“Why can’t you just go up there yourself?”
“Because I’m shy.”
“No, you’re not. You love being around… people.” This last word she uttered with a combination of boredom and disgust. It’s at this point where I began to explain to my friend that despite me being an extrovert, certain situations make me feel anxious or afraid.
I’m a shy extrovert. I love talking to people but due to plenty of past experience, e.g. bullying at school, I'd rather wait and see if they’ll be willing to talk to me first. My friend, on the other hand, is an introvert, since she’s happier when she’s on her own. But unlike what the media representation says about her personality type, she is unafraid of going up to a total stranger and speaking her mind.
Look up any meme or gif on your social media timeline and you’re sure to find at least a couple pertaining to the idea of hating people. My personal preference is any that includes Aubrey Plaza’s Parks and Recreation character, April Ludgate. The problem with turning people-avoidance into a mainstream activity is that we start forgetting the difference, between those of us who get physically ill from the nerves and others who just rather not have to deal with it. My reason behind not wanting to approach strangers comes from my anxiety of whether I’ll be met with judgment or hostility. My friend’s reason is because she feels more comfortable and safe when she’s by herself. Knowing the difference leads to both of us understanding each other better.
When we bundle up every form of social anxiety and people-exhaustion together, as one category, it’s not long before someone is told their problem isn’t a problem. Our current environment praises people only when they’re loud enough for everyone to hear. This last idea is hypocritical, since the common assumption is that we can’t stand being around other people. If our personality is seen as a phase or trend, it’s easy to make fun of it or simply assume that we can just snap out of it. I consider my problem as minimal because I keep trying to make the effort to speak to others, but I know plenty who cannot as much as they try. Their defense mechanisms, brought on by trauma or other reasons, are so strong that they might be driven to a mental breakdown through their attempts at being accepted by society.
Instead of assuming that by throwing someone in the pool they’ll be able to learn to swim, we need to first understand why they never learned in the first place. Empathy is crucial to comprehend someone’s background, which tends to provide clues. Then again, not everyone is shy or introverted because of trauma. They might come from a particular culture or family system where being speaking out was frowned upon. Pushing them won’t help them, and might only keep them within their shell.
One positive aspect about social media is that shy people feel more confident to talk to someone when there’s an electronic device helping them connect to others. Dating apps suddenly bridge the gap they can’t do on their own at the bar. They can express as much or as little as they want, and it’s unlikely that anyone will criticize them for not posting enough updates or pictures. Through their apps and social media, they can feel familiar with certain people, to the point where they might see them in a public place and go up and say hello. For introverts, these electronic helpers can be their way of curating their environment and social circle. They can keep in touch with people they care about, without getting burned out from spending time with them or being in crowded spaces. They can express themselves as much as they want to without the risk of being seen as rude by others.
Next time you think someone is being ridiculous for not functioning in public the way you think they should, consider that they might not be able to adhere to your standards. The more we try to understand each other, the closer we’ll be to respecting opinions and ideas we don’t agree with, while still maintaining relationships and friendships.
Images by Zechariah Lee