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The Comfort of Crowds

Author's note: This story is about my experiences of finding social connection and belonging without overt social interaction, but by simply 'being' with others, no explanation needed. The story centres around an experience where I was 'allowed' to simply sit and be, and how rare an occurrence I noticed that to be.

The bunting-draped hall bustles with animated faces, laughing and chatting with one another. Pockets of conversation bubble around the room’s seating and otherwise vacant spaces. I sit at an empty table, resisting the urge to pull out my phone and pretend to scroll.

It's my least favourite part of my favourite night of the week - the tea break halfway through choir practice. Still inwardly gleaming from the catharsis of communal singing, I'd now love nothing more than for the ground to swallow me up, and spit me back out in about five minutes, preferably.

I’ve been at work all day, at a job that I love. A job made up of smiling, and talking, and smiling, and talking. A job that I love.

Kate, the choir leader, sits down across from me. I think this is the start of our first ever conversation, even though I’ve been coming here a while. My impression of Kate, from watching her interact with others, is of a kind person who knows herself - I like her. She notices that I'm staring into the middle distance and gently catches my eye.

"Hey, how's it going?"

Dread. Not the kind of dread that induces panic attacks or cold sweats, not a dread that can't be dealt with, but a kind of nano dread. The kind that bumps up against you while you're in the supermarket or on the tram, and wears away your edges.

I should’ve pulled my phone out and pretended to scroll when I had the chance. But I didn’t want to look rude, or worse, ‘anti-social’. Everyone is so nice here.

C'mon, I think, steeling myself. You must have some juice left. Otherwise why would you have come out? This is a community choir, for crying out loud. What did you expect, for everyone to coldly ignore your existence?

A girl can dream.

By this point in my life, I had become familiar with the term ‘social battery’, and was aware that mine is less Duracell Bunny, and more dodgy pound shop range, with limited use time on a single charge.

Despite this, I have warm memories of sharing space with others, going as far back as I can remember.

When my brother and I stayed at my grandma’s house on a Saturday, this would mean going to church with her on a Sunday morning too. Coming from an atheist household and attending a non-denominational school, these church visits were rare enough that they carried with them a sense of novelty and intrigue.

My memory of these Sunday mornings consists of fragments from a world I hadn’t yet contextualised, with what I now know as religion - incense billowing from swinging metal, wide wooden benches beneath long narrow windows, the distribution of (what I could only assume were) big white chocolate buttons, and Vimto served from an ornate goblet. Words I didn’t understand, but that still gave me a sense of connection to the rows of peaceful (or maybe just sleepy) faces around me.

Though I’m sure if given the choice, my brother and I would have likely opted to stay in our pyjamas watching cartoons on those Sunday mornings, there was something clearly lovely about the atmosphere in that church. A group of people coming together to face the same way at the same time, to share space and contemplation. Sitting in the pews, I remember the feeling of safety and belonging, being held by a group gathering for a common purpose, even if it was a purpose I didn't understand or share.

Then we sang.

Like the mass, the words were irrelevant at that point, but the chorus of worshipers to which I temporarily belonged resonated deeply. I was a fledgling learning to fly, somehow completely safe while stepping out of a comfort zone I previously didn’t know existed.

I remember reading once about how birds fly in formation as a way of conserving collective energy, “positioning themselves in spots that were aerodynamically optimal” — allowing them to take advantage of swirls of upward-moving air generated by the wings of the bird ahead. I read that they would switch leaders periodically so everyone got a share of the trick’s benefits.

There was something in that here. Amidst the reverberating chorus, I felt I was being carried through the air in some kind of effortless flight.

This feeling harshly contrasted with the anxious pang I felt when everyone was required to turn to those around us, shake each other’s hands and say "peace be with you". Why did the words sound all jumbled up and why did we have to touch each other’s hands? Next followed an odd queasiness while hanging around the exit as my grandma laughed and chatted with other churchgoers.

“Aw, you’ve come with your granny today!” says a lady with dangly earrings and expectant eyes.

I look blankly past the lady, unsure if this was a question or not.

Too long passes. I missed the beat.

If singing was effortless flight, conversation was its trickier cousin - a dance with steps to be learned over time.

Though I could sense that these interactions were an important part of my grandma’s church experience, I would have happily done away with them in favour of more incense, more simply smiling faces, and of course, more singing.

Education brought similarly conflicted feelings.

I did have friends, and I understood that spending time with them was an important part of the whole school thing. But if I’m really honest with myself, I felt much more at peace behind a desk with a textbook in front of me; focused on absorbing information in the way that only really works when surrounded by others who are doing (or at least meant to be doing) the same. This is something I tried to emulate in cafes and libraries as I got older, with varying degrees of success.

I appreciated that the classroom was, for the most part, a safe, boundaried space, with all minds directed to the same central point, towards the same central goal and clear rules on when and when not to speak.

The playground, by comparison, was a wild west of confusion and unsettlement. I was not an athletic kid, so steered clear of footballs and skipping ropes, to which the alternative for girls was to ‘walk and talk’ around the perimeter of the yard. The walking was simple enough, the talking less so.

This is where I first remember realising that there was clearly some choreography to this dance, but the steps weren't at all clear. What's more, the stakes felt unfathomably high - a misstep could cost you a lot.

To save confusion I would follow someone else’s lead who presumably had been sent a copy of the playground rules, including what to say and when, but that wasn’t always enough to protect me. In case you don’t remember school, or haven’t seen the 2004 cinema classic - girls can be mean. I often spent lunchtimes orbiting dinner ladies for solace, and feeling very much like I was doing playtime wrong.

Occasionally these two vastly different elements of school life would collide, such as on ‘Bring a Toy to Class Day’.

One toy day, a two-headed girl walks over to me. As she approaches, I see that she is actually two girls walking side-by-side, arms linked - I assume they’d just finished a lap of walking and talking, and had not yet disentangled from their conversation.

“That’s not a toy.”

One of the two girls’ four hands points at the crayons and colouring book spread out in front of me. The classroom is filled with noise and movement, I am still and silent.

If my brain had worked more quickly, I could have taken a look around the room at the Twister, Mousetrap, and Operation and pointed out that technically, none of those were toys either, they were games. I thought the word ‘toy’ in ‘Bring a Toy to Class Day’ could be generally understood as any item that you find enjoyable to engage with and that others might too, but the name ‘Bring Any Item That You Find Enjoyable to Engage With and That Others Might Too to Class Day’ was just a bit wordy.

Instead, I just did the first bit and looked around the room at the Twister, Mousetrap, and Operation, and all the other toys and games brought in by the rest of the class. The two-headed girls, presumably bored of my silence, had slipped off, still linked.

There was something I could intuitively feel, but hadn’t yet found words for in my brain. All of the other items I could see in the room invited others over to ask questions and give answers, make plans and negotiate team names and characters. They were conversation starters - conversation commanders.

A colouring book spread out in front of you doesn’t need any of that. To join in, you just pick up a crayon and start. In fact, no words need be exchanged at all, provided those taking part are either a) sufficiently skilled at colouring to be trusted not to ruin the picture, or b) sufficiently chilled to be trusted not to shout at the child ruining the picture. Thankfully, I was both sufficiently skilled and chilled, so there was never an issue.

Also, most kids preferred playing Twister, Mousetrap and Operation to colouring in. Their loss.

Though I was alone in the corner of the room, I didn’t really feel left out. I liked the outer edges, I had a better view from there. I wanted to be in the room, but my feelings around other kids getting involved in what I was doing were neutral at most. Despite that, I once again had the feeling that I was ‘doing it wrong’.

I felt embarrassed about my colouring book.

In my high school, there was a room called the Rubicon. At the time, this name meant nothing more to me than a type of juice. Having since learned that the phrase to ‘cross the Rubicon’ means ‘passing a point of no return’, the room’s name seems even more bizarre, and actually, borderline sadistic. It was isolation-based discipline - which, for most kids I knew at the time, was the worst conceivable punishment for bad behaviour. It had office cubicle-style boards up around each desk, a nod to a future we were either being pushed towards or warned of (I’m still unsure which).

I was put in the Rubicon one day for forgetting my blazer. I don’t remember particularly liking or disliking my time in there. I was likely more preoccupied with how odd, as well as wholly unjust my being punished for this reason was, and feeling mortified at being lumped in with ‘the bad kids’ for the day.

Weird name and prison-parallel punishment aside, something like the Rubicon would have actually been great during high school - a space to just sit and decompress, to pause all the voices for a bit. I could have kept “forgetting” my blazer for another chance to sit unquestioned in a quiet space, but I wasn’t a rule breaker, I wanted to do things right.

After school I’d slump wearily onto the sofa and hide behind my curtains, pretending not to be in when my friends knocked on the door for me. The idea of seeking yet more interaction with the people you’ve just spent six hours talking to, and will be seeing again the very next morning was, to me, bizarre.

As I got older, I got better at the conversational dance, through imitation and a lot of missteps. I even got quite good at it, eventually. My moves became more natural as I built my strength, and increased my flexibility, balance, and coordination around difficult topics.

But more than my own proficiency, I came to understand the value of this dance to others. I learned that the act of extending a conversational hand out to someone, whether it be for five minutes at a bus stop, or three hours on a train platform, could have a profound effect on all participants.

Substituting toy-filled classrooms with cafes, kitchens and beer gardens, I began to find myself once again still and silent in spaces filled with noise and movement. But this time, I wasn’t alone. Through my stillness and silence, I’d inadvertently created space for people to come and share something of themselves, their experiences, perspectives, joys, fears, hopes, hesitations... and it was fascinating. People are some of the weirdest and most beautiful creatures I’ve ever come across.

I came to be known as someone who was “easy to talk to”, and I liked that. I knew how difficult conversation could feel, so making it easier for others was something I was very happy to do.

I even ended up in a career that’s all about talking. Paradoxically, the social dance I’d struggled so hard to understand and improve at was becoming one of my biggest strengths and keenest interests.

But that didn't change how tiring dancing all day is.

Fuelled by a combination of fear of missing out, people pleasing, and genuine desire for human contact, a dodgy pound shop battery-powered pattern emerged.

I became a yes-woman, accepting any and all invitations that came my way. Not just from friends, acquaintances and colleagues, but newsletters, events listings and flyers.

My Google calendar looked like a badly played game of Tetris, colour-coded blocks slotting into any space they could find.

Meetings, workshops, catch-ups, check-ins, coffees, lunches, drinks… followed by tear-soaked duvet-cocooning, feeling only able to say “I don’t want to do anything”. At times, feeling like I didn’t want to be anything.

I counted myself lucky that I can sleep so easily. I used to say sleeping was my superpower, though in reality, it’s more of an ongoing battle to stay awake. However, I’d then wake up from 14-hour naps feeling less than rested, and more than ashamed.

As soon as my energy stores began to replenish themselves, I’d get the calendar out and start depleting them all over again - now I really was obliged, to make up for the time I’d missed while in cocoon mode.

The cycle continued, but along the way, I was developing strategies to protect my social battery while getting the communal experiences I craved.

Early on, I found a neat little hack, a way to game the system. I’d seek out places I could easily slip into unnoticed and soak up the atmosphere like a scavenging social freeloader, hanging around the buffet table at an event I had no invite for, or cleaning up at a potluck I’d brought nothing to.

The first time I went to the cinema on my own was a revelation. I was doing something, I was out in the world, but between the silhouetted heads I sank lazily down into the plush seat, with a warm feeling of comfort. I could rest that part of my brain that at this point, would normally be wondering if anyone minded that the person I’d come with was talking to me through the trailers. However actually, I minded, because the trailers are my favourite bit.

Cinemas, libraries, cafes, parks - some of my most cherished spaces to be alone with others. Public transport. I spent my 30th birthday alone on an especially nice bus route with a flask and a Spotify playlist.

Being able to silently slip into a crowded environment without turning any heads, inviting any greetings or prompting any questions brings me deep comfort. The non-reaction says wordlessly, "you belong here, and there is space for you". A privilege I know lots of people do not have in many spaces.

A nameless fellow runner at a recent Parkrun event (another great place to be alone with others) summed it up when I overheard him saying to his friend: “being in the crowd takes the pressure off”.

Exactly. I thought back to the birds flying in formation, reducing air resistance - taking the pressure off.

This feeling was a treat, but a treat I had only ever granted myself.

By this point, I’d become pretty good at looking after myself and my social battery. I came to know my ‘drainers’ - the things that would flatten my battery fast. And I also knew my ‘sustainers’ - the things I knew helped. At the top of this list was singing, something I’d kept with me since going to church with my grandma as a child. There is always a song in my head wanting to get out. Any moment I can snatch, to belt it out in the kitchen while the house was empty, or whisper-sing it at the back of the bus, provided a bit of lightness that I could save up and use when I needed it later.

So it was with caution that I signed up to join a community choir. I considered that the social aspect, combined with it directly following a workday, might make it more of a drainer than a sustainer. But there were no auditions to join, and no minimum attendance, so I didn’t need to worry about letting people down on unexpected duvet cocoon days.

The first time I sang with them was pure joy. I was back in church, only this time I wasn’t a fledgling. I was in full flight, simultaneously carrying and carried by the flock. My voice was strong and the words made more sense this time - we were singing Beyoncé.

I had to go back for more. That feeling was worth being drained. I felt guilty thinking of people as ‘drainers’, especially these choir members, who all seemed so kind, intelligent and interesting. I felt lucky, and wholly inadequate.

In the sessions that followed, I met some brilliant people and gave some subpar conversational performances. But more often than not, when we weren’t singing, I just wanted to sit out of the way and rest the internal machinery that makes conversation happen. I was aware that that might not be what you’re supposed to do here, and maybe I was doing things wrong again.

Back in the bunting-draped hall, as Kate the choir leader sits down across from me for what might be our first ever conversation, I wonder if that’s what what she wants to say to me. Maybe she wants to “have a little chat” about how I’m fitting in here, and if I’m not going to “get involved” then maybe this isn’t the choir for me.

"Hey, how's it going?"

The time in between Kate’s first and second sentences is less than a second, less than a breath - but perhaps enough time to see my thought process whirring into life. Before I get a chance to roll out my best-and-most-polished "Oh hey, I'm great thanks! How are you?", she says casually, with what I interpret as a knowing smile, something nobody has ever said to me before.

“No worries if you don’t feel like talking.”

The words bounce out of her mouth so effortlessly, I almost don’t catch them.

Okay, so it was nothing especially earth-shattering, and it sounded so commonplace once she’d said it.

Except it wasn’t.

For all the times I’ve been asked some version of ‘what’s wrong?’ for being quiet, I cannot recall being actively assured that my silence was, rather than an indication of some emotional deficit, a scathing review of the event I’m at, or an affront to those around me, actually, totally fine. Just neutral. Just me, at that moment.

The nano dread begins to dissipate.

I want to respond to Kate’s kindness with an apology, an explanation, a justification.

“Oh no, sorry, yeah, I’m just knackered sorry, just finished work and my head’s a bit... sorry, how are you?”

Except I don’t.

Instead, I proffer a grateful smile and then, blissfully, nothing.


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