Wednesday, November 21, 2012

A Social Language for Introverts: Not Shrink-wrapped and Dusted with Shame

I am especially bad at social gestures.

I don't makes casseroles, but instead bring hummus and crackers from the store. My contribution is shrink-wrapped and dusted with Nabisco shame. I used to bring a melon, when I was younger, and I didn't always have it pre-cut.

It is graver than you think. I don't call when someone has died because I can't think of what to say. I decide to call and then I never do. I didn't really know them all that well. I don't really know people all that well. What if I say something stupid? I hate the phone. After a while, it is too late to call without drawing attention to the fact that I didn't call in the first place. My grandmother, the minister's wife, looks pinch-mouthed at me from ideals I do not meet. Ideals I want to meet.

I don't know most of my neighbors. And if somebody robbed their houses, I probably wouldn't see because I am fixated on my writing or on the contents of the book. I really like a couple of them, but I avoid speaking to them most of the time because I am not sure what to say.

"Hello, have you observed that there is weather outside? Yes, I have observed it, too. Give my regards to your dog."

Instead, I duck into my house, as if under artillery fire, to avoid the unpleasant thought of standing with a forced smile and saying something that I will wish I had not said.

I have tried in earnest to make this social weirdness go away. I have warded against it with Christmas cards and chocolate cupcakes, baked from scratch. I have lead committees, sponsored projects, and one time I even joined the PTA.  I have poured my desire to join the beloved community into confections lovingly blended of eggs and cocoa, sugar, vanilla, flour and butter and other things I cannot eat. I have offered them at the altar of human kinship and waited to feel at home in the merry crowd. But I never have.

So, I bring hummus and crackers.

I wonder, sometimes, what my situation might be if I was encouraged by the world to relate to my community in the way that is natural to me? Would I by now have acquired a language that felt honest for comforting those relative strangers whose loved ones have recently died? Would I know what my place was in the throng of smiling, insistent party-goers that invite me to parties each December? I look at my youngest—anxious and awkward with strangers, alive and alight with a book—and I wonder. How do I convey a language for social gestures that I never really learned? One not shrink-wrapped and dusted with shame?

Maybe the brilliant Susan Cain knows. Here is a TED Talk that I just loved on the power of introverts in a world that can't stop talking.


  1. I'm an introvert who loves to talk to people and learn their stories. But like the TED speaker, I like to do this talking in small, intimate ways. One person or a very small group at a time.

    I'm not sure that in today's classrooms, I'd be the rock star student I was in my childhood. I didn't like group projects--mostly because I pretty much always ended up doing the whole thing and sharing the credit with four or six slackers. Often, they were opinionated slackers who wanted to direct how the projects were done but didn't want to actually do any of it. It didn't sit well with me.

    Susan Cain is awesome. I get her. On some level, I am her. Oh, and I remember the "R-O-W-D-I-E" cheer, and its misspelling bugged me, too. :OD

    1. I remember doing a group project on the Ashanti in sixth grade. All my group-mates kept accusing me of perfectionism (me???) and saying things were "good enough" and that "it didn't matter." I was livid when we got a C. I still generally prefer to work on my own, keeping a congenial friendship with co-workers or classmates so that we can share ideas. I never want to be forced to work as part of a team. This makes me a sort of iconoclast.

  2. I think I am married to your "brother", as he is introverted (yet an actor, that surprised me...) When we first started dating we were asked to bring something to a potluck for a house concert. It was my first one, so I made a pot of chili, and he brought.....hummus and crackers. Your post made me smile to remember. It makes him who he is, and my nickname at home was "Martha JR" so I am opposite and so it works for us. I will play this for hubby tonight. Wishing you a Happy Thankgsiving!

    1. You know, I'm an excellent cook and I went through years of baking cakes from scratch and bringing them, I have to say. I have recently reverted again to type. I think the hummus and crackers reflect my inherent discomfort with the whole enterprise. I am putting off anticipation of these gatherings until a few moments before I have to go. On the way there, I just stop off at Smith's. But, what would we do at potlucks without people like you? I much prefer the chili.

  3. Tara! I just took twenty minutes out of this lovely day off to listen to the TED talk. Thank you for posting it. Last April I wrote a review on the book. I had eagerly awaited its publication and was not disappointed --
    But I had missed this TED talk and so treated myself to it now - and firmly planted it in my YouTube Favorites. I have known and appreciated the fact that I am an introvert for years. I also know that I have learned how to play the extrovert b/c that serves me well in my work. The consequence, though, is that evenings and weekends leave me feeling exhausted and I MUST replenish myself with A LOT of solitude. I need weekly to get away by myself - if only for a long bike ride. I am glad that Susan Cain believes the time has come to acknowledge and embrace that side that needs solitude. I love that she encourages to schools to stop the madness of group work! Sure, do some collaborative stuff but not without direction and not excessively.
    Thanks again for posting -- Happy Thanksgiving to you and your family.

    1. I loved your post and shared it on my Facebook page. I haven't read her book. I'll have to see if it's at the library.

  4. You are not alone. I've seen that TED talk before - thanks for reminding me about it.

  5. I definitely relate to this. I'm basically a introvert - I think all people who love to write are. I like being alone, and when somebody dies, I'm much more comfortable writing a note on a sympathy card than calling or saying anything in person. And I hate parties where I don't know anybody. In fact, I avoid them like the plague. Now, people one-on-one - that's fine. Except some people. I believe in chemistry between people. Some people you wouldn't be able to have a conversation with if they were the last person on earth.

    1. You sound a lot like me. My husband enjoys going to parties and often entreats me to go with him. I'm something of a liability in our marriage, this not being my milieu. Oh, well. At least, I handle the hummus.


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