Thursday, July 24, 2014

Do introverts have the secret ability to be the “life of the party"?

Many of my blogs have been silly and whimsical, and for that reason, someone recently told me that, if I could be the same person around strangers as I am when I write, I could be “the life of the party.”

Maybe long ago I could have been. When I was little, my dad used to call me “Bubbles.” Though considered shy at school, at home I was chronically excited. I could be silly and even rowdy at times. I had a friend who went into fits of laughter whenever I said the word "hot dog," which at the time was an expression of excitement. And I always had a project of some sort, a song I was making up on the piano, a drawing, or a “novel” I was working on. 

By adolescence, all my bubbles had popped. Maybe it was the bullying or only the dampening influence of hormones.

But I remember a distinct moment, when I was twelve years old, in which I became aware that my inner world had split off from the rest of me, become vibrantly distinct from my outer world. Maybe the bubbles had never popped but had only gone underground, where they felt safer from the perils of pins and ceilings.

If I had an “underground” it was my writing. While I presented a serious and polite facade to the world, much of my writing remained playful, and at times silly, even during times of depression.

And maybe that is why I have been accused of not being the “life of the party” when I could be. A couple of months ago, my visible discomfort at a group event prompted the comment. I had been mostly silent the whole time, focusing on my dinner plate and speaking only when addressed.

I was even less of a social butterfly than usual because right before the event I had been writing a short story. My accuser had dragged me away from my world of words and interrupted my characters in mid-sentence. 

According to all the handbooks, pulling an author away from writing-in-progress is a dangerous thing to do and should be attempted only in dire emergencies.

The group was composed of nice people; I might have enjoyed speaking to any one of them individually. However, when a group of strangers exceeds two people, a shift sometimes occurs.

Individuals merge into a kind of ad hoc “mini-culture,” with norms, rules and expectations. A group leader sometimes emerges, which is invariably an extrovert, and never me.

Once I was eating lunch with some teenage girls at school. They were all talking about times they had fallen in a public situation and gotten embarrassed. Each girl animatedly shared their own story, which culminated in sympathetic laughter. 

Soon, everyone had shared their falling experience and began to look at me since I had not “taken my turn.” Why was I not playing along? Someone even asked me: Did I not want to share a story about a time that I fell? 

I honestly told them I could not think of a story, but I could sense their disapproval. I had not told a story. I was not one of them. Why was I there? Even if I could have remembered I time that I had fallen, why tell it? It has no meaning for me.

The more a group outnumbers me, the more likely it is that arbitrary rules and expectations will spring up without warning. In order to be polite I want to go along, but at the same time I chafe at group pressure. Just let me eat my cookie.

Even if “rules” or impromptu public speaking events never arise, I am always uncomfortably aware of the possibility. I smile and nod and do my best to act happy, but I am always desperate to get away. When I finally do, I am euphoric. 

My relief is not necessarily due to disliking anyone. What grates most is the sense of protocol. Must act polite.  Must smile appropriately. Must rave over food an pretend to enjoy experience. Must listen. Must not reveal scandal that I would rather be home.

To make matters worse, I have trouble concentrating to listen in groups. When I am dining with someone one on one, the conversation has focus. There is a possibility of connecting with someone in a non-superficial way. In a group of five or more, multiple “light” conversations spring up. Which do I focus on? 

For example, at the group dinner, I tried to listen, to find order in the jumble of syllables being tossed around the table like juggling pins. Amid the chatter of several unrelated conversations, I tried to pick one and focus on it. 

That never works, not for long. My story characters, which I had been torn from, were making more sense than anyone. I “listened” to them instead. It was more fun and less confusing. 

Nevertheless, people who urge me to be "more confident" in group situations apparently assume that I am boiling over with appropriate things to say about the conversation-in-progress, but that, due to self-doubt, I am not brave enough to say them. 

They are wrong.

Other than writing stories in my head, what am I really thinking? Sometimes I am marveling at how comfortable everyone else seems to be with taking the floor and telling stories. But sometimes I notice details I can use in writing: mannerisms, gestures, the kinds of material I can use in writing fiction. Instead of comprehending the content of conversations, I notice tone, facial expressions, or the slope of a nose. 

If I broke up a conversation-in-progress about cell phone plans to discuss the slope of a nose, I doubt that my observation would be well-received. Better to observe noses quietly.

What else am I thinking? Sometimes my mind likes to play a game called, “What is the most awful, socially offensive thing I could do in this situation?” My mind does not play this game with my permission, and it quadruples my anxiety.

What if I repeated the last word that every speaker said? What if I insulted the waitress? What if I screamed “Allahu Akbar”? I tense, just in case I lose control of my body and it does those very things. It is as if my mind is exploring the limits of the situation and attempting to reach beyond them.

The feeling of being “limited” in groups can translate into detached behavior that seems antisocial. It is hard to explain to people that I can hate being in a group they are part of, but not hate them individually. But a lifetime of unpleasant group experiences, going back to childhood bullying, has reinforced my dislike of group situations.

I am told that to succeed as a writer, I must change; that writing is an industry for uninhibited, group-loving go-getters; and that it does not tolerate social anxiety, shyness or signs of “under-confidence.” What I heard was, "You must have ‘confidence,’ which you must earn by becoming more like everyone else.” But real confidence is self-acceptance, not apologetic conformity to a group norm.

What I really need is more anger. I have never had enough of it, but at times ire is the most sensible response. It would give me the energy to say: “Pratfall stories bore me to tears and I refuse to inflict them on anyone.” Or “I have nothing to add about the subject hairspray. The topic is ludicrous, dull, and beneath me. However, I find the slope of your nose amusing. There. I am confident enough for you?”

Who knows? Maybe my listeners would find my honesty charming. In any case, I reserve the right to eat my cookies in peace and withhold my thoughts whenever I choose.

Whatever “bubbles” may rise in my writing, they come from a silent and forbidden place, a sanctuary where I go to clear my mind from the confusing chatter of a crowd. The writing self that would make me the “life of the party” comes from a place of solitude.

And inside it, I have learned that I want to stay who I am.


  1. Reddit sent me.

    Get out of my head, Lisa Henderson.

    Our biggest difference is you're still creative, the bullying and 'disunderstanding' of people I trusted turned my into a hermit that chose to no longer creates things.

    1. Sorry about your bullying experience! Mine affected me for many years, so I understand. And I also lost my creativity for a long time, so I understand that too. But if you want to be creative again, you can be. I wrote about getting over my writer's block in a former post, "How I Lost My Guilt and Became Addicted to Writing."

      As for being a hermit, I think that's a perfectly acceptable lifestyle choice if you can get away with it.. Emily Dickinson was a recluse, and it apparently worked well for her. :) If you want to change that you can, but if not, don't be down on yourself about it. That only makes matters worse.

  2. "Sometimes my mind likes to play a game called, 'What is the most awful, socially offensive thing I could do in this situation?'"---Ha, I've done that, too. So glad I'm not alone. :)

    Wonderful piece.

    1. Thanks Carrie!! :) And nice to know I'm not alone! The great thing about blogging is writing about my idiosyncrasies and then finding out that they're not unique to me! Lol.

  3. I'm really related to what you say.

    Some days ago I discovered that I'm an introvert. To begin with I'm not shy and the people who knows me won't describe me as shy at all. It's not a matter of shyness nor embarrassment. The thing is I'm not the kind of person who can't handle people, being in public or embarrassment.

    I discovered with the years that my magic numbers are 3-4 (people besides me). When I can have a direct face-to-face interaction with little distraction I can have a nice time. I sometimes lead the conversation (but not necessarily start one), I could tell some stories, describe funny things that happened to me and stuff. I consider myself as an interesting person and probably some people will do it as well (and describe me as weird). I have a wide spectrum of interests. But No matter what In a group of more than 5 people is beyond my control.

    Being in large groups is difficult. First the noise and interference. There's so much stimuli for me to handle it. Second I can't follow a non-linear conversation with so much input. Because I usually don't hang in group that means I'm illiterate to the group code/rules. I do not drink. I do not bad mouth or I'm interested in rumors. I'm a clumsy person. I have a strange sense of humor (my mother says me my humor is black) but also it's so dependent of a large context so fits very well with people with the same background as me and some friends.

    I have to add. People seems to be unable to understand that the way they try to "include" introverts in their circles is rather threatening. First put the blame on you, second they establish the goals (you must do this, hang with this girl, drink that much, dance this way... and etc). The thing is they do that because they like do that thing (or that way) but usually do not translate very well to what I like.

    The part of the stimuli is the essential. Introverts aren't people who have no excitement it's rather the opposite. It's people that it's excited with minimal things. They are good making observations, analyzing things, enjoying quiet environments. Usually reading or listening music. And from my experience they love to share the things they enjoy most because are the most passionate people you could hang out.

    Sorry about the bullying I was bullied back in the school too. I disagree with the part of hate the group-self and not the individual self. There are people who is annoying when is in a group that's true but that's rather strange than usual. But I agree that the group may be a barrier to interact comfortably with people.

  4. I just wrote a comment and it was gobbled up! :( Here goes again ...this is another outstanding post! I related to so much of what you wrote! It is such a joy to read your posts because the writing is so excellent, I feel that I'm in good hands. I also love the humor that is woven through the piece in just the right amount - not overbearing. Just damn good writing. Yes, please stay who you are, because you are "packed with awesome". (sorry, I couldn't resist - I think it's because of the Ben & Jerry's Phish Food I just inhaled) Your blog is packed with awesome as well! ;)

    1. Sorry your comment got gobbled. but I'm so glad you liked the post and related to it! Thanks so much for all the compliments! As usual they have made me feel on top of the world. :)

  5. Awesome post, Lisa! You really captured what it feels like to be an introvert in group situations. For me any number of strangers greater than 3 seems to ruin the chance of actual communication. If I am expected to behave agreeably or to produce a mainstream response no matter what is said, then I feel as though being quiet most of the time is the only way to maintain honesty. I don't mind chiming in if I am actually excited about or actually agree/disagree with something, but most of the time light and/or common topics just do not interest me at all. Another strange thing about group interaction - as you pointed out - is the emergence of the extrovert leader (or in really bad instances, of several leaders!). For this reason sometimes group interaction feels like a competition to talk loudest and fastest just to be heard, and it is in those times when I am the quietest.

    Kudos to you for standing your quiet ground when necessary; I am standing there with you in another geographic location.

    1. Thanks so much for this comment! I really enjoyed this one! Like you, if I am excited about a topic I will contribute to a conversation, but otherwise I prefer to be quiet. Filling the air with empty words is just not an option for me. It is boring and makes me feel fake. And you made another interesting point, that sometimes more than one extroverted leader will emerge. This is especially annoying if multiple "leaders" embark on a collective mission to "bring me out of my shell."

      I might have to check out the book you mentioned earlier, "A Party of One." I have a feeling I would enjoy it.

      Thanks for your support for my choice to be quiet when I need to be. There are few things I appreciate more than introvert solidarity! :)