formal dining room

Speaking of confidence—it’s something that’s very difficult to project in social situations, no matter what color your dress is. Possessing the rare talent of confidence is like possessing a bag of scratch in a yard full of free-range chickens. It’s guaranteed to make everyone come running, or at least look up at you with curiosity and interest.

Let me tell you a secret about confidence: when one has it, it’s simple and easy, or at least comes off that way. It’s as simple and easy as carrying a bag of dried corn into a yard full of chickens—that is, if you have the strength to walk and carry stuff, and aren’t afraid of chickens. If you have to alternate between singing fight songs and whispering empowering quotations while drinking whiskey as you walk with that scratch into the chicken yard, that’s not confidence. It might be bravery or foolhardiness or generosity or persistence, but it’s not confidence.

Confidence arises only from long practice, and its appearance of ease masks the years of effort it took to achieve. Confidence is simple and easy because the action has been done so many times before. It’s not the donning of a good luck charm as all your friends cry, “You got this!!”; it’s the calm and grounded reflection, “Of course I can do this. Duh.”

Some writers need several pages to describe a character; Penelope Fitzgerald, with the confidence of a seasoned writer, needs only one short and simple sentence. Here’s an example of confident mastery in writing from her novel The Bookshop. It describes the husband of a woman who is hosting a fancy party in their house:

“Her husband, the General, was opening drawers and cupboards with the object of not finding anything, to give him an excuse to wander from room to room.”

So much is contained in so few words! And, go figure—the passage is about confidence.

Why is the husband, a.k.a. the General, performing meaningless, repetitive actions? It must be because he doesn’t have the confidence to engage in actual conversation with the guests.

Why doesn’t he have the confidence to engage in actual conversation with the guests? It must be because he always performs meaningless, repetitive actions at parties, and thus never acquired enough practice in talking to people in social situations to do so with confidence.

Of course, such practice is hard. And it involves a lot of trial and error, failure and success, wretched embarrassment alongside heart-fluttering joy.

It’s much easier to open cupboards and wander from room to room. The thought of doing otherwise almost makes one pine for the good old days, when, though people’s lungs were black and sooty, at least they had something sophisticated to wave in front of their faces!

Now, to be clear, there’s nothing wrong with doing little things to help oneself along in the social game, such as sipping wine or pretending to be interested in a knickknack on the host’s mantlepiece. We all do it. But reading Fitzgerald’s description of the pitiable husband/General does not inspire admiration of him . . . just of her.

What skill have you been slowly building confidence in lately?