In North America, we are all little special snowflakes quick to (over)share what makes us unique, exotic, different. Sometime, your cultural background is worth mentioning—”I’m like, 5% Irish, 2% Cherokee, 1% Indian…”. Maybe you have an interesting “slash career” as waitress/actress, accountant/musician or writer/CEO. Some folks are passionate about their current diet—paleo, gluten-free, vegan—or a sport that defines their lifestyle. Formal or informal memberships to a community or even religious beliefs can also come up in the conversation. The message is simple: you are your own person.
At the most basic level, some believe you are defined by a personality type—type A, type B or whatever 4-letter type formula according to Briggs Myers’ typology.
Maybe I should take the test, because I have no idea whether I’m an introvert or an extrovert, which is after all a central dimension of human personality theories.
I like people. I find us, human, interesting—this is why I enjoy writing about cultural differences and snapping pictures of everyday life around the world. I like to be surrounded by people, ideally strangers, because their presence makes me feel like I’m part of something yet I don’t have to interact with anyone. For instance, I like lively places, busy streets, markets, public transportation, walkable cities and street events. I find Canada way too quiet. I’m not comfortable in this culture where people drive their own car and stay within the boundaries of their homes, backyards and patios. I don’t mind sharing fairly intimate moments of my life with strangers—I lived in hostels and I slept in these infamous 16-bed dorms, cooked in these humongous hectic communal kitchens, showered with women I had never met before. I’m not shy: I can chat with pretty much anyone and even though I don’t enjoy it, I can speak in front of an audience and look confident enough.
Yet, I spend most of my time alone. I find most social gatherings absolutely terrifying and dealing with such a high volume of humans who showed up supposedly to have fun together scares me. I have never “entertained” at home, whatever that means. Every time new neighbours move in on either side of the house, I pray that they are the kind who greet with a friendly nod when we meet on the driveway instead of the “let’s have a drink together” kind. I don’t mind grabbing a coffee or sharing a meal with a friend, but I’m more comfortable if we are two or three people maximum. I have never enjoyed disco, I don’t understand what people do at parties, I can’t dance, I don’t have an elevator pitch and oh… I don’t drink.
Yeah, maybe that’s why I don’t find social gatherings fun, come to think of it.
For me, there are four categories of people: friends, family, acquaintances and strangers. I’m comfortable with the first two groups and I enjoy spending time with them. I can deal with strangers as well because somehow, I know how to talk to people. It’s a skill I acquired in my professional life, first as a teacher then as a linguistic resource in communication teams. As a traveler, occasionally I have to trust perfect strangers, deal with various cultural barriers and reach out as a foreigner. So I know how to engage people and deliver a message when the interaction has a purpose.
However, I’m not sure how to deal with acquaintances—you know, people part of your past or your distant social circle who are in and out of your life. Events full of acquaintances are my idea of hell. Are you supposed to just resort to small talk, like you do with perfect strangers? Are you supposed to “catch up”, whatever that means?
Worse are events where you play a role as a guest. Weddings, baby showers, schmooze fests, ceremonies, etc. are social events that divide people: half of them love going and the other half hold onto the RSVP until a credible excuse not to show up comes to mind. Yes, I’m part of the latter group. No, I really can’t be described as “the life and soul of the party”.
I’m a behind-the-scene person. I’d rather hide behind a camera, busy myself with a notepad or be locked in a war room than being at the centre of the stage. I never dreamed of becoming a princess, a model, an actress or a social butterfly.
That said, I’m the “social” half of the couple. I had to excuse Feng, my +1, countless of times. I’m sure some acquaintances think I made him up.
When I drop off Mark at daycare, I see myself in him, in the way he stands in the hallway, clinging to his lunch box and water bottle, pausing before walking in. Even though he has been part of the same group of kids for months, I’ve never seen him running to his friends and greeting everyone the way some children too. I know he has friends, he apparently developed a bromance with a little blond Callum. And other kids seem to appreciate him as well, once in a while he gets a spontaneous hug from Molly. But he stands there, fidgeting, until the teacher tells him what to do.
I’m not worried because at the end of the day, when I pick him up, I see him playing with other kids and later in the evening, he will detail the events of the day—who got the big chair, who shared the train but didn’t share the truck, who ran after him and who threw a stick at the tree.
I wish I could give him tips to make his life easier. “Just walk in and say ‘Hi everyone!'” “You can speak like a big boy now, answer people when they ask you how old you are!” “If you want to play with a kid, just go and say ‘Can I play?'”
Yeah, easy for me to say. At social events, I’m as awkward as Mark. I’m just hiding behind my camera instead of behind a lunch box.
How about you? Are you an introvert? An extrovert?