After years of drinking through social engagements to make them bearable, I finally acknowledged my fear of talking to strangers and made peace with it
Iwas on holiday in Turkey, visiting a Roman amphitheatre at dusk, when I realised I was an introvert. As the sun dimmed and cicadas hummed behind olive trees, my friends and I decided to have our photo taken. “Here,” I said, thrusting my phone at a friend. “Will you ask that person over there to take a picture of us?” He laughed. “You won’t talk to strangers, will you?”
I protested, feebly. But when I thought about it, I knew it was true: I absolutely hate talking to people I don’t know. I would rather stumble around lost for hours than ask for directions. If I see a co-worker in the office kitchen, I turn and wait for them to leave rather than stay and chat. I swerve after-work drinks as a rule, and networking events feel like a complicated sort of torture. The majority of social interactions are routinely painful, and the only ones that are not involve a set of long-standing friends who I keep about me like the petulant child-queen of a medieval court.
To me, there are few things more unendurable than counting down the minutes until you can reasonably leave a party without causing offence. For years, I have dragged myself to social gatherings, large and small, in fervent hope. “This time, it will be different.” And then I would go to the party, and a familiar disquiet would settle upon me like the sweet blood fug of a butcher’s shop, and I would feel so fatigued by it all that I would do what all well-meaning introverts do at social gatherings: get absolutely hammered.
As I drank I became brash, boorish and shouty to compensate for how much I hated group socialising. Lots of introverts become very good at hiding their discomfort, and I was one of them. Few would have known how such interactions ground me down. How would they? I was a high-performing introvert in an extrovert’s garb. I would get back from parties and want to peel my skin off from the sheer relief of the performance being over, shrugging off my extrovert suit and collapsing into bed. The obligation was over – for now.
When I became a journalist in my mid-20s, I found that the introversion got deeper and more entrenched with each passing year. I think this was down to the extremely social nature of the job. Every day, I had to speak to strangers, often asking them extremely personal and probing questions – an odd career choice for an introvert, perhaps, but I am very interested in other people’s lives and I hoped it would help me to overcome my fear. In the process of doing my job, I found that my energy levels for nonessential socialising became depleted and I had nothing left to draw on in my personal life.
But with my friend’s comment that day in Turkey, something changed.
Is there a German word for discovering a part of your personality that is plain for everyone else to see? If there isn’t, there should be. With my newfound acceptance of being an introvert, I started saying no to things. No to parties with free booze, bowling with colleagues after work or university reunions. I didn’t stop socialising entirely: I just limited myself to smaller settings, where I would feel less anxious and as if I had to drink my way through the event to perform. Strangely, my love for crowded nightclubs never lessened. Perhaps because it is so easy to lose yourself on a dance floor in the crush of bodies. You never have to talk to anyone because the music is so loud that they cannot hear you anyway, so you can retreat into yourself and your own private thoughts.
Now, when I start feeling the butcher’s shop fug settle upon me, I make my excuses and leave. And here’s the thing: no one notices whether you leave a party early, because you are never as entertaining as you think you are. My head spins thinking of all the evenings I shunted myself up into top gear like the Millennium Falcon going into hyperdrive, gossiping and laughing and drinking, when really I was having an awful time and wanted to go home. Why didn’t I just leave? No one would have cared.
Introverts are often unfairly maligned, framed either as troubled loners or posturing snobs. But, in my experience, true friends are more accepting of a polite “no” than you may think. (One good friend always invites me to parties, but now sends a follow-up text saying: “I know you won’t come, and that’s OK with me – but I wanted to invite you anyway.”) Now, after a day of nonstop work, I often cancel my plans and spend the evening in the numbing embrace of Blackadder reruns, recharging before the next time I have to face the world. And I don’t feel guilty about it at all.
I am proud to be an introvert. So please don’t ask me to talk to strangers, or come to a party. If you are a true friend, you will understand why.