When people start talking about how they handle social situations—especially in my social circles—the word “introvert” tends to surface. This makes sense. I work in a very introvert-friendly trade. IT work and web development provide lots of jobs where you can excel while needing some measure of solitude to recharge and be most happy and effective. Increasingly though, it even comes up when I’m among normies. Thanks to a raft of articles over the years, people in my culture tend to be aware of a spectrum from introvert to extrovert, and they’re usually pretty comfortable assigning themselves to a particular spot on that spectrum. They know—even if they don’t really “get” how it could be possible—that some people are recharged by being around others and some people are recharged by time alone. Overall, this is great, and I’m really excited when people discover a label that they feel a sense of identity with. It gives a sense of belonging and understanding yourself. I’m queer. I understand the power of a self-assigned label.
But when I describe my feelings about social interaction with others and they simply put me in the introvert bucket, I always have a feeling of frustration. Don’t get me wrong: If introverts and extroverts exist, I am well and truly in the first camp. I find interactions with people other than an extremely small set of trusted friends to be so draining that I can take hours or even days to recover from a social situation. I am certainly recharged by solitude. In fact, it’s a critical foundation for my mental health. I’m not objecting to the characterization exactly; I feel uncomfortable because it limits the scope of how antisocial I’m understood to be. I’ve been put into a box that isn’t entirely appropriate. You see, I’m something beyond an introvert.
I often experience a similar dynamic on in the realm of the political. Here in the US, our mainstream political spectrum includes conservatives on one side and liberals on the other. For many, Senator Bernie Sanders is as far left as it is possible to go. He represents a pole on that political axis. So here I am as an anarchocommunist in the vein of Kropotkin or Goldman, often getting characterized as a liberal in polite company. Liberal? No, you don’t understand. That’s a dirty word to me. I’m so outside the imagined boundaries of the spectrum that many can’t understand where to place me.
Introvert? Sure. But what if I told you that I don’t ever feel an internal, innate pull to socialize with others at all? I don’t seem to suffer ill effects from not hanging out with others. Maybe there’s some limit I’ve not been able to hit because my culture provides enough forced/implicit interaction that I never reach the threshold, but I haven’t ever found it. If you remove me from the outside world by cooping me up in a house, I get emotionally upset in some wordless way. If I don’t take time to learn new things on most days, I start to feel out of sorts. If you remove me from social contact, I just go about my day with no issues. I read books, play games, listen to music, write, take photos, pet my cats…I don’t feel any emotional distress. When my wife has gone out of town, I have gone many days without interacting with anyone, and I don’t feel even slightly distressed. My world feels complete in a self-contained way.
See how harsh that sounds and feels? If you’re someone who I love, you probably had a reflexive urge to wince. You might even feel hurt. How could I not want to be around you or miss you? I know that people have this reaction because I learned early on in my life that people take it badly when you say things like this. It only takes one time telling your granny that, no, you didn’t miss her before you realize that this isn’t something you should tell people by social convention. When I was a child—hell, even into college—I thought that surely other people also felt this way but that we didn’t ever say so because it was impolite. But no, in having those late-night, soul-baring conversations that tend to happen with some regularity in your teens and twenties, I realized that other people do get upset without social interaction. I have lived with the person who is now my wife for twenty years, and I have seen her become distressed when she isn’t regularly hanging out with friends and family. It’s very clear to me that it’s not an affectation. It’s something innate to her, and therefore, I have had to accept that it’s very likely that most of the people who describe similar experiences are also feeling that way. I don’t have that—or at least I don’t know that I’ve ever found the threshold at which I would feel it.
But here’s the thing: If you’re one of the people important to me in life, it doesn’t mean that I don’t love you. To the contrary, it means I don’t need you. I feel joy when I see my friends in person. When I see my friends Jason and Richard after many months, I feel a warmth in the center of my body and feeling of contentment. When I saw my friend Jen for the first time in many years, it felt like coming home—which is an important feeling to someone who spent her early life moving often enough that places rarely can feel like home. I have been lucky enough in recent years to have built up a community of current and former co-workers who are people I would truly consider my friends. When I meet them for lunch, I feel a joy that makes me want to chatter excitedly. Those responses probably feel normal to you, but the unusual part is that I don’t think I ever feel a need to initiate those social contacts. I think about how much joy their presence brings me and I take steps to initiate contact.
So why am I feeling the need to write this? Many times throughout my life I have felt like an alien or a robot because my personal experience of life has no articulated place in the realm of human experience. “People,” my culture has seemed to say, “are like this,” and then they drew out a set of outlines that I didn’t fit into. I don’t think I’m alone in this. I’ve seen it in queer communities. I’ve seen it in geek communities, and as I learn more about people on the autistic spectrum and other neurodiverse people, I’ve seen it there as well. No matter how inclusive your vision is, the human experience is likely something more vast that you’re imagining. If you’re a human, then you’re part of the beautiful and chaotic tapestry of what it means to be human. Some humans are recharged by hanging out with others. Some humans are recharged by time alone. Some humans have a concept of gender that can’t be constrained to the two culturally accepted options, and in general, humans are attracted to a dizzying array of genders and gender expressions. Some humans want to play physical sports, and some are content working on the traffic flow in their simulated cities on a computer. Some humans express happiness by smiling warmly and hugging others, and some humans flap their hands excitedly to show you that they are happy being around you. Some humans struggle to focus on one thing at a time, and others struggle to put down the thing they’re focused on. Some humans thrive in busy environments with lots going on around them, and some humans need to wear earplugs to bring the noise level down to something they can manage. Some humans need others, and yes, some humans love them without needing them. All too often we live with a prescriptive view of humanity that tells us, “These are the accepted boundaries of the human experience,” and then those who don’t fit that mold have to struggle to change those boundaries. I dream of moving toward a world with a descriptive view of humanity where every person is a potential source of discovery of diverse and exciting ways we can be human.