You might be familiar with FOMO — fear of missing out. It’s that thing where you overcommit and stay up later than you really want to, because you’re afraid that the one time you stay home (or leave early) the thing you’re missing will be really fun (even though nothing is ever any fun). I don’t suffer from FOMO, but I do suffer from a similar acronym, which I call FOAP, or fear of accidental participation.
The mildest form of accidental participation is when you head out to run an errand hoping not to run into anyone you know, and you run into someone you know.
A worse kind is when you accept an invitation to go hang out with your friend and her boyfriend at their apartment and when you arrive, you find you’ve been shanghaied into a surprise blind date (this has never happened to me because my friends don’t suck, but I’ve heard horror stories from other perpetually single women).
Another form of AP is when you consent to a social activity but you are under the influence at the time, and then your substance wears off halfway through said social activity, at which point, you find that you are participating without having made a conscious and informed decision to do so. This is how I ended up at every sports game I’ve ever been to. With no intention whatsoever of actually going to a game, I’d go to someone’s house to pre-game and see them off, and before I knew it, I was all, “Aggggahhh we’re having such a good tiiiiiiiime, I don’t want you all to leave! What if …. get this? I! Should! Come! Actually – no listen — cusactually, I think this isza dawn of a new Elizabeth! I want to start doing all sorts of the things, the things that I don’t… Like, you know, like maybe I rillyacchooly like basketball? Right, football? But I just don’t know that because I’ve never gone to the ball, you know? YOU KNOW? I wanna face paint, too, give me one orange.”
Then, two hours later, I find myself sober and freezing in the bleachers of a stadium, feeling hard done by.
However, the weirdest, most dreaded kind of accidental participation is when you go to do something relatively pedestrian and solitary, and then the location you are in somehow unexpectedly turns into a party while you are there. I’m not sure if this happens to anyone else, but it seems to happen to me all the time.
For example: you decide you should get out of the house for a bit. You take your computer, enter a nearly empty coffee shop, set yourself up, get a latte, start to work. Then, slowly, the coffee shop begins to fill up. Kind of annoying, you think, but then, you are in public. Then, the barista puts on a really loud, rocking playlist. Again, odd choice for a coffee shop, but still, they must get bored listening to light jazz all day every day.
Yet more people pour in, and they all seem to know each other. They’re jostling all around your table, they start setting up amps and hanging streamers. You feel very much in the way, but they’re also all apologizing to you and trying to make you not feel in the way, and so you feel really conspicuous and like it would draw even more attention to yourself if you packed up and left, so you just keep sitting there.
And before you know it, you are somehow in the middle of the hottest rave/circus performance/battle of the bands ever to go down in a coffee shop at 4:00pm on a Tuesday afternoon and you have no idea how this happened or how to get out of it.
I feel like this happens to me constantly. I am forever going to something that is meant to be low-key and manageable, and finding myself in the midst of a giant party. I once went for a nice, quiet walk and somehow got enmeshed in a massive parade festival that packed 12 city blocks of Manhattan so tightly that it took me a full hour to get back to my subway stop. I’m still not sure how it happened — I didn’t enter a crowd, it materialized around me so gradually that I didn’t notice it, and then all of a sudden I was penned in by throngs of humanity and couldn’t move at all. It was just like a nightmare, except it actually happened! I couldn’t see over any of the people, so to this day, I have no clue what the actual thing was that all those people were there to see.
Another time, I sat down in an empty bar to have a drink and read my book while I killed an hour before meeting a friend, and suddenly, I found myself in the middle of a drag show, and because I was there early (and was reading in a bar like a nerd) I was, like, incorporated into the show as a running gag by the performers, and so I couldn’t leave because I was actually drafted into AUDIENCE PARTICIPATION and I would have seemed like a spoilsport if I just got up and left in the middle of everything. So I was late to meet my friend. (And try explaining that one — “sorry, I was actually here early, but I accidentally ended up kind of being in a drag show, and it would have been rude to leave.”)
This has happened so often over the years that at this point, I’m afraid to leave the house. I work from home and a lot of my coworkers relocate throughout the day and work from coffee shops and parks and bars, and sometimes I want to do that too, but I worry that wherever I end up, I’ll somehow find myself accidentally participating in some massive social blowout, and I won’t be able to escape.
Does this kind of thing ever happen to anyone else, or does God just hate me?