Once upon a time, a long, long time ago, I was so shy that I had difficulty looking anyone in the eye. I was a quiet mouse who took years to make friends and open up beyond a surface politeness. I hated (and still do) social occasions, or meeting new people. I rarely had anything to say and often couldn’t do more than smile awkwardly and mumble something incomprehensible. I had become so used to avoiding talking about myself that my first interview for a new school in Pakistan (I was 12) was an unmitigated disaster. I remember one of the teachers asking me to talk a little bit about myself and for several minutes, I sat there in front of 4 teachers in complete silence. My tongue was heavy and my mind blank, because talking about myself was something I almost never did. Luckily, that was the only school that required an interview. Needless to say, I didn’t get in there.
For that first year in Pakistan, I made no friends. I was used to being alone, secure in the knowledge that I would move soon and wouldn’t have to worry about making friends (by the time I got to Pakistan, I was in my seventh school. We moved around a lot in my adolescence). Towards the end of the first school year, it became clear to me that my parents had no intention of moving and that I would actually have to make friends, or at least socialize a little. My parents were already worried about me, especially since my siblings had a steady stream of friends and a healthy social life.
It took me some time to perfect, but I taught myself a few essentials that have worked well for me over the years. These are essential to keep stress at bay (because socializing for me is quite stressful). Others like me (and there are bound to be more of us around; as ‘socially-challenged’ introverts, we tend to avoid congregation so it’s tough to actually pinpoint a number or percentage of the population that abhors social situations) know how to be the center of attention and still avoid close scrutiny. It’s a process that takes some research and a deep understanding of human nature.
- The first rule for the introvert is avoidance. It’s a golden rule and is preferable to any possible situation. Avoid social activities and any occasion that includes more than two people.
- When it becomes impossible to avoid a social event, it’s important to do your research. Know where you’re going and who’s going to be there. Small, intimate occasions are best, because if you already know everyone there, stress levels never reach the danger mark. You can prepare memory cards that tell you what you should talk about (politics for A, social issues for B, children for C). Good research will tell you what each person loves to talk about—as long as they are talking, you don’t have to.
- Whenever possible, hit your tormentor with such a barrage of questions that they won’t have time to focus on you. If you run out of questions, excuse yourself (look important while doing so), or grab someone close by and introduce them. Being the third in a group is an excellent position to be in. Two talkative, social people will ensure that you have to do nothing beyond smile at strategic points. No one involved in a discussion close to their heart will have time to ask you about yourself, or force you to give up any information about yourself.
- At times, of course, research and preparedness is useless, especially when it comes to chance meetings. A meeting at a supermarket isn’t very worrying. In the midst of shopping, few people are looking for an extended social hook-up. A quick smile, a hello and a ‘must run’ is all that’s needed when you bump into someone at the supermarket (though my ritual for shopping always starts with a careful perusal around me. Make sure that you don’t recognize any cars before you enter the store). A meeting at a gallery or at the theater is a little more worrying. They tend to want to discuss the event, or ask about you. Deflect, deflect, deflect. Asking questions or talking about the weather will carry you through most such meetings. Nowadays, you can always pretend to be on the phone, especially at a movie or play—the phone’s on ‘vibrate’, sorry!
- Larger social events, like weddings, are, in some cases, better than intimate gatherings. You’re just one of the crowd and melting into the wallpaper is that much easier. Going with a close friend is preferable, but even an acquaintance can be used as a deflector shield when necessary.
- The danger zone is the mid-size occasion: the event where you don’t know everyone and where there aren’t enough people to get lost in the crowd. This is the event for which you need to practice before committing. Learn a few random facts about current events, news, movies, books, TV shows, anything that is innocuous and interesting enough to keep a conversation going without too many lulls. If possible, take a curio or interesting object along with you, like a piece of jewelry (lockets, bracelets), anything that can be a conversation piece. In an ideal world, we could take a book along, say hello to everyone and retreat in a corner by one’s self, but that’s extremely unlikely to occur. The best bet is to stick to rehearsed talking points, smile amiably with everyone and avoid extended conversations.
- Alternatively, find someone with a pet peeve and set them off. It diverts attention from you every time. If you’re close friends with the host, hide in the kitchen (there are only so many bathroom breaks you can take), or go outside for some fresh air.
There are ways to get out of every situation, ways to avoid too much attention and ways to stay in your shell without getting noticed. Just make sure you don’t have a friend who wants to show you off, or bring your ‘inner self out’ (as I do). My particular friend thinks I need to get drunk in order to let my hair down and will do whatever it takes to get me inebriated. She includes me in all conversations and addresses me directly whenever we’re in a group. My response? I smile blandly and make some innocuous, non-threatening remark. It’s more fun to people-watch, in any case, than to be watched.
I have internalized these habits so well that it often comes as a shock to many people if I tell them I don’t like socializing. My crafts teacher in college asked us all to introduce ourselves in our first class and in a rare moment of courage, I told the class my dream of living in a cave in the middle of a lost forest, surrounded by books and music and nothing else. No one believed me except one long-time friend, Farah. Farah pointed out to me, years ago, that I never called anyone. She realized that if someone approached me, I would respond politely and be a loyal friend, but I would never approach anyone (even my closest friends) directly. When she heard my introduction (I told her about it later), she laughed. She has understood me enough to know that I am still shy and closed off, despite all appearances to the contrary.
Now, if she ever learns of remote islands or hidden retreats, she thinks of me. She sends me crazy links about small towns and closed off communities and helps bolster my dreams of quiet days of isolation and peace, far, far away from the madding crowd.