They call us wallflowers, because we stand along the walls at social gatherings, hoping not to be noticed. It’s not an insult, really. Flowers are pretty, and most of them smell good, so I’ll take it as a compliment.
They say we’re “antisocial,” which sounds negative but is fairly accurate. Given the choice of being in a social setting or just hanging out with one person we find really interesting, we’ll invariably choose the latter. If that isn’t an option — and sometimes, even if it is — we’re happy to keep our own company. To write. To paint. To read. To veg. To go on long drives and marvel at the scenery that has so much to say without even opening its nonexistent mouth.
We’d rather listen to the timbers creak in an old barn by the side of the road than we would to someone, cocktail in hand, making small talk that will be forgotten in the morning. We’d rather keep the company of those towering redwoods on the Avenue of the Giants? Or those canyon walls meandering through the desert, bedecked in striated hues of yellow-gold, copper and deep crimson. Or the snow-capped mountains thrust up eons ago by a slow-motion surge of tectonic plates. Each will outlive the inane conversations that constitute “mingling” and “schmoozing.” Each speaks with gravitas without saying a word.
If you see an introvert at a social engagement, it’s almost like sighting a penguin in the desert or a giraffe in Yellowstone. Introverts simply aren’t party animals. Most introverts end up at such affairs because we’re required to be present for work, as a favor to a friend, or because we’ve gotten so stir-crazy that we’ve momentarily taken leave of the senses that remind us how difficult it can be to go out in public.
Parties aren't our natural environment. We spend much of our time in blissful silence, safely behind the door of our bedroom, reading or meditating, creating or or just chilling. We also like to serenity of nature, beyond the cacophony and chaos of city life. Parties capture that chaos and confine it to an even smaller space. They're loud, and we can't hear ourselves think, let alone hear other people talk over the din. Most of the things people say at parties don't interest us, but we can't hear those that do without straining our ears to drown out all the white noise. It's exhausting.
For an introvert, the entire party experience is an exercise in containing stress and keeping a lid on anxiety — which takes a lot of effort. The anxiety isn’t chronic, and it’s not the kind associated with a phobia. This may come as a surprise, but for many of us, it’s not even an instinctive response; it's rational. In fact, it’s too rational: It involves overthinking the situation to such an extent that, before long, you just want to leave.
The Seven Questions
Here’s a step-by-step look at how the process can unfold in any given social setting: how an introvert can wind up miserable by analyzing it to death. Ultimately, the introvert is apt to spend more time and effort talking to himself — asking questions in his or her own mind — than to anyone else at the party. Questions like these:
“Do I know anyone here?” If so, the first instinct is to head in that person’s direction. A friend offers a familiar sanctuary in an environment laden with potential pitfalls. You can shut out the rest of the room and engage in the same kind of one-on-one conversation you might have over a cup of coffee. If the conversation’s really good, it can seem as if you’re not really at a social event at all.
“Am I monopolizing my friend’s time?” Hanging out with a friend only works for so long, though. Before much time has passed, you begin to feel guilty and wonder if you’re being too clingy or exclusive. This is a party, after all, and your friend doubtless wants to talk to other people – not just you! You may even cut off the conversation early out of guilt, which will leave you right back where you started: faced with the prospect of being tossed to and fro on a sea of social chaos.
“Is there any food here?” If you can’t find a friend — or run out of friends to talk to — food can offer the next-best kind of cover. Are you at a party where hors d’oeuvres, drinks or a buffet is being served? Make a beeline for it and fill up your plate with an ample portion. This will give you a great excuse not to engage in conversation with people you don’t know (it’s impolite to talk with your mouth full). One unfortunate side-effect of this strategy is that you might end up packing on a few unwanted pounds. Another is that (again) you’ll start feeling guilty about doing something socially inappropriate. So, you step away from the buffet table and ask yourself …
“How can I avoid being noticed?” This is where the “wallflower” strategy comes in. It doesn’t necessarily involve pressing your back up against the wall; that’s just a specific way of staying near the perimeter of the social minefield — and out of harm’s way. It can be even more effective to find a window and gaze outside. Whatever’s beyond the glass will be distracting, and this approach has a key advantage: You can turn your back to others at the party, and they may not want to disturb you. On the other hand, though, you might actually attract their attention by making them think there’s something wrong. This is, of course, the last thing you want, because it might lead to a verbal interaction with someone you don’t know. That’s stressful.
“If I do interact with someone new, how do I deal with that?” We introverts aren’t as prickly as we might seem. It really can be fun to meet new people, even for us. It’s possible to start up a friendly and fulfilling one-on-one conversation with a stranger who turns out to share some of your interests. But even if you do, you’ll soon feel that same old guilt creeping up on you — the kind you experienced with the friend you spoke to earlier — and it’s likely to be more pronounced. Your friend probably understood your anxiety, but this new acquaintance won’t know anything about it. If you linger too long in a conversation, the person might think you’re hitting on him or her, that you’re “too intense” or even “creepy.” So, you withdraw again, with a new question in your head …
“How do I avoid interacting with one of those people?” “Those people” fall into a variety of categories, but the upshot is that you’re the one who thinks they’re creepy. Maybe they’re self-absorbed: They may not even bother to seek out a common interest before launching into an extended soliloquy about a topic you couldn’t care less about. These are the clueless talkers. If they talk too long, they morph into ramblers. Then there are the “close talkers” who invade your personal space (which for an introvert is typically larger than for others). There are “touchers” who put a hand on your shoulder or elbow uninvited. There are “honey bears” who immediately act overly familiar by calling you “honey” or “sweetheart” or “love” or “brother” or “sister.” (I’m always tempted to let my sarcasm get the best of me and tell them I’m an only child.) The fact that you think these people are creepy makes you even more determined not to behave that way yourself (see No. 5 above).
“How do I get out of here without appearing rude?” It won’t be long until most introverts start looking for an exit strategy. Handy excuses might be fatigue; a headache; the need to get up early the next morning for work/school; a pet that needs to be fed or let out; homework. … These possibilities will begin forming in your mind shortly after you ask yourself another question “How and why did I get myself into this?”
Stage and fright
Some of you who know me might be scratching your heads as you’re reading this. You might have seen me get up in front of a roomful of people and deliver a 90-minute talk on Fresno or ancient mythology or the history of Highway 99. You may have seen me do a reading from one of my books. Or you might have witnessed me do my best to channel Garth Brooks or Billy Joel or Def Leppard during karaoke. Maybe you’re saying to yourself, “I could never do that!” And you’re probably wondering, “Him? Antisocial? Not that I noticed.”
As hard as it might be for people with stage fright to understand, getting up in front of a room full of people can be far easier for an introvert than navigating the same room at ground level. Being on stage offers you the kind of insulation you can’t get in a room full of minglers. And the rules up there are clearly defined: You have people’s attention without having to compete for it. No matter how many or how few people show up to see you on that stage, it’s your room, and you’re playing to a more or less captive audience.
You might still worry about going on too long or (if you’re singing) hitting the wrong note, but not nearly as much as you’d worry about what might happen at a party. Clueless talkers might get in a few words during a post-presentation Q&A, but they can’t exert the same amount of control as they could at a party. Close talkers and touchers can’t get close enough to violate your personal spaces. Oh, sure, they might rush the stage, but this happens with rock stars, not authors and weekend karaoke kings.
You might need to do some mingling if there’s a reception after your talk, but it isn’t likely to last too long (people having already been there for an hour or more and will be eager to get home). Besides, any discussion — even with strangers — that takes place there is likely to revolve around the talk you just gave, and therefore be of interest to you.
This isn’t to say introverts only want to talk about themselves. In fact, many of us prefer to let others do most (but not all!) of the talking … as long as they’re talking about something interesting, as opposed to the frivolous or mundane topics that seem to dominate many parties. It’s understandable that they do. People like to test the waters before diving into the deep end of a conversation, and some weighty topics (politics, religion, etc.) can lead to nasty disagreements. But that doesn’t make introverts any less eager to spend time talking about the weather or health problems, celebrities, wardrobes or cars.
There’s always a better option, and it involves curling up at home in bed with a good book or a good movie or working on a creative project.
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Big ideas are infinitely more rewarding than small talk, that they’re a lot less stressful, too.