I recently finished reading Susan Cain’s non-fiction bestseller Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. It’s a powerful read: extensively researched yet chattily written and full of real life stories. And it deals with an important topic. As Cain writes in her introduction:
Our lives our shaped as profoundly by personality as by gender or race. And the single most important aspect of personality – “the north and south of temperament as one scientist puts it – is where we fall on the introvert-extrovert spectrum.
I’m fully aware of where I fall on that spectrum. What about you?
Please do fill in the poll because I’m interested to see the results. Seeing as our followers here are mostly fellow geeks, I’m going to hypothesise that more of you will identify as an introverts than extroverts.
But whether or not my theory is correct, I know I’m certainly an introvert, although over the years, a few of my more casual acquaintances have been surprised to hear me describe myself that way. After all, I enjoy public speaking: I’ve happily given lectures in the past, as well as leading talks and training sessions at work, and oh yeah there’s that small matter of me leaping at any opportunity to parade around in public in very tight leggings dressed as a robot. Those are not things a stereotypically shy person does with relish, but then Cain’s book makes a really important distinction: being and introvert and being shy are not the same thing. Quiet is a celebration of introvert power, and reading it has really helped me understand better why I behave the way I do sometimes and how some of the seeming contradictions in my personality aren’t in fact contradictions at all. I think the insights in this book could be helpful to others too. Indeed, although Cain doesn’t talk about Geek Culture specifically, a lot of what she has to say feels particularly relevant to us as a group of people who like nothing better than to get together at a collector’s fair or convention but who also frequently describe ourselves as socially awkward and find it hard to break the ice with new people. Today I want to share a few more thoughts about these factors…
Last week I spent a couple of days in Manchester, attending a conference for work. I generally enjoy going to such things, and this was no exception: I learned a lot, met some interesting people and the luxurious hotel room and food certainly didn’t go amiss either. But before I can start appreciating such events I have to go through the agony of those first couple of hours during which I am trying desperately to psyche myself up to talk to anyone. Once the ice is broken, it’s all fine, I’ll happily chat away and relax, but taking that first deep breath and making those initial introductions is not something that comes easily to me. Before I read Quiet, in this kind of situation, I would probably just have berated myself for being so contrary: why I can happily cosplay and lecture and yet suddenly lack the guts just to go up and introduce myself to that kindly looking woman over there, when networking is the whole goddamn point of events like this?
Cain would explain the kind of anxiety I experienced here as overstimulation. Drawing on the work of developmental psychologist Jerome Kagan, she shows how introverted people are often the most sensitive to new experiences and stimuli. I’d been thinking all I was doing – or failing to do – was to make introductions, but actually there was a whole lot more going on: I’d just travelled four and a half hours on a train and walked into a strange hotel in a city I’d never visited before. I was taking in a whole lot of new experiences all at once, so saying hi to new people at that time was just one thing too many. Which is why a couple of hours later, after I’d orientated myself, checked in to my room and – importantly – had some coffee and a few minutes alone to clear my head, I found I was much more able to network. Cain talks about learning to recognise and cultivate what she calls ”your sweet spot”: that is, the environment most favourable to your own personality, Of course, nobody can stay in that optimum environment all the time, but recognising when you are too far outside of it can really help. With hindsight, on arrival at that conference, rather than rushing in late to the first panel with all my luggage, I should have skipped it, had a drink and settled in first. If meeting people had been the main new experience that day, rather just one of many new experiences, I would almost certainly have managed to break the ice much more quickly than I did.
So what’s the difference, then, between a conference and convention? Aside from the fact that conventions are more fun (although I spend all my money at them, whereas people pay me to attend conferences) not a lot in psychological terms. When I’ve attended events not in costume I’ve found them enjoyable but quite overwhelming and difficult to start conversations. I’m always so relieved when people approach and start talking to me so I don’t have to be the one to make the first move. This is one of the reasons I love cosplay, despite being an introvert. Yes there are all those factors about performance, being someone else for the day, and feeling safe behind the visor. When I put on that Slipstream helmet the world goes red and my confidence levels go through the roof. But it’s also about signalling, and what clearer way is there to signal “hi, I’m a geek, come and talk geeky to me” than dressing as a large purple and teal Transformer?
There’s also the issue of preparation. My “sweet spot” is definitely a spot in which I feel well prepared and in control. I’m not antisocial, and I’m even happy to be the centre of attention, so longs as I feel sufficiently primed to be so. Costuming, of course, involves months of preparation, not just in terms of working on the costume but – as geek events go in the calendar far in advance – also mentally psyching myself up. What will I say to people? How should I pose? It’s not that I can’t be spontaneous but I like to feel that I don’t have to be.
With work conferences, the equivalent of cosplaying is probably giving a presentation. I like giving talks, and tend to be quite an animated presenter so long as I’ve had time to rehearse. Again, this doesn’t mean I can’t think on my feet, but I knowing I have a script I’m happy with is the key that gives me the confidence to ad lib. I would almost certainly have been more confident in Manchester if I’d been a speaker rather than just a delegate. My best ever conference experience was actually one I attended during my postgraduate days. I was giving a paper and ended up being the second speaker on the very first panel, conference day one. This may sound daunting but it was perfect for me. I got my paper out of the way nice and early so I didn’t have to fret about it or spend the evening in my B&B making last minute changes instead of going to the pub. And it also meant I didn’t have to struggle at introductions: all the attendees knew who I was, because I’d just talked at them for 40 minutes. At coffee break they were happy to approach me to chat about my paper, so that horrible “what do I say, who do I approach” anxiety never had to kick in. Public speaking and cosplaying may not sound like favoured activities for shy people, but they are actually the perfect… I was going to write “defenses” but that sounds too antagonistic, so let’s say “social lubricants”… they are the perfect social lubricants for an introvert.
Chapter 9 of Quiet is called “When should you act more extroverted than you actually are?” In it, Cain shares some interesting real life stories of how introverts can achieve some remarkable feats of outgoing behaviour, so long as they get time to prepare beforehand and to recharge afterwards. Most importantly, Cain suggests that introverts are capable of acting like extroverts “for the sake of work they consider important, people they love, or anything they value highly.” The book uses the example of an otherwise reclusive Harvard lecturer who consistently gave amazing performances in his lectures because of his enthusiasm for his subject and his students. Whether we’re talking Megatron, Mario, Marvel or Mothra, passion and enthusiasm for your favourite subject is something that any geek can relate to. But we should not underestimate how socially empowering those passions can be. Even when I’m not shielded by a cosplay persona, I find it easier to initiate conversation with people who clearly love the same stuff I do. Breaking the ice is still hard, but it’s easier with fellow geeks than with anyone else. I’m sure this is how many of us can be socially nervous and unconfident and yet still make new friends and have a blast at conventions and similar gatherings.
I recently read about the Communication Preferences System employed at the Nine Worlds Geekfest. This convention uses colour-coded clips so that attendees can signal their current sociability”:
Yellow: “I only want to talk to people I know right now. If we’ve met before, it’s okay to talk to me.”
Red: “I’d prefer not to talk with anyone right now. If I start a conversation with you, it’s okay to talk to me.”
Blue: “I would like to talk to new people but find it difficult to initiate conversation. Please say hello!”
I don’t know if this is unique to Nine Worlds. It’s the first time I’d heard of it being used, but I think it’s a fantastic idea and one that more social events could consider implementing. Personally, I would love a blue clip to wear when I arrive at almost any social gathering!
I suppose having read Quiet has been a bit like giving myself a virtual blue clip. Cain’s book really helped me to understand that I’m actually pretty sociable it’s just that initiating conversation that is hard, because I can get overstimulated quite easily. The book has also made me feel fortunate that I’m mostly active in the geek scene, where there are more tools and aids on hand to help overcome this nervousness. It’s within this scene that I can both understand and accept my natural persuasion as an introvert while still regularly behaving in a much more extroverted way. Cain mentions Shakespeare’s oft-quoted advice (from Hamlet): ”to thine own self be true.” When I cosplay, I suppose I am taking on a false persona, not only as the character I’m portraying but also as a more outgoing and extroverted person than I really am. The first point is indisputable; I am not a Transforming robot, or a Russian Jaeger pilot. The second point is more open to debate. I am not an extrovert but, Cain argues persuasively, when extroversion is employed temporarily ”in the service of love or a professional calling, then we’re doing just as Shakespeare advised.” I like that a lot.
So I think I understand myself a little bit better since reading Quiet. I have a rationale now for why, much as I love social events, I also need my downtime between them. Such times are essential for me to recharge my psychological batteries. This is why I recently had a fantastic time cosplaying all day at Unity but then chose to skip out on the after party, instead having a quiet evening at home reading MTMTE. Previously I might have felt guilty for missing out, or criticised myself for lacking stamina, but now I know I’m just recognising and operating within my own limits of stimulation and I hope other people can recognise and respect this too. Having taken Saturday night to recharge I was then ready to be sociable again and head out to our big Geek Quiz Night Sunday evening, which usually gets pretty animated. Not doing everything means I can ensure I participate more fully in the things I do do. Maybe that’s blindingly obvious, but sometimes it’s nice to have a bit more of a psychological understanding for why you feel and act the way you do.
But knowing is (only) half the battle. So what next? I think the biggest challenge for me as an introvert in the geek scene is also one of things I want to do most. That is, attending a big residential convention not in costume. This is going to happen, and soon. Next month in fact, when B and I head off to Auto Assembly, Europe’s biggest Transformers convention, taking place in Birmingham. It’s our first time, both at AA and at any event of that size. I’m excited, nervous, excited. There is a cosplay competition, but as TF costumes are all stupidly large, hot and impractical (don’t I know it) I get the impression that most dressing up is limited to that segment of the evening programme alone. So even if I take Slipstream she won’t “protect me” from ice-breaking anxiety. B is, if anything, more of an introvert than I am. I’m really hoping that our considerable passion for those plastic robots will empower us to start some conversations and make some new friends. But we also need to know our limits. I hope we’ll engage with the convention activities as fully as possible but if either or both of us find we do need to take a break and head back to our hotel room for a short while, I hope we’ll be good to ourselves about it and understand it as recharging for more fun, rather than bottling out.
As Cain shows in Quiet, there’s a lot of pressure and social conditioning towards the extrovert ideal, so much so that it’s too easy to feel you’ve failed when you find you can’t engage To The Max. “The trick” she concludes, “is not to amass all the different kinds of available power, but to use well the kind you’ve been granted.” I think that’s an important message to take away. So if you’re a fellow Auto Assembly attendee and you just so happen to recognise me from this blog I will be wearing a blue clip, mentally if not visibly.