When I was a kid, it’s fair to say that my tomboy clothes and short hair contributed to a few “Excuse me, do you know this is actually the girls’ toilets?” moments. As a 10 year old, my response usually turned the awkwardness around on whoever had asked pretty quickly, so it never bothered me too much. Having said that, I grew my hair out not long afterwards, partly because I suppose I didn’t really like the situations my ‘boy hair’ created. My hair continues to cause trouble though. My hairdresser is lovely, but a number of slightly awkward social situations tend to arise whenever I get a haircut.
It all begins with the hair washing. They normally ask you if the water temperature is okay. I don’t know what’s so difficult about being honest here, but I would only admit the water was too hot if there was a genuine risk that my scalp could set on fire. It’s probably partly because my mind is on something else: the head massage (easily my favourite bit of the whole appointment). Is it weird to have my eyes open for the shampoo and conditioner but to close them for the massage? It really is relaxing, but I don’t want to unwind so much I let out a sigh of contentment. You are then led to your chair and asked if you would like a magazine to read. As I have discussed previously, I don’t like women’s magazines. However, having said no, I have little to do but stare at myself in the mirror for half an hour, which is not an attractive alternative. I also struggle when my lovely hairdresser decides that a good time to strike up conversation is whilst blowdrying my hair. You can only make so many educated guesses and requests to repeat the question without sounding like an idiot.
There are of course other situations where it’s difficult to hold a conversation. I’ve spent enough hours lying face down on a physio bed to know it is physically impossible to converse normally whilst being sporadically prodded in the back and winded. A back massage should only be accompanied by questions that are viably answered by a grunt. The dentist should also know better than to expect you to be able to enunciate properly with your mouth open abnormally wide and whilst attempting to avoid dribbling everywhere. The dentist makes me feel quite pathetic in general really. I usually cry when the hygienist starts poking around in my gums with a dagger (at least I’m pretty sure that’s what she is using) and you’re always made to feel inadequate about your toothbrushing skills however hard you’ve tried. I don’t even think they trust me to answer truthfully about whether I’ve been using floss. It’s all very demoralising.
Although I wouldn’t say I am bezzie mates with the hairdresser or the dentist, I do at least know them a bit. Social situations with ‘real’ strangers can also be a bit awkward. For example, the social conventions around meeting new people can be quite confusing. Is a handshake or a kiss on the cheek more appropriate? This is even more puzzling in Holland, where there can be up to three kisses involved in a greeting. With people you know, sometimes they will confuse things still further by only kissing twice. You don’t want to be caught going in for that third kiss if the other party is pulling away: it’s hard to back out of an unreturned pout with your dignity still intact.
Then there are people we just share a fleeting awkward moment with. There is no widely accepted method of passing somebody on a pavement when your paths are about to clash. This means we are faced with the left-right-left-right shimmy. Obviously in Britain this is followed by repeated, embarrassed apologies by both parties. Playing a team sport for most of my life means I’m pretty used to getting changed in the presence of others. I’m not an exhibitionist – but I’m not one of those people who attempts to put my entire outfit on under a towel. But it can still be a bit awkward when you make eye contact with someone at the same time as undoing your bra.
Much as I like to think I don’t waste much time worrying about what others think of me, I suppose most of the awkwardness in the scenarios described above ultimately comes from minor concerns about social acceptance and wanting to be seen as normal. Luckily though, most of the time these situations don’t linger long in the memory… and presumably (by which I mean hopefully) I’m not the only person out there who dribbles at the dentist or occasionally shakes hands with a bemused new acquaintance who was expecting a peck on the cheek.