Thursday, February 25, 2016

Introverts, Unite! (At Home, Alone, Through Books)

I am an introvert. I'm pretty sure I've mentioned this before.

More specifically, I am the socially awkward type of introvert. I STRUGGLE with strangers, large crowds of people I'm unfamiliar with, and small talk.

In the early years of our marriage my husband and I would have long talks about my social awkwardness. We used to go to parties together, mostly involving his friends and extended family, and it took me years to be truly comfortable around these new people. (Frankly, it's a miracle I even got over myself enough to date my husband, he's the only boyfriend I've ever had and I had to marry him because I just couldn't face the prospect of going on another awkward first date again if we ever broke up.) (J/k, but only kind of.)

Anyway, my husband is definitely more of an extrovert, and considering these people were his friends and family, he was extremely comfortable and extremely happy around them. He just could not understand why I was uncomfortable, and he was frustrated with the way I would sit clammed up in the corner with a constipated look on my face. So we would have these "discussions" about how I could be better at small talk, how I could look more interested in other people and less like I just wanted to run away, how I could give off a better vibe that was more welcoming, less cold and intimidating.

Needless to say, these "discussions" were not very healthy for our young marriage, but in my humbler moments I appreciated what my husband was trying to say. The way he phrased it to me once was, "I love you, and I know how awesome you are, and I want these people to love you and know how awesome you are too!"

I mean, how could I argue with that?

It wasn't until four years later that I read Susan Cain's wonderful book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking. And then I made my husband read it. Because it was unbelievable what I learned about myself in those pages. Cain was describing me exactly, and she was not just explaining why I struggle so much socially, but she said it was OK. She helped me understand it wasn't a flaw, I wasn't this horrible, stuck-up, unfriendly person. I was just an introvert, and that is a perfectly acceptable thing to be. It was liberating.

It's completely amazing the power this kind of self-knowledge can bring.

Now, one of my favorite things to do is identify my fellow introverts as I come in contact with them, and silently give them grace for being just as socially awkward as I am. I especially love finding my fellow introverts in the pages of books, because there are so many of us there. And because reading books doesn't actually require me to talk to the other identified introvert :)

Recently, I've read two books about introverted or socially awkward characters that I've loved completely. And these books have got me thinking all over again about how wonderful and awesome introverts are, even if they can't talk to another human being to save their life.

At the beginning of the month I finished A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman. You guys, this book. Words can't describe it, because the synopsis (the story of a grumpy old man who is annoyed by the young family that moves in next door and hates everyone and everything) doesn't exactly sell how much YOU WILL LOVE THIS BOOK. (And if you don't at least like this book, there really might be something wrong with you.) Ove is absolutely, definitely, in every way, a grumpy, old, curmudgeony man who is an introvert on every level. And I thought on the first page that I was going to hate this character. Any sane person in real life would try to avoid a man like this as much as physically possible. But the more and more I learned about him, the more and more I loved this man. It's been a long time since I've loved a character the way I love Ove, and I have to warn you that I cried ugly, ugly tears all the way through the end of this book (but there was also so much laughter to make up for those tears).

What I loved most in this book was the boisterous and extroverted family that moved in next door. I love the way they treated Ove. I love that they appreciated him and grew to love him despite his gruff exterior, despite his repeated requests to be left alone. I was so grateful they were able to look past all that and find the man underneath who was worth loving, and the man that needed to be loved despite every assurance to the contrary. I found myself grateful for this family because often times when it comes to initiating friendships, I need other people to look past my own social stand-offishness and reach out to the person underneath who actually is warm and loving. I need the other person to make repeated overtures, until I can finally warm up enough to return the gestures. I'm so grateful for people like that who are willing to stick around and give me the time I need to get comfortable.

The most recent book I've finished was H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald. This book is memoirish, in that it is mostly about Helen's real life, her struggle with grief and depression after her father died, and how she decided to train a goshawk. I found this book fascinating for a lot of reasons I won't go into here, but one thing that quickly because obvious to me was that Helen was, at least in her state of grief, quite the socially awkward introvert. She spent hours and hours alone in her darkened house after acquiring her goshawk, trying to become one with the wild animal. When she took the hawk out for walks she would pray no one would talk to them, and I have this image in my mind of a crazy, medieval sort of looking woman walking around Cambridge talking to her hawk and trying not to make eye contact with the other people still living in the 21st Century. While Helen had a few really good, really close friends who put up with her through this rough time in her life, she spent a lot of time alone, and I imagine she wasn't easy to get along with. Basically, she's an extreme version of a cat lady, only she chose a violent and blood-thirsty bird of prey instead of the usual cuddly feline. So that's a bit weird.

But I grew to have a very soft spot in my heart for Helen (can you tell by the way I call her Helen, instead of Macdonald? I feel like we're on a first name basis). First off, she is obviously extremely brilliant. I enjoyed her knowledge, expertise, and thoughtful reflections on everything from falconry to medieval poetry to the very nature of what it means to be human. She has a keen and thoughtful mind, she is focused in her interests, and she's well-read. I related to her in a lot of ways. Basically, I saw this wonderful, valuable person who would be fascinating to talk to, if you could just get past the massive goshawk sitting on her gloved hand.

I want to say that I am getting marginally better at my social skills. I still feel anxious and uncomfortable in new social situations, but instead of shutting down I force myself to make small talk now. And usually, nothing catastrophic happens when I do. Actually, I'm learning that the effort almost always pays off, more so than sitting in uncomfortable silence does.

At the conference I attended last weekend, I didn't know a single other person there. For the first two hours, I didn't speak to another soul. I imagined myself painfully not saying a single word until it was time to get up and present my paper. But early in the first session someone else read a paper that I found super interesting, and during the break I forced myself to walk up to him and tell him how interested I was in his topic. We chatted for about five minutes, and it was pretty clear we were both rather socially awkward (maybe most academics are). But he so appreciated the effort I made to reach out, that he made a similar effort to include me for the rest of the conference. Slowly the two of us gathered a little group of "friends" that sat together at the meals and talked during the breaks, and supported each others presentations with questions that showed we were genuinely listening. There are benefits to reaching out.

But then I had to go home and go straight to bed to recover from all my social exertions.

Which is why I still might marginally prefer to meet new people through books. :)


  1. Suzanne
    I totally understand what you are expressing re introvert/extrovert. I'm your husband and you're my daughter. Actually my husband is an introvert too but not at the same level as my daughter/you.
    Parenting an introvert when I'm an extrovert is 'interesting' for both of us. I've had to learn to accept and appreciate who she is but I also challenge her to learn a basic amount of social skills for situations. I remind her she needs to 'push' herself as you did recently, but she also needs to know that she needs to nurture herself afterwards. This has been a huge journey, as she is extra sensitive to emotions, stimuli and analyses everything to a degree that most people don't.

    Quiet was a wonderful book! My husband greatly appreciated it, alas daughter didn't read it all. I've just reserved both books you mention, she may enjoy them.

    1. and just had another thought re your house ponderings, as you are such an introvert it may be more important for you to have space? Although my daughter(22) is happy to share a bedroom as she escapes in her head, so doesn't bother her.

    2. Sounds like you are doing a good job parenting your introvert daughter. As my husband reminds me, being an introvert is not an excuse not to learn how to get along with other people and develop social skills, but it is self-knowledge that helps you understand how to cope better. As far as space goes, when I was growing up I definitely wanted/needed more private space to get away from people. Now that I'm the mother, I feel more control over that (I may share the bedroom with my husband, but it's my room). However, I worry I'll have a bunch of introverted children who want private rooms like I did (too early to tell right now), and I want to respect that (but on the other hand, an introvert doesn't need a lot of space, just a private space, so that could be solved by good design).

  2. Your title had me laughing! I am also an introvert, but not as much so as my husband. :) As long as I'm with people I feel comfortable around, I really enjoy social gatherings. I'm terrible at small talk and calling people on the phone....and sometimes answering the phone. My youngest brother is an extrovert x10, and sometimes in awkward social situations I think--"How would Owen handle this?" It has been surprisingly helpful!

    I am adding these books to my list.

    1. Right, I'm with you. If it's people I know and I'm comfortable around, then I love a good party! And it is nice to have extroverts around for good role models :) If you get around to reading either book, I'll be interested to hear how you like them.