Setting Limits: The Two Party Rule

A few weekends ago I found myself in the position of having invitations to two events in as many days, a somewhat unusual occurrence in my social life. I had been looking forward to these two outings all week, knowing that I might have a chance to catch up with some close friends on both occasions. However, the weekend turned out differently than I’d hoped.

It started out on Friday night, when Joe and I decided to see the latest David Lynch film, Inland Empire, even though we knew it would be a puzzling, odd, and possibly disturbing experience (which it turned out to be). What we didn’t expect was that the folks just in front of us in the shoebox-sized theater would decide to talk, laugh, and move about for the entire length of the movie (a mind-numbing three hours, by the way). My tolerance for movie theater shenanigans is pitiably low at the best of times, but when I’m trying to figure out why the rabbit-headed people are delivering the same lines again and again, while a woman inexplicably screams in the background, I can be especially sensitive to this kind of behavior. That didn’t set a good tone for the rest of the weekend.

Saturday brought the first social outing, an evening of food and conversation with friends. It was a situation I’d normally feel comfortable in, but for some reason I felt tired and out of sorts. There was lovely company and excellent food, but that didn’t prevent me from feeling overly self-conscious, tongue-tied and awkward. I knew I was starting to reach my limit of social interaction.

On Sunday morning I was still excited about the next outing, a mid-afternoon book launch reception, but by early afternoon, about the time I had planned to leave, I was already feeling grumpy and stressed. The thought of being in a large group of people, many of whom I had been eagerly anticipating seeing, was too much for me. Although I was disappointed not to go, I knew I would be miserable the entire time. So instead I took a long nap and went for a walk in the sunshine. That proved to be the right decision.

So the next time I am invited to two parties in one weekend, I’ll have to be sure to rest up more thoroughly in order to make it through both, or decide to forgo one or the other. In this case, two parties was one too many.

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Are You Being Served (Well)?

On my most cynical days, I fear that introverts will never be understood by their extroverted peers. One phenomenon that causes me to despair of being accepted as I am is the prevalence in any number of restaurants of that most dreaded of species: the overfriendly waiter. Their usual haunt is the tourist trap, those restaurants decorated with an overbearing hodgepodge of nautical gear, sports regalia, and/or 1950’s Hollywood memorabilia. I’m not sure why there is a high concentration of these sociable types in such places; perhaps they believe their customers are looking for an entertaining experience, rather than just a bite to eat.

I always know trouble is on its way when the first question out of a server’s mouth is “So, where you folks from?” Since I know I cannot just shrug and stare down at the table, having tried that before with somewhat hostile results, I meekly bleat out the answer, feeling put out before I’ve even tasted the food. I take solace in the fact that this person probably doesn’t realize how discomfiting this is to an introvert; answering personal questions put forward by a stranger, from the innocuous (“hot enough for you?”) to the deeply private (“what color underwear are you wearing?”), is a keen sort of torture for most. More to the point, small talk is not the reason I have entered this dining establishment. My number one reason for doing so, strangely enough, is to procure food to eat, followed closely by the need to sit quietly and carry on a whispered conversation with my dinner mate.

At such times, I think longingly of the meals I’ve eaten in France, a country that generally understands the need for discretion in these circumstances. With certain waiters, a nod can speak volumes, and a wordless understanding of their guests’ every need is a skill they’ve perfected. These dear folks are content to simply present the options, answer questions and take your order, and then largely disappear for the rest of the meal, excepting when the food arrives, and the moments when he or she unobtrusively brushes baguette crumbs from the tabletop to make room for the crème brülée.

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Silence of the Fans vs. The Fandom Menace

The last time we were in Vegas, Joe and I went to see a show that had recently opened in the new Wynn Las Vegas hotel. Created by long-time Cirque du Soleil collaborator Franco Dragone, Le Rêve reminded me a lot of Cirque du Soleil shows I’d seen in the past except, surprisingly, the “plot” mostly made sense. The show consisted of various acrobatic tricks, diving stunts, people hanging from dangerous-looking apparatuses, and young buff men building human pyramids; in short, it was quite lovely. Unfortunately all this loveliness was somewhat marred by the behavior of a couple seated a few rows behind me. For some reason they found it necessary to whisper/talk throughout most of the show.

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, this happens to be a pet peeve of mine, although in some moods I am able to ignore the intrusion of noise and stay focused on what I’m watching. This wasn’t one of those nights. What made it more disturbing for me is that I knew how much I had paid to be there, and how much all those around me had similarly forked over for their tickets. Ultimately, because I wanted to relax and enjoy the show, I tried to see the situation from the other side. Maybe, I thought, some people can’t get full enjoyment out of something unless they can talk about it while it’s happening. Maybe, but unfortunately this behavior comes into direct conflict with what I need in order to enjoy a show: namely dead silence.

Later on, as I reflected on this conundrum, I realized that I feel the same way about intrusive noise as I do about second-hand smoke: that people are free to do what they want as long as they don’t interfere with the happiness or health of others. Just as patrons in a smoky bar cannot escape second-hand smoke, so second-hand noise is unavoidable for those who prefer quiet when watching a performance. Of course noise is rarely such a health hazard, although it has been known to raise its sufferers’ blood pressure to dangerous levels, and to unsettle their usual tranquil state of mind.

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Introverts in The Washington Post

Last month The Washington Post published an article by Mary Carpenter, titled An Introvert Stands Up for The Right to Stand Alone. In the article, Carpenter describes how she came to realize she was an introvert, and the effect this had on her family, work, and social interactions. I have to say it’s nice to see the WaPo pay attention to us introverts.

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All the World’s a Stage: Introverts & Acting

Recently I had the pleasure of attending a high school musical that my stepson was performing in (strangely enough, in light of this site’s theme, it was Stephen Sondheim’s Company). Watching the young actors onstage made me think of my own high school drama experiences, although only briefly; I don’t like to dwell too much on that painful phase of my adolescence.

For some reason, when I was younger I felt it necessary to repeatedly put myself into situations that were extremely stressful for me. Although I dreaded performing in front of others, that didn’t stop me from taking piano lessons, singing lessons, dance lessons, playing in a band, or auditioning for plays and musicals. At my most perverse, I joined the high school debate team (after my first debate, one of our opponents even asked petulantly, “Isn’t she supposed to say something?”).

I think my motivation for doing all this was a combination of various factors: a misguided belief that suffering would make me a better person; a desperate need to express myself (which would later find a much better outlet in writing); and at times, actual enjoyment, mingled with terror, of participating in the activity in question. My forays into high school drama productions were prompted by a mixture of all three, and were aided by my sheer and utter ignorance of how crippling extreme self-consciousness is for an aspiring actor or actress.

And so it was that I stumbled onward, through the roles of Soldier #2, Greek chorus member, anonymous geisha, and unnamed Dickensian waif, without realizing that not everyone had a hard time rendering their lines at a level above a whisper. The one major role I did have in those years, granted by a compassionate director who also happened to be a good friend, seemed to be written especially for me: that of a skittish and reserved housemaid.

Looking back, I really shouldn’t have been surprised by my lack of acting prowess at that age; for me, the transition from bright young girl to excessively self-conscious teen was the death knell for any acting ambitions I had. I just couldn’t lose myself in the roles I was playing, I was always painfully aware of who I was, at every single moment.

Because of that experience, I’ve always found it odd that there are so many incredible actors who are also introverts. It seems like they must be able to find a way to quiet that self-consciousness I found so troubling, and to turn their inner lives into an external craft. Indeed, looking at a list of introverts who are also actors, it seems like introversion and brilliant acting just might go hand in hand (i.e., Meryl Streep, Diane Keaton, Joan Allen, Laura Linney, Ellen Burstyn, Harrison Ford, Clint Eastwood, and Tom Hanks, to name only a few).

Since I don’t have their talent, I can only guess at their methods; perhaps one of them will write in and tell me just how they do it. In the meantime, it’s enough for me to ponder how most introverts are playing a role in some fashion or another. At work, and in social settings, we are often called upon to behave in a way contrary to our true nature. Unfortunately, I just never developed the knack for making it look effortless; I always seem to forget my lines when the curtain goes up.

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Survival of the Quietest: Voluntary Exile Island

The reality TV show Survivor attracted a lot of attention last season because of a controversial twist on the show’s format; instead of being divided into “tribes” (teams) according to gender or age, as had been the case in previous seasons, Survivor: Cook Islands contestants were initially assigned to tribes based on their ethnicity. Immediately following the producers’ announcement of this change, an intense media brouhaha erupted but mostly died down as the season progressed and as the original tribe groupings inevitably fell by the wayside.

In the first few episodes of the season it was interesting to see how the tribe members interacted, and to speculate whether their similarities would outweigh their differences, or vice versa. It didn’t take long to see the dissimilarities among the members of Puka, the Asian-American tribe, who not only were ethnically diverse (South Korean, Filipino, and Vietnamese) but had very different personality styles. My sympathies were definitely with the laconic Yul (who eventually won the game), as opposed to the quite chatty Cao Boi, and the contrast between them reminded me of survivors past who tended to either extreme.

In general, it pays to be an extrovert on Survivor, although if you go too far (see Jonny Fairplay) it can work against you. Introverts don’t usually last long, mostly because they’d rather keep to themselves than sit and gossip around a smoky campfire. And they are not so ready to unburden their innermost thoughts in private interviews; in short, they don’t make for good reality TV, with its attention to the machinations and personality clashes of their less self-conscious tribemates.

In previous seasons, it has been painful for me to see how “the tribe” treats introverts. Usually they are seen as loners, and a tribe member’s solitary walk down the beach is often interpreted as evidence that they are not a “team player.” I have infinite sympathy for these poor souls–I too would feel an urgent need to take a break from living with other people 24 hours a day. Speaking of which, for the last few seasons, there has been a punishment that involves spending a few days alone on “Exile Island,” which always seems appealing to me. There is a lot of talk about how grueling it is, and I don’t doubt that it is physically challenging, but I suspect a lot of introverts wouldn’t find spending time alone to be much of a punishment.

In light of the above, I propose a new twist for the next season of Survivor: Introverts vs. Extroverts. I can see it now, alternating shots of the two tribe camps, one group speaking quietly to each other, if at all, and at the other, nonstop conversation erupting from time to time into meaningless spats (a regular occurence on the show). I know which tribe I’d rather belong to.

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Introducing Spectatrix

Over a year ago, I began thinking about creating a blog that would provide me with an outlet for various topics I wanted to write about. I started off thinking I would write about movies; I have this obsession with knowing everything about a movie I’ve recently watched (although I don’t want to know anything in advance), and I thought I would enjoy researching and writing about these pieces of film trivia. However, once I started down this path I realized my tolerance for film trivia was lower than I’d thought. I do love movies, but it wasn’t an overwhelming passion.

As this approach fizzled, an idea that my husband Joe and I had previously talked about started bubbling up to the surface: a blog about introverts. It seemed to make sense; how many times over the years had we complained about being misunderstood by non-introverts? Too many to count. I knew I had a huge amount of personal experience to draw on, perhaps a slight chip on my shoulder, and a personal goal to live my life without fear of what others thought of me. But was it enough? Would anyone want to read a blog about introverts?

As I started to look into it, I found there aren’t really that many resources on the Web for introverts, and what there is tends to address more psychological or career-related topics. I didn’t find much written from the point of view of an average introvert, about what life really is like for us.

I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised; if the hallmark of an introvert is to be more inwardly-directed, it makes sense that we are not trumpeting that very quality throughout cyberspace. For that reason, a blog about introverts may seem like a strange idea to most people. But I think it’s time to start one. If this blog can make even a small difference in generating greater compassion and understanding between introverts, extroverts, and within ourselves, then I will have accomplished my goal. And if I can make people laugh in the process, that’s even better.

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