Recently I heard that everyone is shy to some degree. I’m somewhere in the middle of this spectrum, not overly shy nor overly confident. As I’ve gotten older I’ve certainly become more confident than shy, but no one relishes going to a party where they are bound to know no one. No one except Other Chip, but more on him later.
The most embarrassing situation I ever found myself in due to shyness was at a conference in San Francisco in the late ’90s. At this early-ish point in my I.T. career I hadn’t yet been to many technical conferences. From a content standpoint I got a lot out of them: attending workshops and keynote sessions by experts in my field. Of course I also took advantage of the free meals, as being a new homeowner and raising a young family was sapping every nickel Amy and I could earn. The problem – for me – was that some of these free meals were planned for conference attendees to gather, “network,” and swap ideas and email addresses. You know, the stuff you’re supposed to do at an industry conference, and truthfully one of the key things that make these events worthwhile.
But these forced gatherings filled me with dread. I didn’t know anyone at the conference; I felt too young, too inexperienced, and I didn’t drink back then. (And let’s be honest, alcohol is the great defeater of shyness.) I felt the “I’m a fraud” feelings that most of us have at some point or another, especially early in our careers. I had a habit of grabbing the free food and scurrying back to my hotel room to eat it, like a squirrel with a nut up an oak. These meals were typically continental breakfasts of croissants and fruit, or box lunches: easily portable items, tailor-made for stealing away with. Sometimes I saw fellow shy folk, clutching their own plates on the way back to their rooms instead of sitting in the designated eating sections. It was never clear if you were supposed to do this or not. Were we stealing food, or dishes?
One day at this conference they had a “regional lunch,” where we were supposed to line up, serve ourselves from the buffet, and sit in assigned areas that corresponded with our regions, like West Coast, East Coast, International, etc. I waited in line, feeling lonely and out of place as the older, seemingly smarter and more sociable people in line were chit-chatting with each other. I loaded up a plate of food, made a conspicuous beeline away from the West Coast seating area, got in the elevator, and slinked back to my room. I was starving, but as I was ready to dig in I made a horrifying discovery.
I had no silverware.
I couldn’t face returning to the lunch area – a good ten minute walk – for a knife and fork. I felt I would be noticed barging in to grab a cloth napkin and silverware set just to turn around to head back to the elevator. It didn’t seem like a reasonable thing to do, and time was a factor before the next workshop started. So I did the next best thing: I went for my trusty Leatherman multitool that I used to take everywhere until it was confiscated at the Sacramento airport fifteen years later. This was not the kind of multitool that had a fork and spoon on it, though. It had a deadly sharp, serrated knife, a file, a can opener, some pliers, scissors, and a bunch of other stuff that wasn’t too helpful for eating a plate of pasta, chicken, and salad. Nevertheless, the Leatherman was all I had, so I used some combination of file and sharp knife to eat this meal. I laughed at myself the whole time, fully aware that my ridiculous shyness had led me to this strange fate. I didn’t feel sorry for myself, though. I wasn’t a misanthrope; I seemed to like most people and vice versa when we got to know each other. Sitting in that hotel room balancing pasta on a pair of pliers may have been a turning point because I don’t remember shyness being much of a problem after that. At dinner that night – not provided by the conference – I ate at a 50’s diner and stole some silverware to ensure the problem wouldn’t recur.
Fifteen years later I found myself running the regional chapter of the Avaya users group, I have presented workshop sessions at this same conference, have moderated forums there, and have had a part in planning this three-thousand-person event. Attending this conference is now the highlight of my year, as I see great friends at every meal, every event, and every bar at 11:00 p.m. Colleagues that I adore are gathered there from all over the U.S., Africa, New Zealand, Europe…it’s a blast! From a technical and professional perspective I get a tremendous amount out of it, and seeing these colleagues, making memories, and having great times is the icing on the cake. This is the difference between four years in the industry and twenty, at least for me.
But no matter how much fun I have at my conference every year, I always remember that early conference when I felt so alone. I think most people have a story of feeling out of place and insecure at a point in their lives. Some have stories much sadder than eating pasta with a Leatherman multitool in a San Francisco hotel room. But there is one person in this world who has never had those feelings: Other Chip. He is not my alter ego, he is another guy named Chip.
When I was ten years old I had a friend named Glen, whose mom seemed younger, prettier, and singler than the other moms. I was to spend the night at Glen’s house one Saturday night, but then his mom wanted to go to a party, so we had to go with her. In order to go to the party, Glen’s mom had to ask my mom if it was alright if we went with her. My mom said OK, but asked for the phone number of the party house. This was the 1970s, thus a routine request, but still – so embarrassing!
Later, Glen and I were doing kid stuff at the party while adults were drinking, laughing, and dancing. Suddenly the front door opens, and in walk a couple of people followed by a third man whom I’ll never forget. This third man was white, bearded, with sandy blonde hair, Gabardine shirt, probably in his late twenties, and he loudly announced to the entire party as he entered – and I swear the music screeched to a stop: “Hey everyone, I’m Chip, and I don’t know anybody here!” Other Chip was immediately offered a beer, and within moments became the life of the party. He was drinking, he was dancing, he was whispering into ladies’ ears, he was hootin’ and hollerin’ and high-fiving people. The guy knew no one there (who even invited him?), proudly proclaimed his social disadvantage as an opening salvo, and proceeded to rule that party until the end of the night.
Other Chip fascinated me. I didn’t know a human being could possess this level of confidence, especially someone who shared my strange boy-name. I had until this point never heard of another human being named Chip. It was a strange feeling to grow up with a name that, as far as I knew, was assigned solely to me of all the billions of people who had ever lived. Until that night.
I watched Other Chip for hours. I just didn’t understand how another person could have my name, nor could I grasp how a person – regardless of name – could walk into a room not knowing anyone and become the life of the party. Despite my youth, I knew I was witnessing something rare in nature.
Another reason I remember Other Chip is because of what happened when my mom called the party house. I can’t remember why she was calling – maybe to tell me to come home at a certain time in the morning. So Mom calls the party house and asks for Chip.
You see where this is going.
Mom certainly knew I was not the only Chip who had ever lived, but she also understood it was an uncommon name. When she called the party house she felt she did not need to specify a brown-haired, green-eyed, smallish boy. She just asked for Chip, and said it was his mother calling. Whoever answered the phone immediately corralled the life of the party and dragged him to the phone.
“Hello?” Other Chip said.
“Hello?” Mom replied.
“Who is this?” asked Other Chip.
“I’m looking for Chip, this is his mother.”
“This is Chip!”
(Confused) “This is Chip, who is this?”
(Annoyed) “His mother, my name is Gloria!”
Other Chip’s face screwed up, trying to emerge from a beer-soaked haze. He blinked his eyes and tried to wrap his brain around what was happening. Finally he said,
“My mom’s name is Betty!”
Well, that settled it! Other Chip’s mom’s name was Betty, and this woman’s name was Gloria, so the facts didn’t add up: Gloria was not Chip’s mom.
I caught this because I heard the rumblings through the party: “Chip…” and “Mom…” and “Phone…” My face flushed because I knew exactly what was happening, and as I quietly made my way through the grown-ups I saw Other Chip becoming increasingly bewildered as he argued with this strange woman.
Somehow the phone got to me, and Mom told me whatever she needed to tell me. The next day she relayed to me the story of her conversation with the rude man; Mom thought Other Chip was pulling her leg. She was worried and getting angry during the call because this man was obviously drunk and her little boy was in a strange place. I felt it my duty to inform her that the inebriated, confident man was indeed named Chip, and was likely legitimately confused by the phone call.
I did not meet Other Chip that night, and I never saw him again. I received no high-five from this older, cooler guy in solidarity with a ten-year-old with the same ridiculous nickname. The course of my life may have changed if that supremely confident partygoer from the seventies had shared a handshake or a witty aside with a small kid who shared his odd, boyish name. “Hey kid, Chip is a cool name. Go ahead and eat lunch with the industry nerds at the conference, it’s fine. Tell ’em Chip said so.”