Saturday, March 26, 2011

Lone is an aesthetic choice

I’m back! Sort of. Well, not really at all. We’ve had an unannounced format change here at Free Toy Inside. I’m no longer updating every week on Wednesdays. I’m now updating whenever I have something interesting to talk about.

Because my life was stressful enough without tacking on a superfluous weekly deadline on top of everything else. It’s not like you’re paying me to not read this (do I look like the New York Times to you?).

Today, though, I’d like to talk to a topic that’s been on my mind and in my wifely conversations of late: The subject of introversion and introverts.

You see, I am an introvert. And I mean that. In my experience, most people who self-identify as introverts are not actual introverts. They are in reality shy, or socially inept. This is the equivalent of calling yourself a gay man because you have been rejected by a lot of women. Just because you’re bad at being a heterosexual doesn’t mean you’re actually a homosexual. And just because you’re bad at social situations doesn’t mean you get to call yourself an introvert.

This isn’t to say that introverts aren’t bad at social interactions. For my part I happen to be pretty bad at them. I read body language about as well as a cockroach reads Braille: I know something is there, because there are all these bumps in my way, but if you ask me to make sense of it I’d just as soon go around and avoid it altogether.

But that doesn’t make me an introvert. My wife is an introvert too, and she’s very good at relating to other people. This is why I tend to let her do most of the talking at parties, while I go play with the kids. (Thanks dear!)

Furthermore, I’ve know plenty of extroverts who love social situations but just aren’t very good at negotiating them. They love parties, and being around people, but they have a hard time talking to people they don’t already know or getting invited anywhere.

So introversion has nothing to do with social acumen, and it’s not synonymous with being shy. Introversion is a predisposition for solitude. If given the choice between going out drinking with friends or staying at home with a bag of microwave popcorn and a book, the introvert will choose the book. Every time. We are not alone or lonely. We are Lone, like BatManuel.

I don’t fault people for misunderstanding this. Our society and culture are dominated by extroverts. A movie or TV show featuring the person choosing to stay home and read instead of a raucous night on the town is invariably shown to be a broken or damaged person. Someone who needs to be extracted from some hypothetical shell to become the beautiful, fun-loving person that everyone supposedly wants to be. The extrovert naturally wants to help make this happen, because they don’t see how anyone could possibly be happy reading on a Saturday night when they could be out reenacting the movie Go.

This is why a lot of people who self-identify as introverts are not actually introverts. They want someone to pull them out of their shells. They want to take off their glasses and become Rachel Leigh Cook in She’s All That. They are, in reality, inept extroverts using the term “introvert” as a code for “somebody come buy me a little red dress and take me to a party,” because they know other extroverts will want to “fix” the introvert.

Well I’m here to tell you that I don’t want to be “fixed,” because I’m not broken. I don’t want to go out to a bar with you, but don’t take it personal. I don’t want to go with anybody. Why? Because it’s exhausting.

The fundamental difference between an introvert and an extrovert is where they draw their mental energy. If you get jazzed up from being out and about with people, doing things with people, and having conversations with people, or if you feel tired, restless, or uncomfortable being alone with your own thoughts, then guess what: You get your energy from other people, and you are an extrovert. If you leave a social situation feeling drained or exhausted, or if you feel energized or refreshed staying home and doing things that allow you to plumb your own thoughts, then you get your energy from within and you are an introvert. It’s really simple.

It can be difficult being an actual introvert. By its nature, society is a social construct. It is a loose organization of people, bound together for safety and convenience. As such, interpersonal interactions are a requirement. To the extrovert, that’s a feature, not a bug. But to the introvert it’s a chore and a half.

Like any chore, a person looks to doing as little of it as possible. After all, nobody goes through their cupboards looking for glasses to spit in so they can wash extra dishes. So, too, the introvert likes to avoid extraneous conversation.

Small talk is often the first to go, as it is exceptionally difficult for the introvert and, from his perspective, a waste of energy. Why would you talk to someone if you didn’t have something to say? You might as well move all of your furniture, then move it back exactly where it was. At least then you’d get some exercise out of it.

But since the extrovert cannot understand this sentiment; any more than the introvert can understand why the extrovert wants to make small talk; the introvert comes across as snooty.

“What? You’re too good to talk to me?” Says the extrovert.

“Who are you? Why are you talking to me?” Replies the introvert.

This can limit the career options of introverts, because a fair amount of glad-handing and schmoozing is required to obtain and keep a job. Even in stereotypically antisocial professions like engineering, there’s always someone in the organization who will try to boost morale by inviting everyone to a party, and if you don’t go you look bad. (Again the extrovert asks: “Are you too good to hang out with us?”). Fortunately it’s fairly simple, if not exactly easy, to fake extroversion. You smile, you let people talk about themselves and nod or laugh at appropriate times, pretend to care about professional sports, that sort of thing. I don’t recommend index cards with useful phrases on them, but if that will help you out, then go for it. Use the small ones, and write big. You don’t want to have to switch to reading glasses during a conversation. And when in doubt, if you live in New England, ask them what they think of someone named “Bellicheck” and agree with them vehemently. I don’t know who he is, but a lot of people seem to care about him.

Oh, and for the love of G-d don’t give anyone your honest opinion about anything. I actually lost out on a job interview once because I admitted that I prefer the coolness of fall to the heat of summer. True story.

Once you’ve made your appearance and stayed the requisite time, it’s time to make your escape. In this digital age, bailing from a social situation has never been easier. Simply set your phone’s alarm for an unusual time (12 after the hour, or 26 minutes to the hour) and pretend you’ve gotten an urgent text message or phone call that needs attending to. Resist the urge to elaborate: liars usually talk too much, and people know it. Just say something about how sorry you are, but you have to leave. Then get your coat and get the heck out of Dodge. Then go home and get back to that book you were trying to read. You’ll probably want to go to bed early. I know I always do.