“Being introverted doesn’t mean you’re shy.” That’s what I always tell people because when I start talking no one believes I’m an introvert. But it’s only half true: sure, we may not be shy, but many introverts do experience social isolation or feel awkward around new people. I always did. In fact, growing up, I was more than just awkward. I was a nerd.
These days, “nerd” is a cool kid word. Nerds are app developers or people with designer glasses. But when I was a kid, being a nerd was not cool. I was pimply and clumsy and read a lot of sci-fi. My quietness made me seem aloof. And the awkwardness only got worse with time—it’s hard to develop socially when no one wants to talk to you.
As an adult, I wanted to change my quiet ways. I wondered if there was a way to stop being socially awkward and maybe even enjoy talking to people. I guess I wondered if I could be popular.
So, I set out to try.
True to nerd form, I started with a spreadsheet. I made a list of all the changes I wanted to see and the steps it would take to reach them. Then, I set a challenge to achieve each one.
The first challenge was to initiate five conversations with strangers. Easy, right? But there were rules:
These conversations were a slaughterhouse. I walked up to people and just sort of horned in on whatever they were doing. My first victim was at an art museum. She stood quietly contemplating a painting, and I asked what she thought of it—loudly, from across the room.
She jumped. But to my surprise, she answered. She did not look annoyed.
As she poured her heart out, I mentally made a check mark on my list: one out of five conversations—done! “Thanks,” I said and ran for it. Clearly, I had a long way to go.
The other four were only marginally better, but I did improve. I started to keep the conversation going even if it was boring (as small talk often is). And I learned how to steer toward less boring topics. I asked deeper questions or just brought up topics I liked. As I improved, I felt an odd rush of power. I was in control for once. I tried to use my power for good and do what no extrovert had ever done for me: politely end the conversation when my partner looked bored.
All of this led to one earth-shattering lesson. My other geeky, introverted friends warned me that the challenge was a bad idea. They said they would hate it if a total stranger came up to talk to them and that I would annoy people. But they were wrong. I discovered that most people, both introverted and extroverted, enjoyed these little interactions as long as they were short and fun.
Soon, I made new challenges. First was to lead my interactions to some kind of next step, like adding someone on Facebook or inviting them to a party. I still have some Facebook friends from this era who, I’m sure, have no idea who I am.
Then I worked on improving as a conversationalist. Each day, I chose three topics before I left the house. One was a “did you hear…?” (recent news story); one was a “did you know…?” (cool new discovery); and one was a “what if…?” (these were the most fun). And, true to the advice we read in self-help books, I found that everyone enjoys talking about themselves. I learned to ask a lot of questions about the other person. I made it a rule that “What do you do for a living?” was never one of them.
One thing I hadn’t thought of was my social energy. I was now better at talking to people and making new friends, but it was exhausting. The definition of introversion is getting your energy from your inner world, not from other people, and I was finding that out the hard way.
There’s more to it than this definition, though. There are four kinds of introversion, and none of them mean you’re doomed to be worn down around others. The drained feeling is because socializing is just a form of multi-tasking, at least when you have a strong inner life to compete with. And multi-tasking saps mental energy whether you’re an introvert or not. I reasoned that if I could get my inner needs met, the people around me wouldn’t feel like a distraction. They wouldn’t sap my energy.
So, I made a list of things I needed to feel high energy. Some, like being well rested and having a snack, were obvious. Others, like finishing the day’s work before socializing, took some figuring out. I now have a social “basket” I fill up before I leave the house, so I no longer feel worn down at parties.
You could say that my experiments in socializing were a success. People don’t believe me when I say I’m an introvert, and I have to educate them on what being an introvert actually means. But it’s true that I’m no longer a wallflower. If I concentrate, I can even be the life of the party.
But the biggest lesson was not about my social skills—it was about my introvert skills. Once I became outgoing, I had no shortage of invites. And the former unpopular kid in me wanted to go to them all. I spent long nights at parties only to come home and realize I’d done nothing truly important to me. I had fun going out, but I felt empty.
Only in the last year have I come to embrace my need for solitude. The most important work in my life—my writing—requires days at a time of solitude. I refuse to sacrifice that anymore. Now, if someone invites me out, I can tell them very honestly: “Sorry. I’d like to, but I’m going to stay in and work.” They complain, but I haven’t lost a friend yet.
It’s funny that in order to accept myself as an introvert, I first had to build up my extrovert skills—but I think that’s how it works. When you confront your weaknesses, you discover a striking strength, and that strength makes you shine. You feel more in control of your life.
So, now I’m happy when I’m alone. After all, it’s my choice.
Have you ever tried to build up your social skills? How did you try to do it? How did it work out?