I looked at the crowd. There were over a hundred people out there, crammed around high tables in an underground bar. It was a “speed friending” event, and the friending had been paused. My girlfriend and I were supposed to give a short plug, and it was time to go up.
The host introduced us. Well, sort of — he introduced her and forgot about me. The applause slowed. You could see the confusion: Wait, who’s this dude?
Every eye in the room burned into me.
I picked up the mic.
“And I’m the other guy,” I said, grinning. The confusion melted away. Suddenly the crowd broke out laughing, and we had their attention.
My girlfriend, who is shyer than me, gave the plug. Every few sentences I leaned into the microphone and said something funny. The crowd was on our side. It was over in two minutes, but for me, it was a high that lasted all night.
Yes, I’m an introvert who actually likes being in the spotlight.
Why Would an Introvert Want an Audience?
The high I get from performing doesn’t carry over to other “people” situations. While most introverts dread being in front of a crowd, almost any introvert can relate to the rest of my experiences — like the time I was 8 years old, had friends over, and after an hour or two quietly asked my mom, “Can we ask them to leave?”
As an adult, I’ve developed slightly more tact, but my basic temperament hasn’t changed. For example:
- I’m the guy who convinces a few good friends to come to my house on New Year’s Eve — so I don’t have to go to a club.
- I’m the guy who is “too busy” to meet up for drinks and a movie, when all I’m “busy” doing is reading.
- I’m definitely the guy who sets a departure time before I arrive at an event, so I can get in, do whatever I have to do, and get out again (with at least some of my introvert battery intact).
But I see these introvert needs as completely unrelated to getting in front of an audience.
I realize that not all introverts feel this way. Many would rather face a forty-phone-call firing squad than give a single public talk. But for me, public performance is completely different than socializing.
The Difference Between Socializing and Performing
Socializing drains introverts for several reasons:
- Social interaction demands coming up with fast responses. Introverts prefer to think before they respond, which doesn’t work well in conversation.
- Many introverts struggle with word recall.
- Conversation is a multi-sensory occupation. You have to read body language, interpret emotional cues, listen to the actual content of what the other person is saying, and figure out the right responses… all at the same time! In other words, it’s highly stimulating. And the truth is, it’s external stimuli — not just chatting — that drains introverts.
- “Good” conversation garners social approval, which is supposed to trigger dopamine rewards in the brain — but for introverts, our brains just aren’t that interested. We literally get less out of most social interactions than extroverts do.
- Many conversations are basically small talk, which introverts find pointless.
Performance is different. Whether it’s public speaking, acting, comedy, singing, or any other kind of performance, it simply doesn’t carry the same “drain factors” as socializing. For example:
- Performing does not require fast responses. While it helps to read and respond to an audience, you’re primarily delivering something you’ve already rehearsed in detail.
- Performing does not require ad-hoc word recall. You get to plan what you’ll say.
- The reward is intrinsic, not extrinsic. Mostly. I mean, obviously, performers would love to hear applause at the end and hope that their performance is “good” for the audience. But a big part of the reward is the artistic satisfaction of having completed something creative — the same intrinsic reward that painters and writers feel when completing a piece in private. It’s not necessarily about social approval.
And, of course, small talk is moot in a performance (unless, of course, you’re doing a stand-up bit making fun of small talk).
The result is that some introverts live in two worlds: We run from mundane social interaction, but we’re hungry for the chance to show off our talents. Of course, we deal with stage fright just like everyone else; so do most extroverts. But to those introverts who actually love performing, the buzz of a well-delivered performance is electric. It’s well worth the jitters.
Introverts Can Be Celebrities Too
Introverts who like the spotlight are more common than you might think — common enough that more than a few of your favorite celebrities are introverts. For example, when I MC’d the book launch for The Secret Lives of Introverts, I got to introduce indie rocker jeremy messersmith, a raging introvert who completely mesmerized the crowd.
You may also have heard of a shy little introvert named Stefani Germanotta, stage name Lady freakin’ Gaga. She once said, “I generally really keep to myself and I am focused on my music… I always feel shy in the Hollywood scene.”
Or introvert heartthrobs such as Audrey Hepburn, Emma Watson, and Johnny Depp, among many others. In fact, given our ability to ignore social invites and pour everything into our art, I wouldn’t be surprised if there are even more introverts among celebrities than among the general population.
But what would attract an introvert to performing in the first place? I don’t have all the answers, but I do know that personality in general tends to be a heavy mix of nature and nurture. That certainly matches my own experience. My mom says that even at three years old, I loved “hamming it up” in front of others — perhaps an innate preference. But it was never a major part of my life until after years of being a social outsider in high school. That experience taught me that most of the time, the attention I got from a group was negative. Performance offered a rare exception: a situation where suddenly, all the social attention coming my way was positive.
For a nerd and a recovering social-phobe, that feels really good.
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Learn more: The Secret Lives of Introverts: Inside Our Hidden World, by Jenn Granneman
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Image credit: @kevinfouillet via Twenty20