Church coffee time. The time in between the church service and Sunday school, when people stand around with watery coffee and chit chat. A chance to fellowship with believers, learn what’s going on in each other’s lives, catch up, and generally be friendly, encouraging, and supportive. What could possibly go wrong?
It’s not the people I’m talking to that are the problem (usually). Most of the time people are kind, and interested, and caring. The major problem is that I am shy and not great at small talk. The whole situation makes me feel panicky. I know rationally that there is nothing to feel panicked about, but that's never stopped me before. And the fact of the matter is that small talk situations make me nervous.
Even more so at church coffee time, because essentially you are attending an early morning cocktail party with no booze. I suppose the social lubrication is supposed to be supplied by the Holy Spirit, but as one of the frozen chosen, sociability has never been one of my spiritual gifts.
Over time I have learned a number of strategies to help me through this trying time. If you also lack the spiritual gift of gab, maybe these can help:
1. Come in a group. The worst times I’ve had with church coffee time were when I was single and attending church alone. I felt like my options were desperately glomming onto people or drinking my coffee in the corner like a loser alone. When you come in a group or with your family you always have a posse to fall back upon.
2. Desperately glom onto someone. I usually try to get into an actual conversation with one person, and make that conversation last all the way until Sunday school. That way I avoid the awkward time when you’re prowling around and looking for your next victim/person to encourage. The good news is that everyone is a Christian so even if they are annoyed by you they have to forgive you.
3. Hide in the bathroom. This is a legit strategy that I have utilized MANY times. When you can no longer handle socializing, the bathroom is a great way to recoup. Hiding in your car also works.
4. Pop a (prescribed) Xanax. I have totally done this.
5. Embrace the superficial. One time I knew a woman who decided that she no longer wanted to have superficial conversations at church, like when women all stand around and compliment each others’ outfits. I’m pretty sure I never spoke to her again. Not intentionally, but because superficial comments, about outfits and the weather, are the ways we start conversations. For more on why weather talk and outfit complimenting are so important, see Appendix A.
6. Realize that people really do want to talk with you. This is hard for me, because I’m shy and all people intimidate me and also my natural assumption is that people want to hurt me. But I need to remember that most people at church really are nice, and they don’t want me to be lonely or miserable. They want to help.
7. Find a lonely person. Really the best way to do this would be to go stall to stall in the bathroom and find out who else is hiding in there, but that is not socially acceptable, so instead you need to keep your eyes peeled for people in the corner drinking coffee by themselves. They’re probably looking for someone to glom onto, and you need someone to glom onto, so you can really help one another out.
8. Talk to a baby. They’re super nonjudgmental. It’s also good to compliment families on the good behavior of the kids in church. It will be very encouraging to the parents and also they will love you.
9. Lower your expectations. I think one of my biggest problems is that I fervently believe in everything that church coffee time is supposed to be. I believe the members of the body of the Christ are supposed to love and encourage one another. I take that belief a little too far and also believe that I am supposed to be best friends with everyone in my church and be actively praying for and supporting all of them. And all of my conversations should be deeply personal, edifying, and veritable rays of sunshine.
It’s kind of a lot, and even more so when I realize I’m dumping all those expectations onto a half-hour, once a week, early morning cocktail party with no cocktails. So I’m trying to adjust. I still believe that people in the church should support one another, but I realize I personally cannot support everyone, and that’s ok! That’s why there’s lots of other people!
Sometimes I also feel guilty because I am not running up to greet all the new people (see: shyness). But another great benefit of lots of people is that plenty of them are gregarious and LOVE to welcome new people. They can do that, and I will be patiently waiting to find the shy ones who need someone to glom onto. I am very glommable. And eventually I will invite them over to my house for actual cocktails and a chance to talk while sitting. Because that IS my spiritual gift.
10. Just go home. Some days, church coffee time is more than you can handle, and that’s fine. Go home and take a nap knowing that there will be other Sundays where you do connect and encourage others.
Church coffee time isn’t always easy, but I have met people and deepened relationships during that time. I just always have to remember that Rome wasn’t built in a day. I do my best to R-E-L-A-X, breathe deep, and love people with the best superficial conversation I’ve got that day. (And good news! Yesterday was actually a really good day! So appreciate the good ones when they come and make sure your Xanax prescription is filled up for the days that they don’t).
APPENDIX A: WHY YOU SHOULD TALK ABOUT THE WEATHER AND CLOTHES
Many years after I met the woman who gave up superficial conversation, I read a book that explained why that was a bad idea. It’s called Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour by Kate Fox. It’s a sociological study of England, but many of the observations apply to America.
Fox explains that the English (and Americans) talk about the weather, not because the weather is so inherently fascinating, but because they are ritual conversation starters. It’s hard to just go at someone with a deep question, so you start with the weather. Fox writes:
My research has convinced me that….our conversations about the weather are not really about the weather at all: English weather-speak is a form of code, evolved to help us overcome our natural reserve and actually talk to each other. Everyone knows, for example, that “Nice day, isn;t it?, “Ooh, isn’t it cold?, “Still raining, eh?” and other variations on the theme are not requests for meteorological data: they are ritual greetings, conversation starters or default “fillers.” In other words, English weather-speak is a form of “grooming talk”--the human equivalent of what is known as “social grooming” among our primate cousins, where they spend hours grooming each other’s fur, even when they are perfectly clean, as means of social bonding. (26)
This works great. The only problem is that in Southern California we don’t have an awful lot of weather to talk about. So instead we talk about...surfing? All the movie stars we've run into? I'm not really sure.
Complimenting outfits plays a similar role (mostly for women): “English female bonding-talk often starts with a ritual exchange of compliments” (53). American women definitely do that as well. It’s a way to be appreciative and encouraging about something very straightforward, and might lead to further conversation about tastes or styles or stores.
So when you are standing around talking about the weather or complimenting someone’s shoes, you are doing far more than talking about superficial things. You’re social bonding!