So, I’m not very good at being social.
Oh, people who know me will argue with this assertion. They always do. To be clear, I’m not suggesting that I am incapable of having social interactions, or even having them in a marginally successful way. I can hold my own in a conversation, and when things turn awkward (as they invariably do, if you’re me) I can laugh it off. Most of the time. I can even be charming, when the situation calls for it. Really.
Rather, what I’m saying is that I’m not very good at being social in the respect that it is not a skill that comes naturally to me; such engagements exhaust me, physically as well as emotionally, to the extent that unless I’m feeling super-prepared and energetic, I sometimes dread them.
I have particular trouble with parties. It’s not the noise and the crowd that is bothersome, so much as the expectation that we are all going to talk to one another.
I enjoyed nightclubs, back when nightclubbing and I had a thing together, for the opposite reason: I was not expected to talk to anyone. Rather I could choose to talk, with my friends or with strangers; or I could choose to dance, alone or with others; or I could choose to stand at the end of the bar drinking Midori sours (or Zima with grenadine -- DON’T JUDGE) and chain-smoking clove cigarettes, which is what I usually did.
There was minimal pressure to interact, at least at the sort of clubs I went to, and I liked that. I liked being in an interesting place with lots of marvelous people to look at without the pressure to politely chat with any of them. I liked having the option of staring blankly into space to indicate that I was not interested in this conversation (or in your romantic appeals, Mr. Chubby Chaser, and no, you cannot come home with me and wear my stockings). (Based on a true story.)
A year ago, I attended a large party with my husband. Sort of. It was a working event for him, a party connected with a video game developer conference he was covering. I went with him explictly because parties are so challenging for me, and while most folks probably get into their mid-30s and simply accept that there are things in the world they will never be good at, I stubbornly refuse to do so, leading to a lot of uncomfortable situations I may as well have avoided.
At the party, a very drunk woman struck up a conversation with me. Given that I am at my best as a social creature when I am interacting with just one or two people at a time, I thought, hey, I can do this!
DRUNK LADY: (yelling, because it is very loud) “So, why are you here?”
ME: “I’m mostly here because of my husband, he’s a games journalist.”
DRUNK LADY: “No, but why are YOU here?”
ME: “Um, because I came with him.”
Drunk Lady -- leaning on me heavily and clinging to my arm in that overly-familiar way drunk strangers sometimes do -- then surprised me by launching into a fevered lecture about subjugating my own accomplishments to those of my husband. I should talk about myself more, not him! “I HATE IT WHEN GIRLS DO THAT SHIT,” she yelled, and the irony of being called a “girl” in such a context was not lost on me. “I’M A FEMINIST.”
“You’re right, and I’m totally a meek little girl-child cowering in my man’s oppressive shadow,” I said dryly. I don’t think she heard me.
It should be obvious by now that I don’t need a whole lot of encouragement to talk about myself and what I do. I’ll tell that shit to anyone standing still long enough to hear it. I’ve written a book, cultivated a successful blog, and had a fairly well-known role helping define and direct an activist movement.
My husband, on the other hand, was relatively new to his field at the time, and in my pride for what he’d accomplished so far, I wanted to talk him up. By doing so, I sparked an indignant feminist lecture from a total stranger. Could I have explained all this to Drunk Lady? Probably. Did I really want to clear up her gross assumption? Yes. Did it offer some interesting points of discussion about knee-jerk feminism and the assumptions we make about people based on their gender presentation? Absolutely.
Was it worth all the shouting I’d have to do to be heard? Nope.
Immediately after this I extricated myself from Drunk Lady’s vicelike death-grip and went outside, where I bummed a cigarette (I don’t even smoke anymore, you guys) and basically waited alone in the cold for the time to come when we could leave, aware that anyone else who tried to start a pleasant conversation with me was risking an exhausted verbal evisceration.
Oh, you can think me an unpleasant bitch for that, I understand.
BUT THIS IS WHY I DON’T LIKE PARTIES.
Even in non-party situations, social stuff wears me out. I adore my husband’s wonderful and powerfully gregarious family, and I am very fortunate to have a stable of various in-law relationships that are so positive and warm. But on visits to his parents’ house, there comes a point -- usually around 8pm -- at which I realize that if I have to have even one more social exchange I am going to start crying desperate miserable tears of overwrought frustration.
It sounds so melodramatic, I know, but it’s absolutely true. When I hit the forced-extroversion wall, my grip on sanity depends on my ability to go hide in a room with the door closed, and hope for a few hours of solitude and silence. This even happens after prolonged exposure to friends.
Many folks I know who share my tendency toward social exhaustion put it down to social anxiety disorder. While I’m glad they have an explanation and a name for it, this particular issue simply doesn’t describe me. I do have anxiety (which is a whole other post) but its origins and triggers are quite different.
It’d also be easy to put this down to me just being anti-social, but that’s not quite true either. My society just tends to be of a specific sort. I fail at the kind of small talk necessary for partytimes. I am a deep-topic discusser. I am quite capable of talking for hours on hard subjects -- like why capitalism may be fundamentally flawed, or how beauty culture harms women, or why so many people refuse to believe that climate change is a real thing that is happening -- but I lose the thread on simpler matters.
These are not easy conversations; no wonder they make me so tired. But they are the only conversations I reliably know how to have and enjoy.
I spent a long time being convinced that something was wrong with me, until I (somewhat randomly) met a few people who owned their introversion without apology, and who felt totally comfortable alerting trusted friends that their ability to be social was at its terminus, and now they must be off to sit quietly in the dark for a bit.
I’m allowed to set boundaries? I thought. Even if they’re boundaries other people think are overly-strict, or anti-social, or just weird? AMAZING REVOLUTIONARY LIGHTBULB MOMENT.
I’m aware that I am an introvert, in pretty much every known definition of the word (including the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, which pegs me as the infamously rare INTJ, the description of which is like LOOKING IN A MIRROR, I kid you not) but I had always assumed that my introversion just made me a lousy conversation partner, not that it meant that my brain actually responds to social stimuli in a different way, and that social exhaustion might just be a normal part of how I interact with the world.
The concept of the introvert was introduced by the psychiatrist and theorist Carl Jung, in his 1921 book "Psychological Types." Contrary to the popular stereotype of the introvert as shy and withdrawn, Jung’s definition dealt more with how the introverted individual directs their psychic energies. Jung’s introvert is “wholly or predominantly concerned with and interested in one's own mental life,” while the extrovert is more invested in “predominantly concerned with and obtaining gratification from what is outside the self.”
The Myers-Briggs usage takes the same basic idea and recasts it in a more active sense: while extroverts tend to draw their personal energy from the world outside themselves -- via conversations with others, or other community-driven activities -- introverts tend to draw their energy from within. Thus, where the extrovert is recharged by social interaction, the introvert is recharged by time spent alone.
Introvert, extrovert, or somewhere in between, it’s important to realize that we all respond to social interaction differently, and that it’s not weird or bad if we have a limited tolerance for parties or large gatherings. Our brains aren’t broken, they just work differently, and such individual diversity is the natural way of things. It’s certainly nothing to be ashamed of, or to feel guilty for. It’s just difference, and our difference is what makes us interesting.
And if ever you see me at a party looking half-despairing, half-enraged, steer clear. For your own protection. I’m sure I’ll be fine in the morning. I just need to recharge, as it were. Now you understand.