“Okay, I get it — you are an introvert,” she said with an emphatic eye roll. “But can you at least talk to your family? Don’t you love us at all?”
The family looked on (while pretending not to) and giving little, sarcastic nods of the head. It is good, they thought, that the introvert who thinks she’s the cat’s whiskers is getting what she deserves. The family in question involves third cousins and their partners, neighbors from the other end of the town, colleagues from old workplaces, and half a dozen people who are just un-place-able.
I was raised in a very close-knit household, spending my free time with my grandparents, books, and the housecats. While growing up, my idea of a family gathering was walking behind mom, wolfing down some food, and cuddling up later in bed with my favorite soft toy. That didn’t change much as I made my way through college and from one workplace to another. I followed a minimalistic approach to social gatherings, going only when I had to and avoiding small talk the best I could.
All that changed after I married into this huge joint family with more than a dozen members living in one big house (irony? poetic justice?). They are unanimously cheery, talkative, extremely fond of my husband, and extremely curious about his wife who “talks so little”! This means, whenever we go to visit or spend a couple of days at the family house, it is a heady mixture of love, banter, and exhaustion.
Here are a few struggles I have experienced as an introvert at family gatherings, and some tactics I have developed to cope:
1. Personal questions? Bring them on!
When am I planning to have children? Am I not getting too old already? What am I doing about my dry and falling-out hair? When you are family, you seemingly get unrestricted rights to ask away. While I am not much of a talker even on “trending” subjects, it is personal stuff that I find the most difficult (and unnecessary) to discuss. It is my pet peeve, next only to advice on curing my problem of “shyness.”
I am slowly setting some boundaries by expressing my discomfort or unwillingness to discuss certain topics. It is a slow tactic, but it does work.
2. Good human beings love children
I am not debating the above statement. But I do believe that this is not the sort of love you need to necessarily exhibit at every social gathering through baby talk, giving children a ride on your shoulders, or dancing with them.
Many family gatherings I attend tend to involve a good number of children. While I enjoy chatting with some of these kids or playing with someone’s adorable baby, I am not a natural party-pleaser who gets all the children laughing at her jokes. In many Indian families, there is a tendency to equate a woman’s behavior with other children to how she will raise her own kids. This situation of “not being good with kids” often becomes a pain point that I find takes too much energy to explain to people.
I now stick to the few kiddos who enjoy talking about books and animals. These kids draw me out and become my saviors; it’s amazing how loyal kids can be. Being friends with the dogs and cats at the gathering is also a terrific survival strategy.
3. Show off your cooking skills
I am not sure if this is a realm that other introverts also have trouble with, but I find it extremely unsettling to deliver a winning dish with ten people watching my every move. I wonder if it’s the pressure of perfection, the energy spent in conversing while simultaneously trying to execute complicated recipes, or a bit of both.
Introversion and social anxiety can co-exist. I think the former can become a trigger for the latter in certain situations, especially ones involving judgment and criticism. This is why, during family gatherings, my voice is among the most active supporters of the “let’s order food today” group.
4. Hello, awkward couple
My husband and I dated for over five years before getting married. We are both rather romantic souls, often giving into the temptation of candlelight dinners, horse-drawn carriage rides, and handwritten notes. But I fail completely and utterly at performances before family members. I dislike getting called out to deliver a romantic song, or waltzing as a couple center stage, or even attempting a dumb charade. I am most content when I am watching all this from the sidelines, enjoying my drink and plateful of snacks.
I now make it clear well before the commencement of any family games that awkward couple activities are out for me. (It is a gift to have a husband who shares my sentiments on this.)
5. Filling the night with talk
Beautiful, magical nightfall is one of my favorite times of the day. Everything gets quieter, the stars come out, and you can finally settle down in bed with a book and a cup of warm milk. This simple pleasure in life becomes inaccessible during family gatherings.
It is only reasonable that there is a lot of catching up to do when you are meeting after so long; there are so many things to share. I too hold — and derive pleasure from — personal conversations with the family, as opposed to those over the telephone and the internet. However, when night falls, I begin to crave my seat by the window under the stars. It becomes increasingly difficult to continue to participate actively in all the chitchat, and it is then that I get cranky.
According to research conducted by Bennington-Castro in 2013, if you place introverts in an environment with too much stimulation, they quickly become overloaded and shut down to stop the inflow of information. To avoid this situation, I have slowly established my bedtime routine and, like a baby, avoid changes to it as much as possible. I excuse myself and slink off to bed when I feel overwhelmed.
At the last family gathering I attended, my little niece got me a plate of sweet oranges. We sat side by side under the winter sun, nibbling at oranges, and talking occasionally about her school uniform. It is moments like these that fuel me and make me happy about social situations, never mind the struggles that they involve.
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