 7, 2013 6:42 PM   Subscribe

I have a thing about eating with people. Specifically, one-on-one meals where we're sitting across from each other the whole time. I already find eating in public kind of weird, but then having to make eye contact and talk while doing it compounds the problem and makes me squirmingly awkward, even with close friends. Is there anything I can do to shake this weird anxiety?

I've haven't been bothered much by this until now, because it's easy with friends to just throw a big group dinner together, or if we are one-on-one, my friends already know I'm pretty awkward and/or are awkward themselves. I'm actually fine with eye contact and talking to people in all other situations except eating. But I've started dating this hella cute guy who likes to take me out a lot, and each time we have to sit opposite each other at the table I totally freeze. It's like I just can't coordinate eating *and* making eye contact *and* focusing on the conversation all at the same time, so conversation is kind of stilted and we have a lot of weird silences. And then I find the whole business of waiting until you've finished chewing to speak really awkward as well, so sometimes I forget and start talking with food in my mouth (ew). I feel like I'm making him uncomfortable even though in other situations we get along great.

We're going out again tonight and I'm pretty nervous, so I welcome any tips on managing this. Added difficulty: I've lost my voice from something that's going around, so I feel like tonight is going to be doubly difficult...
posted by cucumber patch to Human Relations (17 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
First step: Practice listening while eating. Find a good, patient friend with whom you can explain what you want to do and ask them to tell you a nice long story while you nod and eat and occasionally chime in with some comment. "Oh? That's nice! Tell me more."

Get into that rhythm, and then see if you can then work your way into telling a story yourself. Practice the story on your own, then on your own with some food in front of you, and then with that same friend.

Don't overthink it too much. I tend to spend way too much time eating, and I have friends who spend way too little time paying any attention to their food when we go out, and sometimes, that leaves me with an empty plate while they haven't even cut into their meat yet. It's okay, it's just food.
posted by xingcat at 6:47 PM on August 7, 2013

I don't feel this as strongly as you, but I do really dislike the one-on-one, sitting-across-from-the-other-person date-meals. And there's actually a surprisingly easy fix: Sit at the bar! Then you're next to each other, which is - perhaps counterintuitively - a much more comfortable way to to actually spend time with someone, because it makes the silences so much less awkward. This does require you to try to go to places that have bars to sit at; where I live that's pretty easy. But as Weird Quirks go, "prefers to sit at bars" is pretty low on the Weirdness scale, and it reduces the annoying-ness of two-people-eating a lot.
posted by Tomorrowful at 6:48 PM on August 7, 2013 [9 favorites]

Yes, seconding "eat at the bar" whenever you can. I'm devoted to it, it resolves so much.
posted by thinkpiece at 6:56 PM on August 7, 2013

When I go out to eat with my wife and we are seated at a table, we sit perpendicular to each other so that we share a corner. Perhaps you could try that?

Silences are fine. Some people feel the need to jabber about anything just because they cannot stand the silence. I think it is fine.

Lastly, I am sure you will get suggestions to sit on the same side of a booth. I will vote against that because now the two of you are uncomfortably starting into my eyes instead of each others.
posted by Tanizaki at 7:03 PM on August 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

Fess up to it, too. I had an otherwise-awesome first date with my current husband that almost ended in disaster due to sitting across the table panickiness. Don't make your dining companions wonder whether you secretly want to be rid of them as fast as possible, especially since the problem isn't actually them.
posted by deludingmyself at 7:08 PM on August 7, 2013

Sitting across from another person and watching them chew their disgusting cud like a starved beast is just such a weird and revolting setup that I can't believe the Inqusition didn't flay it and then burn it alive. Tomorrowful's suggestion is great: sit side-by-side. Or at an angle if you must take a table.
posted by turbid dahlia at 7:19 PM on August 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

Oh, wow, you are not alone! And for some reason, every man in my town wants to take me out for sushi! Those rolls take some time to chew!

Whenever I can, I try to get him to sit next to me. I will say it's because it is so noisy where we are that it's the only way I can hear him or that I want to be closer to him but the real reason is that I feel totally awkward having someone looking at me while I eat.

One time, I was more nervous than most dates, I had him sit next to me, at a sushi bar. He still continued to face me and try and talk. I pulled out my phone with the excuse that I needed to make sure that my babysitter hadn't called (when really I just needed a nervous excuse to look away for a moment) and a panty liner came out with my phone. It fell on the counter, between our plates. I was mortified. I could barely talk for the rest of the evening. We dated for two years after that.

So, my advice, when you are feeling kind of awkward, just imagine a feminine hygiene product flying out of your purse at your date and landing on the table and know that it could be worse.
posted by myselfasme at 7:27 PM on August 7, 2013 [8 favorites]

When I go out to eat with my wife and we are seated at a table, we sit perpendicular to each other so that we share a corner.

YES THIS. Corner-sharing is far, far superior to staring at one another across a table like interrogator and subject. It's more intimate and you are not by default staring at their face while they chew.
posted by elizardbits at 7:54 PM on August 7, 2013 [4 favorites]

I feel like I've said this a lot on Ask, but I just want to reiterate: not all silences are awkward! I mean, when I'm out with the people I'm closest to, we don't necessarily talk that much unless we have something to say. Granted, this is different with someone new, but remember: just because neither of you are talking doesn't mean something's gone wrong.

As for the wanting-to-speak-with-your-mouth-full thing, maybe just try to take small bites? So you can get the food down faster when you want to speak? But maybe that will just make you more self-conscious about the eating in general, in which case it's probably not worth it.

I agree about eating at the bar, and also why don't you suggest/organize non-food or food-lite dates?

I think a LOT of people are a little weird about this and a little mismatched in terms of how fast they eat and how much they talk and how much eye contact they make. It's like it's normal to be weird. Just try not to think about it too much. I mean, based on your description, it's basically impossible to tell whether you're actually having weird awkward meals with this guy or if you're feeling anxious about it and projecting your discomfort onto him.
posted by mskyle at 7:56 PM on August 7, 2013

For tonight, tell him prior to meeting or as soon as you meet that you've lost your voice and he'll have to carry the conversation load. Then just focus on eating, and listening to him talk. There will be no pressure on you to speak, just make eye contact, smile and nod. Bonus - you can do these things with your mouth full!

He might not be such a chatterbox that he talks all night. That's OK. What you will be doing is eating in companionable silence.

For the future, I would practice talking-eating-talking in turn. So talk while you're looking at the menu & waiting for food. Make the most of it - talk, eye contact, flirt. Then when the food comes, say the equivalent of "can't talk, eating" and just eat for a bit.

I find the whole business of waiting until you've finished chewing to speak really awkward as well
Practice (in private!) the mime of "I've just put a mouthful of food into my mouth, you'll have to wait until I've swallowed for a response". I know that the time it takes to chew can feel like eons while the other person waits for an answer, but trust me - he'd rather wait than see your semi-chewed food.

Once you've eaten a bit, put your cutlery down and just talk. At a natural break in the conversation, start eating again. As long as you're not gulping the food, it's probably good for your digestion or something anyway.

Also, you've gone out lots and he continues to want to see you. I doubt the "awkwardness" is a big deal to him (if he's even noticed).
posted by pianissimo at 8:01 PM on August 7, 2013

Yup, came in to suggest sitting side-by-side or at an angle, it's much less stressful that way.
posted by windykites at 8:03 PM on August 7, 2013

I sit side-by-side with my dates almost always. It's fun and novel. I just tell them I like to sit side-by-side better because it's easier to have a conversation. Sometimes an eyebrow is raised,sometimes they think it's cute. no one has said no.

From a psychology perspective, sitting directly across from someone is confrontational - that's why that eye contact can feel weird. But sitting next to someone makes you both feel like your on the same team.
posted by jander03 at 10:23 PM on August 7, 2013

Side-by-side is a lot of fun. Highly recommended in general. Both people look out at the same thing, so there's also the opportunity for new conversations. And also allows for a bit of flirty touching if that's in the cards.
posted by nickrussell at 2:30 AM on August 8, 2013

OMG Yes. I love eating and I love talking but goddammit not at the same time!

I think you should just fess up about being bad at talking while eating. Have a laugh about it, maybe he feels the same way! Assure him you're fine listening to him and nodding but won't be saying a lot until dinner's done.
posted by Omnomnom at 3:29 AM on August 8, 2013

I had absolutely no idea this was a thing. Please please please let him know about it, that you are working on it, and it's got nothing to do with him.

Best treatment for fear: exposure until you are desensitized. Get a friend to have lunch with you as often as possible until it bothered you less, or you can disguise it less.
posted by Neekee at 6:30 AM on August 8, 2013

I think what you're describing isn't really that awkward! I don't mind if someone is so excited to talk to me that they forget to stop between bites; it's actually kind of flattering (as long as they aren't taking huge bites and stuffing their mouth with food). And you don't always have to be looking your date directly in the eye while talking to them during dinner. Since I deal with anxiety myself I know that it's not as simple as saying "oh, don't be anxious", but I can tell you that you are probably overestimating the degree to which you are making your date uncomfortable.
posted by capricorn at 8:03 AM on August 8, 2013

Get a booth. Try to let him lead walking toward the booth, let him sit down first, then sit next to him.

I am sure you will get suggestions to sit on the same side of a booth. I will vote against that because now the two of you are uncomfortably starting into my eyes instead of each others.

Tanizaki, you going along on the OP's date is going to result in uncomfortable stares no matter where you sit.
posted by yohko at 2:44 PM on August 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

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