OPINION: Virtually being a wallflower

Date published: 2021-01-22   — by Paul Murphy

By nature, I’m not a wallflower. Not in the real or virtual world. In fact, I like to pick wallflowers.

In any social situation, I seek them out. Over the years some of the best conversations I’ve had at parties have been with people who have spoken to no one else. 

Seeing someone standing alone in an active party makes me sad, so I engage them. It’s rare that I attend a social event and don’t talk to at least one wallflower. For a long time I thought I was doing both of us a favor, them because they must feel less awkward not standing alone, and me because wallflowers are often the most interesting people I speak to at a party.

A few years ago I discovered that maybe the dynamics weren’t so simple. Maybe I was overestimating how awkward wallflowers feel.


I happened to be speaking to my landlady, a woman in her 60s who had “recently” learned to tango. 

Tango is a very regimented affair, especially in Argentina. At a milonga, women stand on the periphery of the dance floor and the men pick their partners. Pretty women may get more than their fair share of dances but the ones who see the most action are the women who dance well. My landlady told me that she’d been going to milongas for two years before she was asked to dance. She was new and nobody knew how well she could dance. 

One day, someone asked her to dance, and she said that it was one of the most exciting events of her life. Once other men saw her dance, she stopped being a permanent wallflower. Of course, I asked her if she was upset that she’d had to stand by herself for two years and she said: “No, that’s the way it works. And I watched and learned a lot.”

So wallflowers aren’t necessarily shy. Like my landlady, some of them are curious. Watching party dynamics, they learn a lot. And like my landlady, some of them get a great thrill when they are engaged.

Last night I decided to be my landlady. I decided to be a wallflower.

Virtual wallflower

I went to Toucan’s virtual social, which is heavily attended by non-company people. Most attendees don’t know each other. Instead of engaging with solos, or joining groups full of strangers, I just stood there, by myself.

I could see conversations around me, all very active. At first, I felt strange, but before long I felt calm and the initial awkwardness disappeared. I watched the party, for almost 20 minutes. 

Finally, another wallflower-picker joined me. He was wonderfully entertaining and we got on like a house on fire. Within 10 minutes another person joined us. Before long we were five, and I’d forgotten all about being a wallflower. 

Since I’ve worked at Toucan people love to tell me how crappy virtual events are. Mostly, I agree with them. I love physical presence. Online, I miss smells more than anything. I also miss physical quirks that are invisible on video. But I’m grateful that sometimes virtual events teach me things I might not have been able to learn in person. 

Being a wallflower online is fun. I didn’t expect that. I’m going to try it again. And as soon as this viral crisis is over, I’m going to do it in real life.  Maybe someone will ask me to dance.

Paul Murphy’s software career has primarily focused on financial services and voice. On Wall Street he worked on a broad range of front and back-office systems. He then became obsessed with the human voice as interface, building tools and applications that interacted with users over telephones. This obsession culminated in the founding of Clarify, which developed cutting edge speech recognition and language processing software for conversations. With Credmark, Paul is re-entering the finance space because he firmly believes that crypto is the foundation of the next global financial system. And more recently with virtual social events platform, Toucan.

This article does not constitute legal advice.

The opinions expressed in the column above represent the author’s own.

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Tags: technology | virtual meetings


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