Introversion

Posted: November 17, 2003 at 4:46 pm in people

So, as I mentioned in an earlier post, “I’d love to become instantaneously more sociable and more comfortable around people.” It’s hard to explain to folks who aren’t introverts how difficult being sociable is. My friend pointed me to an article in the Atlantic Monthly on the subject which has a lot of good stuff in it. But most “normal” folks, aka extroverts, who thrive on other people, think that meeting people is just about going up and saying “Hi!”. And, for them, it is.

It’s funny because people that have known me for a while don’t believe that I can possibly be an introvert. In a social setting where I’m comfortable, I’m loud and brash and can take over the conversation. Not at all the stereotypical wallflower. But put me in a bar or club, or at a party, and the wallflower takes over. I sulk in the corner for a while, have a miserable time, and leave. Partially it’s the fear of rejection, of going up to somebody, saying “Hi” and having them be bored and walk away. Mostly, though, it’s just not having anything to say. I’m terrible at small talk. There’s definitely a place for it – as Hayakawa puts it, “The prevention of silence is itself an important function of speech.” But I’m okay with silence. In fact, I crave it a lot of the time. So if I have nothing to say, I don’t say anything. And given that inclination, it’s really hard to strike up conversations with folks you don’t know. With folks you know, it’s easy; you have a shared background to draw upon, you’ve got things you know you have in common, and you don’t feel like you necessarily have to sustain a conversation. With folks you don’t, there’s a lot more pressure.

I also just plain don’t get along with most people. I’m weird. I’ve accepted that. I’ve moved on. When I was growing up, I thought I was this weird solitary freak who was different from everybody else. Turned out it was just that I was different from everybody else in the town where I grew up. I went to college, found a living group with a bunch of other freaks like me, and called it home. So, okay, I’m still this weird solitary freak, but I know I’m not alone. And that makes a huge difference. I don’t feel like I have to settle for blending in, for being one of the crowd, for throttling myself down to deal with the “normals”. I do it at work, and in social settings with polite company. I tried it for three years in grad school. But I know there are people out there with whom I can be all of me, weird and wacky and prone to making wild generalizations and strange references and improbable leaps of conversation – people with whom I can say the crazy things that come into my head without having them wonder if I’m insane(*). And so I seek out those people. And there ain’t many. But they’re there, and I’ve found a few, and I’d love to find more.

Of course, I haven’t figured out how to do that. Unfortunately, because the kind of people I’m looking for are few and far between, it exacerbates the problem of meeting people. Because I have to sift through a lot of people that aren’t right before finding the few that are. At this point, I’ve mostly given up; I just wait for my friends to meet cool people and expand my social circle that way. But it’s not really holding up my end of the deal to do that.

It’s a pain in the butt. If I were willing to judge on surface characteristics, it’d be much easier. Attractiveness is easy to judge; it may be personal, but you can look at somebody and decided if you’re attracted to them. The spark of weirdness I’m looking for is much harder to evaluate. One friend once described it having an appreciation of the absurd in life. It’s partially a sense of humor that matches mine, partially a broad enough and similar enough background to catch the references I like to drop into conversation, partially an attitude of never being intimidated by blatant generalizations or academic gewgaws. I don’t know how to describe it, which makes it hard to look for. It’s funny, though, because when I find somebody who fits the criteria, there’s an almost audible click. When I first walked into TEP at MIT, within five minutes I had the feeling of having come home for the first time. It was spooky.

I’m mostly frustrated because I’m doing all of these activities now, and meeting all these people, and still don’t feel like I can hold a decent conversation with any of them. Which is partially why I’m resorting to writing these rants online. It’s all I’ve got at the moment. Argh. Enough for now.



(*)
As an example, I was once at a dinner party with some folks. Somehow the conversation turned to the zoo, and how they fed live animals to the lions. I said something like “Dude! That’s so awesome! I totally have to check that out!” The woman next to me turned and said “What are you, twelve?” I could have tried to explain about the importance of childlike enthusiasm in my world, and how once you lose that, it’s really all about being a corporate drone, but it would have taken too much effort, so I just shut up, stayed nice and quiet and proper the rest of the evening, and never hung out with those people again.

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