Introverts can still thrive despite the societal short end

February 7, 2020 — by Viraaj Reddi

Until I was 10, I’d had a total of four friends, all across different schools and only one I still remained in contact with. For long stretches of time, I didn’t consider anyone besides family remotely close, and that was perfectly fine with me. 

Some people, including my parents, may have felt worried. Nevertheless, I was completely at ease, and I didn’t see any problems with being buried in books and staying out of other people’s business. 

And although I was happy alone, my preferred existence wasn’t compatible with the rest of the world. It was always awkward blatantly refusing an invitation to hang out. When I declined a stranger’s attempts to talk, I could feel their perplexity at someone not following a social norm. 

The world demands a certain level of social competency. For extroverts, those skills come naturally; for introverts like me, not so much. Still, that does not change the fact of the matter. To have to communicate with others is just the way the world works. There is no hiding from it. All introverts can do is adapt and force themselves into attaining these social traits. 

For me, that realization came when I was 10. I was attending an overnight camp where the conditions made it nearly impossible to remain alone, from the hours of daytime bonding activities to the nights of counselors leading group games around the campfire. 

The first lunch, I tried to stay out of sight and avoid interactions. But inevitably, a newly formed group of friends found me and crowded around like a pack of wolves, warmly asking me to join them. Instead of simply declining their offer, I babbled a series of unintelligible words, culminating in me literally running away.

Somehow, word spread quickly in our small group about the weird kid who ran away from a simple offer while spurting nonsense. I got what I wanted — being alone — but at the cost of respect and rapport from my classmates. 

If there’s one thing I took away from the camp, it was that I utterly lacked social skills. If I wanted to be part of civilization, I needed to change. My solution, however, wasn’t exactly well-thought-out or intelligent. I simply decided to be an extrovert. 

 You can guess how well that went. I walked up to people, stuttered into offhanded and mistimed jokes and watched them find an excuse to get away. I would insert random Dad Jokes into 49ers discussions, or maybe talk about the new iPhone in a discussion on Pokémon. It was an awkward, cringeworthy phase I’d rather never go back to. 

Despite my obvious failures, I was attempting to approach people, which at least showed me the path to growth. Looking back, I realize most people go through this phase earlier in life. I was late, but it was better late than never. 

Clearly, something needed to change. Instead of strong-arming my way through, I got down to the heart of the problem. I knew what to say, just not how. All I needed to do was to translate my thoughts into coherent sentences. 

To do so, I planned out how to approach exchanges with all different types of people. While passing people on the street, I imagined starting an impromptu conversation. For each type of person, such as a classmate or a teacher, I had an exact fill-in-the-blank method of approaching and initiating an interaction. 

The first exchanges were exactly as robotic as they sound. If someone responded to my greeting with, “What have you been up to?” I would be utterly lost. In the beginning, I’d pretend like I hadn’t heard them and kept to my script, eliciting raised eyebrows or strange glances. If they persisted in getting an answer, I’d stubbornly refuse until they were exasperated enough to move on. 

Despite those setbacks, my interactions progressed as I began requiring less of the prescripted response. Instead of ignoring their questions, I’d offer a one-word response. Slowly, I began getting more comfortable deviating from the script until finally, I could hold full conversations directly from my thoughts.

Being socially comfortable has landed me in situations I never would have expected. I learned from people I never anticipated talking to. When I stopped cowering behind my restrictive self-made barrier, others started offering me both personal and academic opportunities. 

I never would have anticipated voluntarily going to formal with friends. That’s the very definition of everything I was once terrified of, and it never would’ve been a remote possibility if I’d stubbornly stuck in my reserved nature. More than anything, formal was a marker that I’d successfully branched out. I was equally comfortable with attending formal as I was staying home reading “Harry Potter.” 

By just getting to know others and building connections, I’ve been offered opportunities I’ve never would’ve known existed, from joining a hackathon team to being approached by friends to start a medical club. 

So here’s what I’ve learned: Introverts don’t need to drastically change to fit the world and avoid being a loner. Instead, they must force themselves to begin developing necessary social traits. In time, society and all its opportunities will open up to them too.