Last summer I was a camp counselor, which put me in a position that was strange after four years at the same tiny school. I had to actively attempt to make friends. My first week actually counseling, there was a different group of people than there had been at counselors’ training, and early in the day no one I had gotten to know well had arrived yet.
For a while I sat with a boy I knew from counselor’s training. We talked a little, but I wasn’t exactly being a social butterfly.
“You’re so quiet,” he told me good-naturedly. “I feel like you don’t like talking to me.”
That surprised me. Of course I liked talking to him; I just couldn’t think of anything to say.
Later that day, I sought out a small circle of people I was almost friends with and stood nearby but slightly apart from the circle, not sure whether I should join the conversation.
After a couple minutes, the same boy turned to me with a slightly miffed expression and said, “You’re so antisocial. You’re standing back at a safe distance.” It was a fair observation, so I didn’t bother to feel offended. I don’t consider myself antisocial, though, and I told him.
“I’m introverted,” I said. It might have been a word he didn’t hear often, because he told me I was smart while looking at me like I was weird.
I was acting the way I always did around people I didn’t know well, but he was the first person to blatantly point it out.
When I was a little kid and teachers wrote on my report card that I was very quiet, I would laugh. How could someone call me quiet when, among family and close friends, I never shut up? As I got older, I began to feel faintly indignant when people called me shy. Because shyness to me implies fear of social interaction, the word seemed inaccurate and offensive.
At the end of last year, I finally had words for the sense of being misunderstood that often lingered in the back of my mind. I watched a TED talk by Susan Cain called “The power of introverts.” She started it by describing the first time she went to summer camp, saying she “had a vision of 10 girls cozily reading books in their matching nightgowns.” That would have been my ideal camp experience, too, back when I was young enough not to feel self-conscious about my “shyness.” When Cain took out a book, her counselor told her how important it was to be outgoing. Mine was equally concerned (though thankfully more subtle) when I spent free time reading.
Cain talked about the disadvantages of a culture biased towards extroverts. I hadn’t thought before of all the little ways in which schools and workplaces favor extroverts. For instance, desks are often arranged in pods to encourage people to work together. I never minded the pods, but I deplored the group projects.
If I hadn’t seen that TED talk, I might have been confused when someone thought I didn’t like talking to him and insulted when he called me antisocial. Instead, I felt glad to have friends who have made an effort to get to know me. I come across as quiet, but I like being around people. I’m not antisocial, but sometimes I like to be alone. And I might be awkward around people when I first meet them, but I get over it after a couple of years.