Attention vs. Interaction

In previous posts I’ve mentioned the advice column, Since You Asked, written by the inimitable Cary Tennis, which often seems to feature introvert-related issues. Today’s question, posed by a forlorn introvert, had to do with that age-old problem (at least for introverts): how do you stay true to yourself yet still make friends? The letter writer pointed out, quite rightly I thought, that the old self-help trope that when trying to cultivate friendships, one should “be oneself,” is not useful to someone who is by nature more solitary.

Cary wrote what I thought was a helpful response, agreeing that “being oneself” is a poor way to describe the necessary action in this kind of situation. Instead, he counseled the letter writer to “Hold your own space” in a social setting, in opposition to “the signals you are getting from the rest of the people that you do not exist.” Even when standing silent amongst the crowd, a time that can seem excruciating to introverts, Cary argues that the introvert is still making an impact. As an example of this, in what may be my favorite part of the column, Cary imagines a “conclave of introverts” in which “silences erupt for deliberation.” The lone extrovert in such a group will certainly understand what kind of power simply “holding one’s space” has, as he waits for the relief of a return to conversation (or so Cary, an admitted extrovert, has experienced it).

Finally, Cary analyses the whole phenomenon of “attention,” advising the letter writer to determine what he/she really wants to get out of social interaction, and even questions whether interaction as such needs to be part of the equation. In what I think is a brilliant formulation (why didn’t I think of it before), Cary states that “Wanting attention is not the same as wanting interaction.” He cites the example of performers and lecturers who may thrive in the spotlight, but be reluctant to engage in social interaction outside of their work. This certainly sheds new light on previous posts about introverted actors and politicians.

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