Raised in a small town nestled in the Carolinas, I am well versed in the art of small talk and southern hospitality. Though social and seemingly extroverted, I’m a highly sensitive introvert. Attending sorority functions in college and being someone’s plus one at elaborate weddings were all things that I didn’t always enjoy, but I accepted them as parts of my life. I had survival strategies for these events, and life went on.
Once I moved to Germany, I had a more difficult time. The huge change involved with moving to another country coupled with culture shock, making new friends, and learning another language challenged my introverted nature every day. Fast-forward to three years later and some things, like speaking German, are almost second nature to me now. Other things, like attending a German wedding, are not.
German Weddings Are Marathons of Social Interaction
Weddings in Germany begin early in the afternoon and last until the wee hours of the morning. This translates to at least twelve uninterrupted hours of socializing. In the States, I was accustomed to half that amount of time. German weddings are like marathons, and I am but a lowly sprinter who can’t keep up.
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Last weekend, my husband and I drove up to the beautiful Rhine River country in northwestern Germany. One of my husband’s closest friends from university was set to marry the beautiful, kind, and talented woman of his dreams. Would I survive?
Reaching My Social Threshold
The wedding itself took place at 4 p.m. in a stone church that oozed charm, from its flower-covered walls outside to its beautifully frescoed ceiling inside. After the ceremony, guests converged in the church’s grassy courtyard for champagne, followed by a reception in a restaurant with an outdoor Biergarten. After devouring delicious food, I actually enjoyed getting to know some of the friendly people sitting at my table. By 8 p.m., though, I had reached my threshold for socializing.
The sounds of upbeat music and loud conversation throbbed in my ears. The beer began to taste sour, the effort of smiling became more than I could bear, and the questions from well-meaning wedding guests caused my anxiety to spike. My husband suggested sneaking outside a couple of times. Each time I stepped out the door, I felt some of my energy return. But those minutes outside sped by, and they were over in what seemed like seconds.
‘I Can’t Believe You’re Leaving Early’
One aspect of German culture that I still struggle with is the starkly honest things people will say. Strangers and friends alike will say exactly what they think, because it’s straightforward and saves time. This is actually kinder in the end, because a person can find out exactly where they stand without much guesswork.
Unfortunately, one wedding guest’s blunt words had me in tears. After people gave emotional speeches, the bride and groom had their first dance, and the revelry really began, I participated less and less. The people were friendly, but my energy was zapped. The effort of speaking German, smiling as if I was having a blast, and existing in this noisy space were taking their toll.
A bit before midnight, I was unable to take anymore. We said farewell and best wishes to the bride and groom, who were disappointed that we were leaving, but bade us goodbye with hugs. A friend of the bride, who was standing close by, pulled me into a hug and whispered that it was nice to meet me. Feeling flush with pleasure, I hugged her back and told her that it was great to meet her too.
Then came the sucker punch. With one hand on her hip, she looked straight into my eyes with concern and said, “I can’t believe you’re leaving this early. You should really stay. How would you feel if someone did this to you at your own wedding?”
Why Can’t I Just Be ‘Normal’?
I couldn’t breathe. A million thoughts and retorts danced inside my already screaming brain, but of course the only things I was able to respond with were a weak “I’m sorry” and a grimace of pain as I shrugged in apology. I closed the door to the restaurant behind me, as my husband held my hand and walked me to the car. As I slowly sank into the driver’s seat, feeling utterly defeated, the realization of her unkindness hit me like a ton of bricks. I burst into uncontrollable tears. Feelings of inadequacy and shame washed over me.
Why was I like this? Why couldn’t I just be normal like other people? I felt so selfish and rude, ruining my husband’s night and obviously offending this friend of the bride who wanted the best evening possible for her friend. I apologized to my husband, who then reminded me that I should never have to say sorry for who I am. I’m highly sensitive and introverted, and things affect me more deeply than they do other people.
What I Should Have Said
This is what I should have said to the person who so tactlessly tore me down:
It was nice to meet you too. My heart hurts to leave this party, but it hurts more for me to stay. You may not know it from looking at me, but I am an introvert. Being around strangers and making small talk for hours in another language is something akin to running a marathon for people like me. It drains my energy to the point that I get headaches and anxiety. When I reach that point, it’s unhealthy for me to stay and I’m not fun to be around. I hate that I’ve upset you, but it is unfair of you to expect so much of me when you don’t even know me.
Let me tell you about my own wedding. While my friends and husband were dancing and having cocktails, I snuck away to a quiet outdoor terrace to just talk to one of my friends. My husband understood that I needed to have some quiet time, and didn’t mind. He loves me for who I am, and wouldn’t want me to be someone that I’m not. So when you asked me how I would feel if someone did this to me at my wedding, here is what I would say to the guest who left my wedding early:
“Thank you for coming to our wedding. I am so glad that you traveled all of this way, dressed up in such a nice outfit, and met all my friends and family. Thank you for showing up and doing your best. It means a lot to me that you stayed as long as you did. Don’t feel bad about leaving. Whatever your reason, I’m sure that it’s a good one or you wouldn’t leave. You are a cherished person in my life and I trust your judgment to decide. I am so glad you were here on this day, one of the best days of my life.”
Then I would hug them and let them leave. I hope that before you write someone off as selfish or rude for leaving a party early, you will remember tonight and what I’ve told you. Things aren’t always as they seem, and people are just trying their best.
Wisdom for Myself
I am a good person, and I have a lot of empathy for other people. I hope that in the future I can be kinder not only to myself, but also to others. When someone questions my integrity or my motivation for doing things a certain way, I want to work towards responding with clarity and insight, rather than cowering in fear.