How Not To Survive at Parties as an Introvert

“Always the outsider looking in…”

I was invited to a summer house party over a month ago. I didn’t want to go – I hate parties – but it’s hard to come up with reasons why I couldn’t attend and lying is difficult. Secondly the host couple are fantastic, interesting people. It’s just that I’d rather spend time with them outside of a big gathering.

I went with a friend by train followed by an uphill trudge through the misty rain to arrive at the party that was already in full swing. We had decided to be fashionable late. Initially no one heard us knocking at the door, but eventually one of the party-goers heard us and let us in.

The first thing to do is to locate the hosts to let them know that you are there, that you were actually at the party. As with most parties I’ve been to, you never really get to spend much time with the person who invited you. She introduced us to someone and let us be. As with business networking, I feel it’s bad form to cling to someone you already know so I stood aside and tried to figure out what best to do.

Surveying the room, everyone seemed to know someone else and were busy chatting away. I suppose it always feels a bit like that. There was a couch, with three people talking animatedly and laughing together. Another small group was in the kitchen (it’s an open plan kitchen, diner, conservatory space) clustered around the alcoholic drinks. Some were hanging out at the patio doors. To my left were a small group sitting on chairs against a wall next to the bookcase, again talking with each other.

I clutched my drink like a life line, sipping away nervously. I’m not sure nervous is the right word here. More resigned to my fate. I’ve been through so many of these social situations before. Some people in the groups would look up occasionally and see me standing by myself but would continue with their conversations, not even a smile thrown my way. I didn’t feel like I could go up and introduce myself. I expect others can do this with ease. It was the feeling of being an outsider, and also that I didn’t have anything meaningful, interesting or funny to add to their conversations. I’d just be boring them, a tag-along, a nodding doll.

In the past, I would have gone up to the smallest and friendliest looking group and introduced myself. However, past experience has taught me that this never yields a satisfactory result. I hate being a the fifth wheel in a group, there but not really there as I don’t contribute anything. Whenever I said anything, I found that people just carried on as thought I hadn’t said anything at all. So this time, I decided I might as well just stand on my own.

I tried to comfort myself with the fact that people are more interested in themselves than others. Therefore, they can’t really see me and it’s okay just to stand silently, alone, holding an empty glass, watching everyone else. I just have to make it for a couple of hours then I can go and my duty has been done. Until the next party, if I get invited.

What is an introvert?

You’ve heard the term and you’ve watched the Susan Cain YouTube video. But what exactly is an introvert?

Introversion and extraversion are qualities which are at opposite ends of a spectrum. Apparently 30-50% of people in the US are introverts according to a site I’ve seen. It certainly doesn’t feel like that to me – I’ve always felt different (plural of anecdote is not data). These are the common traits that I feel I can relate to:

Introspection

We focus our energy on our inner world. Spending time thinking energises us. We live inside our heads – we’re often told to stop daydreaming. The outside world sometimes seems too much, too draining and we like to retreat back into ourselves.

Need to be alone

Having alone time is an essential for many introverts. It’s a time to recharge our batteries from the draining outside world, whether that’s by reading a good book, playing video games or crafting. When the world all around is full of inane chatter, we relish the quiet and peace. Maybe you’re often asked ‘Why are you so quiet?’

Prefer few close friends

Introverts aren’t necessarily antisocial, but they may lose energy by being in busy social situations. You’d rather be with a few close friends, maybe even chat all night, than go to a huge, lively party. And that’s perfectly fine by me.

Don’t like the limelight

You’re perfectly prepared to sit back and let others be the centre of attention. You’re not afraid of the attention, but you just don’t have the desire to take centre stage.

You tend not to initiate small talk

This seems to be a popular one! You’re not the kind to share daily life details with others, be they strangers or perhaps work colleagues. You like to keep your business to yourself. You’re definitely not going to start talking about the weather just because you’re waiting next to someone in line at the supermarket checkout. Networking is a nightmare.

As introversion-extraversion is a spectrum, a person who identifies as an introvert may not show all the traits, and not all the traits to the same degree. It’s not all-or-nothing. Perhaps nobody is 100% introvert all of the time. I hate being centre of attention, but I entered a public speaking contest through choice. I know! I didn’t win, by the way. The trait I least identify with is the need to be alone. How about you?

Small talk is hard work?

I have a hard time at work. This is mainly because of the everyday need to make small talk. I don’t like small talk but when someone happens it upon me, I feel obliged to respond. Except I can’t, I don’t know how to. It’s just awkward.

For instance, yesterday I walked in on a colleague in the communal kitchen. I’d normally avoid this sort of situation as I am already anticipating the small talk. But I had to go in to drop my lunch in the fridge (it was morning and I’d just arrived at work). He was busy making his morning coffee. He greeted me good morning and excitedly stated that he’d spent his weekend at the Tour de France. I just did not know how to respond. I think the block was due to the fear of looking stupid. I didn’t know much about the Tour de France, and therefore had no background on which to frame a meaningful question to ask him. I was trapped. Was he watching it on TV or he was actually there? Wasn’t it in France? I just don’t know!

I felt terrible as there was this awful pause where he was obviously expecting me to come up with something so he could continue with whatever it was he wanted to share with me. But my inability to string together a coherent sentence to show him that I was interested was letting me down. He must have thought I was either ignorant or being rude by not being interested enough to ask him more about it. I ran through some questions in my mind but none seemed suitable.

I don’t know if anyone else has to go through this mental palaver any time an innocent colleague mentions what they’ve been up to over the weekend.

Surviving in an Extravert World

The masks we wear…

Do you try to hide the fact that you’re an introvert to blend in? I have tried but without any great success. It’s too much a part of me, and no matter what mask I put on to hide it, it’s obvious who I am.

This seems to be in stark contrast to a friend of mine, who visited me last summer. We grew up together, but his life took a hugely successful trajectory leading him into the world of financial services, six figure salaries, a wife and kids. They moved to Singapore a long time ago now, to follow his career and I think he enjoys his life there very much. Growing up I think we were only friends because he was introvert and shy too. We weren’t close friends but managed to stay in contact throughout our adult lives.

He told me a little about the ex-pat community living and working in Singapore. They go out a lot, drink a lot, and play hard. I don’t know if that’s typical, or just for his circle of acquaintances. I also ask what is was like working in financial services sector. He described that he works hard to put on this mask of being extravert to fit in with everyone else there. It’s one way to ensure success, ensure you are treated as one of the team ensure you’re in mind when promotions are up for grabs. At work, he’s chatty, sociable. I was so surprised to hear when he said that afterwards, he feels exhausted and simply has to have time on his own to recharge, get away from the buzz and noise. The whole thing completely drains him. What was even more surprising was that he admitted that he felt this way even when meeting friends, even meeting me one-on-one for a coffee.

I’ve always been envious of his success. Don’t get me wrong – I’m happy for him – I just wish I could have achieved as much as he has done. As were grew up together, it makes it easy to compare myself to him. He networks all the time, and makes use of the connections from that. He seems to be able to make friends wherever he goes. He manages teams and projects. I thought all these skills came naturally to him but in reality they’re not really a part of who he his. It’s a persona he’s been crafting and honing since he was young. It’s helped him to advance in his career, whereas I’m stuck in a junior position. (I’ll add the caveat that career isn’t everything – his work comes with a lot of stress and little time for life outside of work. I work in a junior position and what I earn is a drop in the ocean for him. However I like to remind myself it means I sleep at night and have time to do things like writing this blog.)

I wonder how many people I’ve met and envied have actually been shy introverts hidden behind a mask of extraversion?

Painfully Not Speaking Out

There is an everyday event that still sticks out in my mind.

I was waiting at a bus stop and two school girls in maroon uniform turned up a few minutes later. They were about 14 or 15 years of age and one of them was drinking a bottle of Evian.

As the bus approached, I heard the clatter of plastic on the floor behind me. Looking around, I saw the empty plastic Evian bottle lying on the floor. The girl had just dropped it, as though the floor were just one giant bin.

I got on the bus, followed by the two girls.

I should say something. I should definitely say something. Any normal person would say something. Those were my thoughts non-stop on the bus during the ride home. Glued to my seat and staring wilfully out of the window, I remained mute.

It’s awful to litter. That street we were waiting on was the absolute pits anyway.  Bags of rubbish strewn everywhere, half empty take-away boxes dotted about, dog mess and chewing gum and all sorts. And I could understand how it had gotten that way, if that girl’s behaviour was acceptable, the norm.

I wish I had said something to her at the bus stop – ‘Hey, you’ve just dropped your bottle. There’s a bin over there’.  On the bus I felt trapped between speaking out and the fear –  fear of creating a scene, fear of confrontation. Worse, afraid of being verbally, maybe even physically abused on the bus. It’s happened to me before (racial abuse) and no one comes to help. Probably because they’re afraid too, or perhaps they don’t give a damn.

But maybe the confrontation would be more bearable than still ruminating about my cowardly inaction almost a year later. That said, the time I was verbally abused on the bus still makes me angry inside, and that was more than ten years ago.