The week surrounding Christmas, like the days surrounding Thanksgiving, has always been a danger zone when it comes to running into old high school classmates who we’d rather not see. So how do we get by?
I am a person with fairly overwhelming social anxiety. I am also a person who failed to get invited to both my five-year and ten-year high school reunions (not like I would have gone anyway...). These truths, grouped with the fact I still carry the tiniest chip on my shoulder over not being more socially successful in high school, make interacting with old high school acquaintances a very special living hell. But there are tricks and social graces that help me—and have helped other people—make it through.
The first thing to do is the hardest (in fact, it’s so hard that it might even feel impossible, but it’s still worth trying): Try to let go of the past. This will be particularly difficult if high school was an extra shitty time for you, but really, relaxing a grip on all that pain will only make things feel better for you when you run into some dumb former jock at the grocery store or the girl who made your life hell throughout middle school at the local tavern. Yes, there’s the fantasy of ripping into these people—telling them exactly how they hurt you and why they fucking suck—but it rarely (if ever) plays out smoothly in reality.
Instead, it helps to approach these situations with a polite aloofness. It’s true that the best revenge is a life well-lived, but the SECOND best revenge is an “I’m so beyond you that I don’t even care about how you hurt me and what you’re up to now” attitude. The sad truth is that most adults are too distracted by their own current shitty lives to think about the kids they mistreated in high school and—while I’m sure you’re very special—that includes you, too. Either they’ve moved beyond that period of their lives and grown up a little bit or they haven’t, which—well, how pathetic is that? Try not to join them in their pitiable stunted maturity and instead ask yourself what a real power broad (someone like Kathleen Turner, Pam Grier, or—hell— Rihanna) would do in the same situation. I’ll tell you what she’d do: She’d fix them with a bored glare, order another martini, and saunter off to find more fascinating people.
But say you want to interact and—best of luck to you—have a good time with your high school alumni. It’s totally possible, especially on those holiday eve nights when everyone is in town and itching to get away from the families for a drink at the neighborhood bar. At the risk of sounding all Cosmo, I find it helpful, when heading to these meet-ups, to wear something that I know I look/feel good in, simply because it’s one less worry for my mind to cling to. This can be whatever you want: a hooded sweatshirt, practical footwear, a full lace-up corset and vampire fangs—whatever! Just so long as you feel confident enough that if and when your old insecurities start to creep in, you know you look on fucking point.
Speaking of being on fucking point, don’t be afraid to exaggerate the parts of your life that are going well and diminish the not-so-good parts. I’m not telling you to lie, but I am saying that there’s nothing wrong with putting your most impressive foot forward. When I talk to people from home about my life in New York, you better believe that I’m going to talk about my latest celebrity sighting and particularly great museum trips, while—unless conversation gets deeper and I feel more comfortable—leaving out the facts about my soured dating life and the panic attacks that I have in my tiny-but-pricey apartment.
It might feel like bragging while you’re talking yourself up (and maybe it is), but you can easily balance out your (possibly forced) excitement about your own life by expressing equal enthusiasm about what your old schoolmates are up to. Ask questions, find out what they’re into, and be happy for them. “Oh, you have a three-year-old?! Wonderful! What’s his name? And how do you like working in nursing? Sounds like a lot of pressure!” (A priceless conversation trick that I learned early on: find out what someone loves and get them talking about it. It takes the pressure of you AND you come off as great conversationalist.) Ideally, your enthusiasm will be real because, if not, why the hell are you wasting your time talking to these people?
Perhaps that’s the most important thing to keep in mind: You can always leave. If your high school classmates suck as much now as they sucked then, go home. Don’t hang around, don’t force yourself into small-talk. That was something your teenage-self had to do and adult you is free to get the fuck out of there. Worried that that cunt from 10th grade homeroom is going to start spreading rumors about you? WHO CARES. You are done with high school. You are beyond them. You don’t owe them anything.
This is Etiquette Monster, Jezebel’s advice column where senior writer Madeleine Davies gets worked up and starts screaming about manners. Have a question about etiquette?Email Madeleine at your own risk.
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Art by Tara Jacoby.