People discuss introverts and extroverts as if it’s a yin/yang situation: black vs white, bookish vs party animal, shadow vs spotlight. However, as with most things psychological, it’s less an On/Off binary than a sliding scale: remember, even in the traditional yin/yang symbol, there is some yang in yin, and yin in yang.
I’m an introvert, the kind of introvert who is just as happy sitting staring at the wall thinking as I am out in a pub with friends. Anyone who’s seen me out knows I’m a crazy social butterfly — to the point where I’ve been asked if I’m taking drugs, which I just don’t touch (that’s a subject for a different time); however, I have to be ready for it. I literally have to mentally prepare myself to spend a pre-determined amount of time in social situations, both in-person and online. Online is less draining, for obvious reasons, but it still requires energy. If I know I’ll have to, say, spend five days at a convention, I can handle those five days. I may duck off to find a quiet table somewhere under the guise of checking email on my phone, but I can jump right back into the party at any time once I’ve had a few minutes to recharge over a round of SuDoku. But once that time I’ve prepped myself for is up, I’m ready to sit down with a book and hide in someone else’s fantasy world for a while.
Requiring prep time for social interaction has a bit of an unhappy side effect — I don’t deal well with being forced into social situations without warning, or when things in social situations I’ve prepared for suddenly take a wildly unexpected turn.
I went to a Pendulum gig once, which was AWESOME as I love Pendulum. I’m a goth, so I’m quite accustomed to goths’ more staid, socially-leaning nightclub culture, where people go to drink socially, enjoy our preferred music, see and be seen, and where dancing is an activity which verges on a kata-like art form. There was one club I went to where the DJ played Iggy Pop’s “Lust For Life” and the entire floor cleared for a couple who had taken swing-dancing lessons; they were very good, and it was fun to watch, and everyone applauded when the song finished. This is European goth culture, ladies and gents; it’s very civilised.
Back to the Pendulum concert. I picked a spot about halfway back from the stage, which is an acceptable range at goth events if you want to really get serious dancing rather than leaning in the front watching the band. The front is where the mosh pits happen, and the mid-back is for those of us who aren’t in the mood to take elbows to the face (the back of the room is for people who want to watch only and not get their drinks spilled). However, while some goths love Pendulum, Pendulum fans in general are not goths. About halfway through the gig, a mosh pit erupted around me — or maybe it spread back from the pit near the stage, I wasn’t certain. All I know is I was suddenly surrounded by what amounted to a bar-fight amongst a dozen people, most of whom were significantly larger than I am, who were so drunk or high on various substances that they didn’t seem to notice what they were doing. When I tried to pull myself out of the scrum, I was forced back into it by people around me. There was chaos and I ended up having to punch someone fairly hard in the shoulder before they let go of my arm.
I did manage to get out of the pit, and found a group of baby-bats (teenagers experimenting with goth subculture) behind the sound desk to dance with, but the vibe for the night was killed. I was a very unhappy kitty.
This is an extreme example of how a fairly social introvert can become overwhelmed — I’ve been to many gigs and festivals which were not like this — but it’s a good illustration of what happens when social situations unexpectedly surprise an introvert who thought things were behaving predictably. It’s like someone snuck up on us with a pin and popped our personal bubble shield when we were looking the other way. We get Robbie the Robot suddenly squawking into our heads, “Warning! Danger, Will Robinson!” and all of our mental preparedness shatters as we find ourselves flailing to repair the shields. It’s red alert time, all hands to battle stations, and fight-or-flight mode kicks in.
At times like this, an introvert may become snappish and angry, or withdraw and even start crying with frustration without being able to state exactly what the problem is; they’ll most likely quickly seek a non-social location in which to recover. If you’re in a bar or nightclub, this will most likely end up being the restrooms, since stall walls form enough of a cocoon against interaction (if the introvert is particularly sensitive, they may end up being physically ill or having an anxiety attack; it’s REALLY not a good idea to pop a surprise on a known introvert). For my part, I have a heart murmur, and if I get in a panic, it increases my heart rate to the point where a doctor with a stethoscope cannot discern individual beats (proven — the school nurse was horrified and made mom take me home that day once I could stand again); I have to physically lie down and it can take minutes to hours for me to recover.
This isn’t to say that you should never, ever, ever surprise an introvert in a social situation EVER; for example, at conventions I’m more than ready for things to be unpredictable, and can generally just roll with it and have a good time (but I’ll also have an escape route planned). However, it’s best to be careful about how you go about doing it, or someone’s going to have a bad night.
I know that sounds like surviving as an introvert requires some sort of zen focusing techniques, and I know some people who do practice meditation, yoga or t’ai chi for that purpose. I don’t, personally; instead, I work on maintaining a situational awareness, which is why I’ll frequently glance around the bar like a meerkat while I’m talking with someone. And some social situations are more comfortable than others — sitting with a group of friends sharing energy around, being included in the conversation without being forced to join it or do more than listen and laugh, is a good way for introverts to enjoy social time without having to put a lot of effort in. There are a lot of good resources online (some more academic than others) regarding how more extroverted people can get along with introverted people, particularly as contemporary Western society is structured in extroverts’ favour. The big key to remember, however, is this: a happy introvert is an introvert who is in control of their social bubble, and they will let you know how far that bubble extends.