This is my first memory of it: I am five years old, shopping with my mother at Kmart. We run into a friend of my mother’s. The friend says hello to me and asks me how I am. I stare up at this unfamiliar adult; I don’t know what to say. I’m not sure how I am. The person’s fixed smile and expectant gaze makes me uncomfortable but I’m pretty sure I’m not supposed to say anything about it. My silence goes on for too long. Then my mother says in an apologetic tone, “She’s shy.” And that’s when I know how I am – I’m shy. My mother will say this many more times throughout my life with her. Eventually the apologetic tone will change into one of annoyance and embarrassment as I remain shy well into my teens.
When I reach my 20’s I begin to recognize that certain goals I have set for myself can only be achieved by meeting and talking to people. I feel this most sharply when attending classes at the Film Arts Foundation. I want to make movies in a serious way, but as I sit through a seminar on screenwriting or a workshop on Super-8 cameras, I take notice during the breaks that people are talking to each other. At first I tell myself these people must all know each other from previous classes, but as I eavesdrop in on conversations I realize that no, they are meeting right there before my very eyes. Not only that, but they are talking about their film projects, they are talking about working with each other, they are networking. But I am shy, which based on the tone and context my mother and teachers used when discussing my introverted nature, is a bad thing. If only I had stopped being shy when my mom pointed it out to me, when teachers coerced me to speak up in class, when my college advisor told me I was too quiet and that made me boring. But instead I just felt embarrassed and ashamed and then defiant. Screw you, world, I had thought on those occasions, you think I’m quiet now? Just you wait, I will never speak again.
Of course I did speak again, but it wasn’t until my 20’s that I started trying to figure out ways to become less shy. There were many, many well-meaning people along the way who would tell me I just had to get out of my comfort zone and do it; they had been very shy but now they had become comfortable talking to everyone. A therapist recommended Toastmasters, I perused the Learning Annex catalog, a bastion of self-help and self-improvement seminars, and considered taking “How to Make Small Talk” and “Become a Master Conversationalist” but I doubted a 3 hour lecture would take me from being unable to make eye contact to being the life of the party (or film-making class). Finally I started consciously running a reminder script in my head, “Make eye contact. Say hi.” Surprisingly, when I remembered to do it and made the effort, it actually worked! Soon I found myself with another problem: making eye contact and saying hello gave many people the impression that I wanted to talk to them.
To be fair, I did want to talk to them, but only about the things I wanted to talk about and I quickly observed there was an anticipated flow of conversation with someone you had just met. Apparently there had to be a neutral starting point, small talk involving trivial observations about the weather or the class we were taking. Following this was a low-key getting to know each other Q & A: who are you, where are you from, etc. etc. If you could make it past all these hurdles then you might be able to gracefully bring up the thing you wanted to say in the first place – “Will you do the special effects make up for my film?”; “Can I be your camera assistant?” If I didn’t stall out during the small talk portion, I usually hit the “getting to know you” questions too hard and the other person would bail out, most likely feeling as if he was being grilled by the cops rather than enjoying a casual chat.
Thank the universe for the extreme extroverts of the world who are not bothered or unnerved by a mostly silent conversation partner. It’s not surprising that many of the people who came in and out of my life in my 20’s and early 30’s were flamboyant, outspoken, and enjoyed being the center of attention. It was a mutually beneficial relationship for the most part, although I confess to intentionally using their boisterous personality for my own purposes, especially when it came to film making and putting people in front of my camera.
When my first son came along I decided it was time to really grow up and quit being shy. I wanted him to have a good role model for social interactions. While I never thought to do this for myself, I was willing to do almost anything for him (later I would completely rid myself of my fear of spiders on his behalf, but despite best efforts, my fear of heights remains intact). I joined a mother’s club and playgroups, volunteered at school events, and hosted birthday parties. I tried very hard to act like the other mothers, to fit in, in hopes that my son would learn to fit in as well. It didn’t work out.
Despite putting myself into all those social situations, I was still shy, or I suppose socially anxious as it’s called now. I did make a few good friends, other moms who, like me, did not easily fit in at mom-centric events like PTO meetings and Pampered Chef parties. There was also another problem; by age 2, my son was actively avoiding his peers. Things did not improve in preschool and by age five, at the behest of his kindergarten teacher, we had him evaluated by a child development specialist. Asperger’s Syndrome was the diagnosis. Considered a high functioning form of autism, Asperger’s Syndrome can make social interaction very difficult: “The social communication deficits in highly functioning persons with Asperger syndrome include lack of the normal back and forth conversation; lack of typical eye contact, body language, and facial expression; and trouble maintaining relationships.” Huh. How about that?
My son has just started high school and I don’t think any of his classmates or teachers would classify him as shy. He’s not the most talkative kid around, but when he has something to say, he says it without hesitation. I also have a second son who is a natural extrovert. He makes friends every where and talks to everyone. At seven he is far more socially savvy than I have ever been.
As for me, I recently made a conscious decision to no longer work towards becoming the extrovert I had long believed existed inside me if only I put myself out there and really tried. I have tried, and with age I’ve gotten better at successfully negotiating social situations, but I feel it’s time to honor the introvert that I am. It feels wonderfully rebellious to no longer beat myself up over my given nature. Obviously I do need to function and interact with society at large, but if I fail to have a conversation with other parents on the school yard at pick up time I’m going to be okay with that. I’m good at smiling and nodding, so when the chatty cashier at the grocery store begins to monologue about something or other, I’m not going to shut him down, instead I’m going to appreciate what he has to say and also that I’m good at giving others room to speak. I very much enjoy listening. Also, I can be talkative when with the right person, so if I’ve ever talked your ear off, know that in my book we’ve made an honest connection.
Finally to all the people who, for whatever reason, love to put introverts on the spot by pointing out how quiet they are I have to say – Stop it! Seriously, cut that out. It’s not helpful and you look like a jerk. I know it’s hard to see in the moment, but I’m not being quiet because I dislike you; I don’t dislike you unless you say something like, “Wow, you just never stop talking . . . ha ha ha.” At which point my newly rebellious introvert self will reply, “Well, you know how the saying goes, if you don’t have anything nice to say . . .”
Then again, perhaps I will defiantly say nothing at all.