I had jury duty recently. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the US jury service system, US citizens are periodically required to fulfill our civic duty by reporting to a local courthouse and making ourselves available to sit on a jury panel for a criminal or civil trial. The processes vary quite a bit from place to place but often you show up for a day at the courthouse and get sent home without actually sitting on a jury.
Unless you’re really lucky. Like me. Then, somehow, you get put on a jury 2 out of the 3 times you’ve ever been called to serve.
Together with seven other people, I got assigned to a jury panel for a 3-day civil trial. The case was strange. The testimony was at times fascinating, at times mind-numbingly boring. None of that is especially what I want to talk about.
Like so much else in life these days, I approached jury duty as an experiment. A socializing experiment. I decided it was the perfect opportunity to reboot my approach to interacting with strangers. It was a relatively safe, time-limited interaction–if things went poorly, I knew that I would only have to spend three days with these people and then I’d never see them again.
In the past, I would have done my best to pass, hoping that my fellow jurors would like me and more importantly, not think I was too weird. This time around, I made a conscious decision not to worry about that.
I gave myself permission to stim when I needed to, especially during the long blocks of testimony where we were required to sit silently, with only our notebooks and pencils for distraction. It turns out that a pencil makes a good stim toy. Flicking it up and down, running my fingers or nails over the surface, popping the eraser on and off, twirling a paper clip around it, doodling on my pad–all good ways to help me stay focused on the testimony.
That last one, the doodling, also had a practical function. As the trial progressed, I found myself sketching my notes more and making fewer text notes, which was a surprise. I’m only just realizing how visual my thinking is. Even today when I look at the sketches I remember exactly who was testifying and what they were saying. I also remember the intense discomfort I was feeling when I did this:
One of the attorneys–the one who eventually lost and probably had a sense of what was coming–got angry during his closing argument and started shouting at the jury. If you’ve read my post about how much trouble I have regulating my emotions when someone else is angry, you probably have a good idea of how strong my urge to flee the courtroom was at that point. Because that wasn’t an option, I used stimming to self-regulate.
I also completely obliterated the judge’s instructions that I’d written down on that page, but it didn’t matter because I was alternate and knew by that point that I wouldn’t be going in to deliberate with the others.
Other things I gave myself permission to actively do: frequently rearrange myself in my chair, not make eye contact with the witnesses or attorneys if it felt uncomfortable, be silent and even totally zone out if I needed to when sitting with the other jurors during breaks, not feel compelled to make small talk, go off on my own without explanation if I felt like it, dress for comfort rather than to make a good impression.
This strategy was surprisingly successful for the first 2.5 days.
I had interesting one-on-one conversations with some of the other women and mostly hung out on the fringes of the group conversations because I find them so hard navigate beyond the occasional random interjection. When people seemed uncomfortable, I offered simple explanations like “doing something with my hands helps me concentrate” or “if I don’t move around in my chair, I get physically uncomfortable.” People were quick to relate my explanations to something familiar, responding with things like “I always doodle when I’m on the phone” or “my back starts to act up if I don’t stand up every half hour to stretch.”
In addition to being myself, I made some proactive efforts to engage with others. I did my best to learn and use people’s names. I said hello and goodbye and tried to remember to ask about how the drive was or whether the person got their kid off to school okay or how their elderly relative was doing. You learn a surprising amount about people’s lives when you have to spend eight hours a day with them and can’t talk about the one thing you all have in common. I made a point of genuinely complimenting the other ladies’ taste–in clothing, bags, craft projects. These little things seem like the equivalent of social glue. Applying a little, especially early on, goes a long way.
On the whole, I was more relaxed that I usually am around strangers or semi-strangers. I felt less pressure to be social, which helped me feel less self-conscious about the amount of socializing I did. There were awkward moments, but I tried not to perseverate on them.
The best part was how little social anxiety I felt. There was no icky feeling in my stomach as I got ready for the day, no anxious thoughts the night before about what to do or say. It turns out that being myself is much less stressful than trying to be my imaginary version of a person that others will like or not find strange.
Why? Because I can’t do it wrong. There is no standard of comparison to hold myself up against. This sounds deceptively simple, but it’s truly never occurred to me before. And the good news is, when I let myself be who I really am and not the awkward facsimile of myself, I mostly come across as charmingly odd. Mostly.
You might have noticed that I said the first 2.5 days went well. The problem, of course, is that once it was over, some of the other jurors wanted to exchange email addresses to keep in touch. As much as I enjoyed getting to know everyone, I had no interest in socializing beyond our service time. My avoidance earned me some sour looks and I noticed that one person in particular was much cooler to me afterward.
The funny and somewhat confusing thing is that one of the other women didn’t share her contact information either and I didn’t perceive the same reaction to her. In fact, she was one of the people that the others treated most warmly. I wish I could figure out how she managed to so gracefully decline while not offending. What I need is a socially acceptable script that says “I enjoyed doing this thing with you but I have no idea how to socialize in an unstructured way outside of this and, furthermore, no desire to.”
Because even Social Me 2.0 isn’t the kind of person who makes new friends at jury duty.
Merry Christmas to those who celebrate it and Happy New Year to all of you. The next post I make will likely be dated 2014.