[Today’s column is by guest blogger Josh Turiel, who is a city councilor in Salem, as well as being a friend of the Clam.]
Many of my closest friends are people I’ve never (at this writing) met in person. I know them through Facebook, Twitter, and e-mail. What makes this interesting is that I really do know a lot of people personally. I enjoy their company. I like to spend time with people. But mostly I like to hang out in the room and watch the fun. I’m a politician. I run a business. I have no problem addressing large rooms of people, and in a small group of people I know well I can be quite entertaining. But put me in a small room where I don’t know everyone and I clam up and stay in the corner. I usually avoid parties with lots of strangers.
Because, despite all the trappings I give off, despite the witty comments you see me write, despite the speeches I give on TV, I’m an introvert. That basically means that when I’m in the midst of a group of people, particularly strangers, I’m really freaking uncomfortable. In fact, for the most part deep down in my lizard brain I’d probably rather be undergoing dental surgery. I’m terrible at names, I have a tough time remembering new faces. There are people I know well whose names I have no idea of. I recognize them, though. It can take me years sometimes to remember a name.
None of it is personal. I like most people once I get to know them. It takes me longer, but it’s worth it. And, like many of us, I recognize it. In fact, I’ve deliberately tried to compensate for it as best as I can almost since the day I arrived within shouting distance of adulthood. I took theatre classes and learned to act. I did a Dale Carnegie course at an old job of mine. I taught myself public speaking – and in fact I’ve become pretty good at it (it’s far easier to speak to a group of strangers than it is to speak to an individual stranger). I ran for office a few years ago, knocked on nearly 800 doors, and won the race (I still have the job, even). It’s very possible to function well when you’re fundamentally introverted. I’m fortunate, especially knowing people with much more burdensome physical and mental issues than this. Being introverted isn’t a disorder. It’s just who I am.
There are some skills you develop as a defense mechanism. You become really sensitive (maybe even over-sensitive) to people’s reactions to you. You can really focus on an individual person in conversation. Reading is a pleasure, and it’s pretty easy to find things to entertain yourself rather than rely on other folks to do it. All pretty cool.
The tough part is when you need to crack that shell open and acknowledge the strangers in the room. Painful, but it’s the only way you can grow as a person, and I can tell you from experience that it’s totally worth it, even if I haven’t always been able to pull it off. Small talk is a struggle for us. If we do engage with you, we can have amazingly deep conversations about nearly anything that interests us mutually. And we’re interested in what you have to say – even when we don’t know it. Depth appeals to introverts. We’re the life of the party online, where we can pick and choose our interactions, engage people at an arm’s length, and we can think through what we say more carefully. All my funniest friends online pretty much fit into this category. Most of the Clamtributors are among them as well.
In musing upon this as I write, it’s probably not as surprising that introverts like me wind up going into electoral politics, or that a lot of us wind up in theatre, or performance-based pastimes of any sort. If we can perform for a lot of people, it’s in a small way easier and less painful than performing for just one person. It also can make for difficult childhoods for many of us in the social jungle that is elementary and secondary education. We tend to be the geeks in school – not so impressed by the mundane things that happen, not comfortable around groups of people, and usually interested in the esoteric and obscure. Extroverted people are the ones who project confidence in school. That’s a system made for them to live in their glory. It’s only after that high school diploma that the world really makes room adequately for both. I’m blessed to have had a relatively normal, well-adjusted childhood going to a school where the people like me were able to find each other and create a peer group. Not all kids are that lucky.
The biggest thing for you all to remember from this, though, is that when you see one of us at a social event, a meeting, or even just if you run into us at Market Basket, when we barely blurt out a “hi” when we see you and then don’t start chatting about the weather? We’re really not trying to be rude. Sorry about that. This is what life is like to an introvert.