Of the many differences between introverts and extroverts, one of the most obvious may be their relative comfort socializing in large groups and with new people. Today’s post is an interview with an introvert who deliberately set out to become better at socializing by studying the behavior of extroverted people around him. This is what he found.
How old are you, and how old were you when you became aware of not being comfortable socially?
I am in my early thirties. It seems kind of late, but I didn’t become aware of my own feelings of discomfort when socializing until maybe 9th or 10th grade. I remember being at a party with a bunch of classmates and all of a sudden realizing that I didn’t feel like I had anything to say to anybody and didn’t want to be there. What was surprising is that my personality in school was pretty loud and disruptive and about calling attention to myself, so I just assumed my predilection toward negative attention correlated with extroversion. But that wasn’t the case at all; and I’m actually quite introverted.
How does being in an uncomfortable social situation make you feel physically?
I think I tense up a little, but it’s not so much a physical feeling as much as a wanting-to-be-gone feeling. It’s a simple desire not to be there.
Is this just with groups of people who you don’t know?
Not necessarily; it’s generally any group that is over a certain size threshold. I feel like groups of two and three are good. Groups of four are also good. But beyond that it starts to be too many for me to feel comfortable socializing.
When you were growing up did you feel confused about why socializing was hard for you?
It felt isolating, but I didn’t feel like it was only affecting me. There were plenty of kids who were wallflowers, and you always have classmates who are the shy kids, so I was aware of other introverts – but I didn’t think I was like them because I wasn’t a wallflower.
One thing I remember was a home ec class in 9th or 10th grade when everyone took the Myers-Briggs test, and I scored ENTP [Extroverted, Intuitive, Thinking, Perceiving]. And I realized well afterward – maybe years later – that I has answered the introversion questions on the test aspirationally without even realizing. I answered them for the person I wished to be, not who I really was. Another interesting detail I remember about this test was that at the end it showed you famous people who scored the same combination on the test, and my match was Steve Jobs, so I was like, “Oh my god, I’m exactly like my hero. This is amazing.” Of course, that turned out to be untrue.
Were you aware of other people not feeling comfortable around you?
Yeah. Again, my big way of interacting with people in school was by being disruptive and getting negative attention. I believed everyone thought I was really funny, but I think I was just being a jerk. I was in band until 8th grade, and I remember once we were getting our seating assignments and I overheard the girl that I was seated next to whispering in frustration to her friend that she had to sit next to me.
Did that hurt your feelings?
Well, I still remember it clearly. So yes.
So you decided to deliberately try to be more socially capable. What did you do to achieve that?
I had a small friend group, and most of them were also introverted, but I did have one good friend who was extroverted. So when I realized I was introverted, I decided to observe this one friend more carefully to see what he did socially that seemed to work so well. I basically studied his behavior. And I would talk to him about this sort of thing from time to time, and he would fill me on things I was doing unintentionally that turned people off or gave them a bad impression.
What did “studying” consist of?
It was observing other people and then deciding on tiny things to emulate. For example, something I remember very clearly is deciding to say “How’s it going?” to people instead of just saying “hi.” The funny thing is that I now say that a lot. It quickly became unconscious.
Did you get any feedback about how your efforts at self-improvement were working?
When I was a sophomore in college, this extroverted friend and I took a trip to New York for the weekend. We were staying with his sister, who lived in the city. We had a great weekend and I didn’t think anything of it, but he mentioned to me later on that his sister thought I was a little weird. I don’t remember what exactly that comment was referring to, but what I got out of that was that I simply wasn’t interacting with her in the way that somebody was a guest would be expected to. Maybe I was just talking to my friend, and not to her. Whatever it was, I just wasn’t aware of it at all. Hearing my friend tell me that his sister thought I was weird has a particular effect on me because I had been in this specific situation and then sometime later learned that this third party had a perception of me that I was really surprised by, and so I wanted to control that and not allow it to happen again.
You’re a heterosexual dude. Was any of this related to wanting to feel more comfortable around women?
Not at all. I don’t think I ever thought of it that way.
And did your social interactions become more comfortable as a result of your efforts?
I don’t think they ever became more inherently comfortable, per se, but I did see that greeting someone with a question about how they’re doing will lead to more conversation than just saying hello. And I did perceive conversations that I was a part of becoming better. I also got more comfortable because when you have a handful of go to conversation-making questions, or whatever, you can fall back on those when you don’t know what to say. Especially around new people there is a performative component to conversation that takes a lot of energy. I’m not good at remembering details about people, and I’m in my own head a lot, so it’s easy for me to lose track of what the other person is saying.
What are some of your go-to questions?
Well, small talk is still really hard for me. Sometimes if I’m talking to someone I know a little bit, but not well, I will bring up the fact that I’m introverted and hate small talk. Often the response I get is that they don’t notice, and I don’t think they’re saying that just to be polite. In a strange way, it can be a useful opener to conversation.
Is studying the social behavior of others something you still do?
Yes, but now I do it for different types of people. Now I more study people in a work context – bosses or colleagues who I admire and who are leaders, because that is something I aspire to be.
What makes you want to improve aspects of your personality that you’re dissatisfied with? Plenty of people have no interest in changing.
Despite not always being aware of how I’m being perceived, I guess I have always understood that improving these things about myself directly translates into being more successful in every way – but most of all, in my personal and work relationships. And that’s definitely worth it for me.
Image: Guernica, by Pablo Picasso (1937)