Less than 1 month to go. Soon I will be boarding that trans-Atlantic flight and waiting with trepidation for a visa stamp at US Customs. I’m a fizzing cocktail of emotions: I have plans, dreams, fears and uncertainties. It will all pan out somehow, but I really don’t know what’s in store for me until I step onto American soil.
At once I am confident and terrified. I’ve gotten this far, I have enough faith in my skills to get through the PhD okay. On the other hand…I’m not sure how I’m going to cope with society.
It’s been a declining trend ever since I left university. My social circles have shrunk and become less diverse; I interact with fewer people on a daily basis. In Edinburgh with my freelance work I can go weeks without any significant social interactions occurring.
This is bad. I don’t think there was a point where I was ever a natural at socialising: for me it’s a learned skill. Like all things one learns, it can be unlearnt through a lack of practice. I am embarrassingly out of practice. In fact I think I’ve turned feral.
This week some uncouth wench in the bank attempted to make small-talk with me as she processed my cheque. I was affronted and alarmed in equal measures: how dare this woman think that I frequent this bank for anything other than monetary transactions? It’s moments like these when I realise I might have a problem.
The other thing I’m ludicrously out of practice with? Making an effort with my appearance. In fairness it doesn’t help that I have to go straight to a cleaning job each day: there’s no point in wearing nice clothes if you’re going to be crouching around toilets for consecutive hours. Given the time it takes to head back out to my home then return to my “living area”, I keep my work clothes on for the whole day.
…Except now I’m wearing scaffy clothes on my days off too. And I really need to wash my hair in, like, the next few weeks or so. Yesterday I got caught in a heavy downpour as I cycled into town in the morning. By the evening my trainers were smelling like a wet dog had died in them. The worst part? I wasn’t even ashamed of my fermenting shoes.
It’s moments like these that I question my suitability for (a) grad school (b) safe reintroduction into society.
Fortunately, I have a secret weapon. One underrated, powerful secret weapon that I use with impunity in the battle for making good impressions.
I can give a damn good handshake.
Not only is it “Good for a woman” but it is pretty good by male standards too.
The reason for my secret weapon? Rock climbing and Germans. Seriously. Going to Switzerland I discovered that while Swiss-Germans will merely try to dislocate your fingers when greeting you, German-Germans seek to pulverize bones. German women don’t mess around, either.
I know that my secret weapon is an actual thing (not a product of my imagination) when male academics give me that vigorous, blokey handshake.
Well, why is this such an Important Thing? If you’re meeting someone for the first time in a professional context, a handshake is either the first or the last thing you’ll do. That means either their first or last impression of you will be of that handshake. The fact that one professor left me with a weak one was a good clue that my interview hadn’t been successful. The fact that another professor bothered to give me one as I left indicated that I’d left a good impression. These things convey information. These things are tied in with how you view another person. These things matter.
Armed with the knowledge that I am capable of exhibiting forms of professionalism when I put an effort in, I need to start thinking about ways to make this more of a 24hr/day thing.
I need a new “business casual” wardrobe.
I need some top-of-the-range trainer de-odouriser.
I need to get back into the habit of washing my hair before it reaches the greaseball stage.
I need to go out of my way to initiate, respond to & sustain small-talk. Professional, personal, random chats in the queue at Starbucks. It all matters.
Re-integrating back into society will be a tall order…but that’s no reason to give up before I even start. There will be more on this later…