It’s Friday night. The Stono Breeze is officially open for the season and it’s packed with people. Garth and I sit at a table at the back of the second-floor open-air patio. Three guys play live acoustic music. The early spring South Carolina air is perfect. Garth drinks a PBR, I sip rum and grapefruit juice, we watch the drunk people. Two guys rub themselves all over a cute hippie girl. A tall guy dances really awkwardly with a short woman. When Garth gets up to order us two more drinks, the tall guy sits down next to me.
“Someone’s about to come back for that seat,” I say, trying not to sound too unsociable.
The guy doesn’t appear to hear me. His name is Nate. He lives about three boats down from us on E dock. Yesterday, as I was walking to the bathroom, he stopped me and made a rather forced introduction.
“I wasn’t trying to be weird, yesterday,” he now explains. “I just wanted to finally break the ice. You never say anything! I mean, you say hi. You always say hi. But you don’t say anything. You or your boyfriend. You’re both so anti-social that everyone who lives here thinks you hate us.”
Jesus Christ, I think to myself. Really? I get to have this conversation right now?
I was looking forward to tonight. I was looking forward to getting drunk, listening to live music, watching a crowd of drunken sailors act crazy. I was looking forward to talking with some of the cool people we’ve met about sailing, travel and living the free life. But no. There will be none of that. I won’t be talking to Kevin and Natalie about environmentally conscious sculpture. I won’t be talking with Will about boat building and landscape painting. I won’t be talking to Freddy about how marriage and kids aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. I won’t be asking Billy what kinds of songs he’s been writing and why he refuses to perform with his brother. I won’t be asking the other Billy how he makes his incredible blackberry moonshine. Instead, I will be talking to this guy about the fact that I don’t talk enough.
I fucking hate this conversation. Nothing in the whole of infinity is more tedious, more exhausting, more frustrating, more discouraging, or more flat-out unproductive than this conversation. This is not my idea of a good time. This is a great way to take a Friday night, stab it in the throat with a rusty railroad spike, stuff it in a contractor bag, drive it out into the desert and bury it in a deep hole with a rotting javolina carcass.
You telling me I don’t talk enough is NOT going to make me want to talk to you more. It’s going to make me feel incredibly self-conscious. From here on out, I’m going to be constantly and painfully aware of the fact that you expect me to talk to you, that you are waiting for me to speak. Every time I see you, I will feel like I am being put on the spot. That pressure will only make me want to go farther out of my way to avoid you.
“Why don’t you start some conversations?” Nate continues. “If you get to know people around here they can help you fix up your boat. A lot of these people know a lot of stuff.”
I am getting to know people. I’m getting to know them at my own pace. I’ve had a few really nice conversations since I’ve been here. I enjoy getting to know people when it happens naturally, when circumstances put us in the same place and give us a reason to talk. I don’t find it necessary to start a full-on conversation with every single person I see just because they exist. I don’t like saying things just to say things.
“Earlier today, you came up the dock and saw me and two of my friends sitting in front of the office, so you went all the way around the building in order to avoid us,” Nate points out. “Didn’t you think we’d notice that? What, do you think we’re a bunch of creeps who just want to check you out or something?”
As a matter of fact, I didn’t think they’d notice. I don’t assume that people are watching every move I make. I operate under the assumption that, aside from the NSA, no one is paying attention to me and they couldn’t care less what I’m doing. But not only did Nate notice, he is incredibly offended. He is taking it personally. I don’t understand why. I wouldn’t really give a shit if a complete stranger walked out of their way to avoid me. The action would have no significance to me.
“It didn’t have anything to do with you,” I say. “I don’t assume every guy in the marina wants to look at my ass, I just don’t like walking through the middle of other people’s conversations.”
Nate changes the subject. He crunches up his face in utter confusion and asks, “So what do you do with that hoop you’re always carrying around?”
I don’t think it’s even possible to verbally convey what hoop dance is, but I’d rather attempt it than continue talking about me not talking.
“It’s not like hula hooping,” I begin. “You don’t just stand in one spot and twirl the thing around your waist. It’s more like a form of dance where you incorporate the hoop into your movements. It would be way more effective to Google it if you’re really that interested.”
He hands me his phone. I type “Hoop Dance” into the search bar and play a video for him. His face does all kinds of weird things while he watches it.
“But you went all the way around the building!” he reiterates when the video stops. “Why?!”
“I already told you, it makes me nervous to walk right through other people’s conversations. They all expect me to say something, and I don’t ever have any idea what to say. I’m no good at talking. I’m shy.”
I’m not really shy. There is a difference between being introverted and being shy, but people tend to accept the word shy in a way that they do not accept introversion.
“Well, it makes people uncomfortable. You need to learn how to talk to people. Here’s what I want you to do: next time you’re walking by with your hoop, stop and ask somebody what time it is. That’s your homework assignment. I’m giving you an assignment so you can start working on being more sociable.”
Awesome. I’m glad you feel that it’s totally appropriate for you to give me personality improvement homework so I can practice behaving in ways that make you more comfortable. I’ll get right on that.
What Nate says next makes me want to stab him in the face.
“You need to get out of your comfort zone!” he says.
“You know nothing about me!” I reply. “You know nothing about my life! How do you presume to know whether or not I am in my comfort zone?”
First of all, my comfort zone would be a cabin so far out in the Alaskan wilderness that no one else could get there unless they owned a helicopter. I am not in my comfort zone. As a matter of fact, I’ve spent the past decade deliberately pushing myself as far outside of it as I possibly could. I’ve been traveling practically non-stop for ten years. Half of the time I’ve had very little money. The other half of the time, I’ve had no money. As in zero cents. I’ve had to engage with people of many different personalities, backgrounds, and cultures just to get food and water to keep myself alive. Sometimes I’ve had to do it without the luxury of a common language.
Second, I was born outside my comfort zone. In the United States, extroversion is the only socially acceptable personality. If you are not talkative and outgoing, you are either broken or sick or both. Living in a culture that views my natural personality as a malfunction or an illness means that I have no comfort zone.
I spent the first two thirds of my life wishing I could change my personality and learn to be more sociable so that people like Nate would feel comfortable around me. I’ve spent 32 years trying to explain my behavior to people like Nate so that they would feel more comfortable around me. I have had this god-awfully exhausting and pointless conversation more times than I can count. Nate has no idea what that is like. His personality is normal, healthy, socially acceptable. As long as he is in the United States, he will always be in his comfort zone.
And Finally, I find it maddeningly ironic that Nate is telling me to leave my non-existent comfort zone in order to enable him to remain within his own.
Years ago, I stopped wishing I could morph into a social butterfly. I decided I would be myself and embrace my natural personality. I decided that if anyone had a problem with it, they could fuck off. Why should introverts act against their nature in order to make extroverts more comfortable? Why can’t it be the other way around? Because introverts are the broken ones? Fuck that racket. There are plenty of cultures on this planet in which introversion is not only socially acceptable, but respected and preferred. I do not need to be cured or repaired, because I’m not fucking broken!
“I know I’m weird, but there’s no reason for you to take a personal offense to it,” I continue. “My personality is not injuring you in any way. You are choosing to take offense to it! Why can’t you just let me be how I am? Your extroverted personality makes me uncomfortable, but I’m not trying to give you personality adjustment homework so you can fix it in order to make me more comfortable. I’m allowing you to be how you are. Why can’t you show me the same courtesy?”
“Fine, you’re right,” Nate says. “You’re not responsible for making sure I’m comfortable. But if you’re gonna choose to be a freak, you should own it. Don’t just walk around with a giant hula hoop and not say anything to anyone. Tell people what you’re up to! Like why haven’t you done some kind of performance so people will know what you’re doing with that thing all the time?”
Maybe if I say this again in a different way, he’ll understand.
“I shouldn’t have to explain myself to everyone!” I say. “Why does everyone need to know what I’m doing? I don’t practice hoop dance so I can entertain all of you with performances. I do it because I enjoy it. Once again, you’re telling me that I should do more talking and be more outgoing in order to make everyone else comfortable. Why do you expect me to just come up to you and explain everything I do? I don’t expect you to explain yourself to me. I just let you go about your business.”
“Okay,” Nate says. “Well I don’t wanna be a dick and just leave, but I gotta get a drink… and maybe find another line of conversation.”
So you take offense to my silence and demand that I speak in order to make you more comfortable, but now that we’re talking, you can’t fucking handle it? Somehow, that figures.
Dear extroverts, forcing an introvert to speak is not going to make you any more comfortable than allowing them to remain quiet.
And I do own my strange personality. I own it by acting like myself whether you like it or not. I own it by not explaining my behavior to you. I own it by being how I am without your permission or acceptance. I own it by not trying to fix myself, because I’m not fucking broken!