As an introvert, social situations take me out of my head and force me to deal with other people’s minds and their unpredictable actions.
My experience as an introvert can be characterized by the image of a floating head. What I mean is, imagine that you spend most of your time and energy thinking about ideas. You’re passionate about discovering new ways to view the world and how to make sense of your experiences. You spend a lot of time reading books, imagining other worlds, and looking for connections between people, places, and events that happen in the world around you.
This is my natural state. When I have free time and no obligations, I play with ideas in my head. Sometimes this involves having a conversation with someone else who is willing to enter the world of ideas with me. Other times, I read, research, write, or explore on my own. But the focus is always on the abstract, on non-physical things.
It’s a little like being a floating head.
Unfortunately, for those of us who feel like floating heads by nature, we do have physical needs. We need to eat, sleep, and find shelter. We need to make friends, support ourselves with a job, find social acceptance, and make emotional connections. We need to protect ourselves against being attacked or bullied.
In short, we need to engage in social interactions. I know, I know, but hear me out…
The Challenge of Social Situations for Introverts
For as long as I can remember, social interactions have posed a significant challenge for me. As an introvert, social situations take me out of my head and force me to deal with other people’s minds and their unpredictable actions. I often feel like other people implicitly understand a set of unwritten socializing rules that completely baffle me. I’ll muddle my way through conversations or interactions, desperately looking for patterns or cues that can help me make sense of it all.
After many years, I’ve come to better understand how to step outside my floating head bubble to manage social situations. In this article, I would like to share some of the strategies I’ve learned. After all, social interactions are often the key to making emotional connections with like-minded people, finding a career, and just dealing with the everyday logistics of life, from buying a house to enrolling in school to traveling.
While my experience may not apply to everyone who identifies as an introvert, hopefully it will help some of you make sense of social interactions and feel more prepared to deal with them. I also want to note that some individuals who have been diagnosed with high-functioning autism or Asperger’s syndrome may find this helpful, as well, since I find myself resonating with descriptions (such as this one) of what it’s like to have this diagnosis.
The Key to Socializing as an Introvert — Eliminate Spontaneity and Surprise
All four of the following tips are centered around one overarching goal: Eliminate spontaneity and surprise as much as possible. Now, that isn’t to say that spontaneity and surprise are incompatible with an introverted life. You can have spontaneity and surprise once you have a deep friendship and trust someone or when you’re sufficiently detached from the heat of the moment and don’t have to worry about reacting to a new situation. The point of these tips is to eliminate the need to think quickly outside your floating head bubble in unfamiliar situations, which I have found most disorienting and terrifying.
And this is only a start, of course. These tips get you started dealing with people in unexpected situations, but don’t cover developing a close, intimate connection with someone. Perhaps, though, these tips can make social interactions less daunting and give you the energy and confidence to filter through your social circle to find those you can truly connect with. Maybe they can even give you the first steps to getting to know them and feeling comfortable being yourself.
Anyway, here’s how I do it.
4 Ways to Deal With Social Situations as an Introvert
1. Interact in familiar contexts, such as at work or church.
I try to do most of my interactions in familiar contexts. For me, that means church, home, and my workplace, which is a school, because I’m a teacher. These are relatively structured places where interactions have set patterns and I can predict what to do. For example, in my home environment growing up, I knew that I was expected to be social at the dinner table, during family discussions, and when my parents asked me about my day. As long as I did that minimum social interaction to show I was part of the family, I could be left alone to read or play video games in my room.
Why this tip works for me is that it lets me study the context — something that is abstract and not constantly moving like a human being in front of my face — in order to make sense of the people I’ll interact with in that context. Context determines our expectations for each other. We quickly learn as children that we’re expected to yell in a football stadium, but we’re expected to be quiet in a library. Likewise, there’s a certain range of social interactions that’s appropriate for a store and another set that’s appropriate for a party. By knowing the expectations before going in, I can plan for how I interact, and when.
At my job as a teacher (which is not ideal for an introvert in many ways), I at least have a predictable structure to my day. I know how long I have to make it through social interactions before I can rest. I know how daily procedures work. And once I set up classroom routines and the students adopt them, I can default to these in my interactions with them. With enough experience, everyday interactions are merely dull and draining and not terrifyingly spontaneous.
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2. Default to familiar roles, like “parent” or “teacher.”
Like many introverts, I find it easier to talk to people when I have a script, and even when the context doesn’t have a set script, like a party, I fall best into a well-defined role. At my work, I’m a teacher. I can approach students in this role and we both know what to expect. I can also approach parents, administrators, and other teachers, and if I keep in mind the expectations these people have when talking to a teacher, I can reduce the number of factors I have to consider in each conversation.
This suitably limits what I have to worry about responding to. When someone talks to a teacher, they expect to hear about learning goals, curriculum, grades, and school policies. They know to avoid personal questions, and I also have the confidence that I will be able to use my role as a shield against anything unpredictable they want to talk about which falls outside my job description.
This allows me to connect better with people not only because I need a role to fill, but because people aren’t sure what to make of me otherwise. They know what to expect of a teacher, a brother at church, or the father of their child’s friend at the playground. They probably don’t know how to respond to a random person who asks them about the meaning of life or the core values of their culture the first time he sees them. Small talk is so boring to us introverts that I can only stomach it while playing a particular role, since at least then I know better how to bring the conversation around to topics I want to discuss.
3. Write a script for times you have to deal with an unfamiliar person or institution.
When all else fails — like when I have to call a stranger, contact a business, or deal with an unfamiliar process — I come up with a script to start off with. Sometimes I even research what to expect in this situation and best practices on what to say. I plan where I want the conversation to go. I think in a “flowchart” sort of fashion, trying to predict what may happen and preparing for various contingencies.
Scripts are attached to roles and predictable contexts, as well. When I have learned what scripts to use as a customer, I don’t have to worry so much about going into a store or calling customer service to ask a question. When I have scripts to use as a teacher, I don’t have to worry about what to do when students misbehave, ask sensitive questions, or try to goad me into saying something awkward. When I have a script as a neighbor or community member, I can respond pleasantly to strangers who approach me in public.
Scripts give me starting lines so I can direct the conversation toward a familiar role or context, where I know how to take the conversation afterward. They help me stay prepared so I don’t have to be spontaneous outside of what I’ve planned for.
4. To lessen anxiety, bring a friend along.
Find someone you know and trust to introduce you to a new situation. While American culture values the bold, audacious individual who puts themselves into a new situation confidently, this is not ideal for me as an introvert. I have found that a relational approach works better: I figure out who could introduce me to the person or institution I’m encountering, work this into a conversation with that person, and find a way to use that person’s introduction or information to scaffold my way into the new situation. Many people are happy to help me do things that seem normal and intuitive to them, such as fixing a leaky faucet, submitting paperwork to City Hall, or contacting a real estate agent. But they won’t know you need help unless you ask. This is not always easy for introverts to do, but necessary (and takes some practice).
Learning How to Better Socialize Has Helped Me Grow as an Introvert
While I may be more comfortable staying in my bubble as a floating head all day, I can attest that learning how to better socialize has helped me grow in new ways and better develop my skills as an introvert: I’ve been able to meet interesting people, get married, have children, and work at a job. I continue to use these tips when dealing with social situations, and I find that they still help. By knowing what to expect and being able to adopt a familiar role in a predictable setting, I’ve been able to extend myself into new spaces and staunch the energy drain I experience when outside of my bubble.
If you want to read my novels with introvert protagonists, check out the Kaybree versus the Angels series on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and more.