This unspoken set of rules can turn an otherwise rational person into a flailing, helpless victim in a sea of self-perpetuated social anxiety.
It's like we're all competing in a game that no one wants to play. And even though you can't ever win the game, you can prevent yourself from losing by pretending that you like playing long enough to be allowed to stop playing.
The game has four levels of difficulty.
There is a special kind of awkwardness between two people who don't know each other well enough to interact effectively, but are familiar enough that ignoring each other's presence isn't really an option. No matter how much you like the person, you dread encountering them because you only know two things about each other and once you've covered those two things, there is nothing else and that is terrifying because you aren't good at ending conversations and that makes the horrible, strained silence all but inevitable.
But eventually you do run into one of these acquaintances and even though you both sense the impending awkwardness and desperately wish to avoid it, you have a social obligation to say hello. So you do, and the conversation derails even more quickly than you expected.
And then there you are, standing clumsily in the parking lot of Best Buy, frantically trying to keep the conversation afloat until one of you can think of a decently acceptable way to end the encounter. You stop caring about whether you make sense or not. You'll say anything to avoid silence.
At some point, the rapidly deteriorating subject material forces you to give up on being polite and just settle for the first bumbling phrase that comes out of you.
Luckily, your artless delivery doesn't matter. The other person is just thankful that they finally have an excuse to stop talking to you.
Level 2: Forced proximity
Trying to end a conversation in the grocery store is like battling a sea monster that has an infinite capacity to revive itself.
As soon as you figure out how to disengage with the person, you run into them again and you have to figure out how to start a new conversation. And then you also have to figure out how to end that conversation. No matter how many times you come across each other, it never really seems acceptable to not say anything.
You try to joke about it.
Soon, however, you will exhaust your supply of pleasantries and lighthearted banter.
The awkwardness of each new encounter is magnified by the awkwardness of the previous encounter until you have no choice but to pretend that you are so fascinated by the ingredients of what you're buying that you don't even notice the other person is there.
Level 3: The Trap
However, some acquaintances don't share your desire to avoid awkward encounters. In fact, they often seek your company despite your complete inability to relate to each other. This person is seemingly immune to awkwardness and once they latch onto you, you are not allowed to leave until they are done with you.
For example, you might be sitting by yourself in a café, enjoying a cup of coffee. And then you see her squinting up at the drink menu.
She's trapped you at social gatherings a few times, backing you into a corner and then standing at just the right angle so that you'd have to physically push her out of your path to escape. She's extremely passionate about a variety of things that you have no real interest in, like veganism and the healing properties of soy. She can talk about these things for hours without pause. While you don't mind that she feels that way, you don't particularly want to hear about it in such great detail. But she tells you anyway. Over and over and over. You might make a feeble attempt at steering the conversation to a topic of more mutual interest, but she doesn't want to talk about what you want to talk about.
The first time you escaped her conversational death-grip, you thought that she had probably said all she needed to say and that the next time you saw her, you could maybe talk about something else. But no. She checks up on you. She wants to know if you've tried any of the things she suggested. When you tell her that you "haven't gotten around to it yet," the cycle starts over again.
You want to avoid this kind of interaction, so you turn your chair away, hoping that she won't see you when she turns around.
But it's too late. She's spotted you.
She's not quite sure if it's you yet, but you can feel her eyes focusing on you. You risk a glance to see if she's still there, even though you know that she is.
And then you accidentally lock eyes with her.
Once eye contact is established, she begins to lurch toward you in slow motion, like a zombie in a bad horror movie. You are consumed by a desire to bolt, but you don't. Your obligation to adhere to social decencies outweighs your sense of self-preservation. You stay right where you are, unable to look away.
You are going to have to talk about soybeans. A lot. And you are going to have to pretend that you like it. To protect your dignity.
Level 4: Well-intentioned social terrorism
The well-intentioned social terrorist does not alert you before they invade your safety bubble. It's always a surprise. You'll come home, exhausted and eager to finally feel safe from unwanted interaction.
You're cornered like an animal. There's nowhere to go.
You'd always assumed that your own home was a safe place - a place where you were not in danger of sudden, undesired social interaction. But your pathetic delusions of safety implode into the realization that nowhere is safe anymore.
You could tell them no, but you aren't busy and you don't have any immediate plans, so you don't really have an acceptable reason to decline their company.
You could try to lie and say that you're just coming home to drop some stuff off before you have go somewhere. But if you do that, you'll have to spend the rest of the night in total darkness, because if your friend walks by and notices that your lights are on, they're going to know you were lying.
But if you allow this person into your house, you are no longer in control of when the interaction ends. This is not as simple as finding the right opportunity to walk away. No. This is some next-level shit. You can't just walk out of your own house and leave the person there. Where would you go?
If you want to be left alone, you're going to have to wait it out until you can convince the other person to leave.
But even then, it isn't over.
Now that you are aware that your home is not the impenetrable fortress of protection you once thought it was, you are forced to live in a constant state of slight uneasiness. Someone could surprise you at any time. What if your friend decides to surprise you with a visit every day? Now you have to worry about keeping your place picked up, "just in case." You're scared to play music or watch movies because then you can't pretend to not be home if someone knocks on your door.
You are no longer in control of your life.