Sunday, October 5, 2014

Introversion for Dummies

'Shyness is the fear of social disapproval or humiliation, while introversion is a preference for environments that are not overstimulating. Shyness is inherently painful; introversion is not.' - Susan Cain, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking 

People are always telling me that I should get out more. It’s usually accompanied by a sage nod and a string of well-meaning and yet, profoundly ignorant statements (stemming from absurd assumptions about introversion) that are supposed to motivate me into getting out: “Just come, meet some relatives, TALK! You’ll feel happy,” or “I know what’s missing in your life. Gossip!” and my personal favourite (because of how high it scores in the absurd-o-meter), “Don’t be such an aunty. When was the last time you got hammered?” It always takes me every ounce of self-restraint to not point out the obvious: That introverts are not unhappy people leading empty lives that are boring.

Here’s the thing: There has been a sudden explosion of memes and articles on the lines of 27 Signs of Introversion and 15 Things Only Introverts Understand and yada yada yada and I keep thinking: Why? WHY are we explaining the difference between ‘introversion’ and ‘depression’ to people who are clearly too busy gossiping and getting hammered to have ever brushed up against the concept of a dictionary? And why should we have to come up with excuses for who we are EVERY TIME we turn down an invitation to ‘get out.’

I mean, it’s not like they consulted us when they decided that out is better than in. I get that it’s better for some people, but if they can’t see it that way, I’ve decided that I’m going to stop apologizing for choosing The Good Wife over   Saturday night with people who want to talk about their relationships, get drunk and take selfies.

See, I keep seeing pictures with captions on the lines of ‘This is the life’ on my FB newsfeed all the time. The pictures are usually of exotic vacations, a bottle of chilled beer, sinfully rich desserts, partying with friends and on and on. Most people go on to comment and agree that it is, indeed, the life. I look at that and I want to make a meme of my own with the same caption: A picture of Tom Hanks in Castaway, talking to Wilson, the volleyball. An island to myself where no one can call and ask me if I’d like to get out! What’s not to like?  This. Is. The. Life.

This brings me to the question that no one is asking: How did introverts get into this mess in the first place? You know? Being treated like socially impaired half-people, who need to be coaxed out of our toxic shells where we are clearly DYING. I mean, the typical introvert feels like he might lose his mind if he doesn’t get time to himself, and the typical extrovert feels that way if he’s left alone with his thoughts for long periods of time – as proven by people who go “I don’t know HOW you sit at home all the time. I’d go MAD. I mean, it’s unhealthy!” Waitaminute. You are basically saying that you are not interesting enough to keep yourself interested and somehow I’m the one with the problem?

Probably, the only people more annoying to a true blue introvert than the Extrovert Evangelists, are the Wannabe Introverts. They exist and they are a ‘thing.’ They’ve watched too many shows (Breaking Bad, Big Bang Theory, Newsroom and on and on) that have established nerds as ‘cool’ in their heads; and now they think the only way to claim said coolness is by convincing everyone on social media about the big, introverted nerdy FREAKS that they are (Of course, this would be a lot more convincing if they stopped updating their status about introversion from 3 different clubs they checked into on the same night).

I better stop now, my head feels full: another side-effect of staying in.

‘You’re told that you’re “in your head too much,” a phrase that’s often deployed against the quiet and cerebral. Of course, there’s another word for such people: thinkers.’ – Susan Cain, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking  

Sunday, September 28, 2014

On running out of conversation

"My need to make the best of things and your need to be responsible...if we don't do something now, we could lose ten years being polite." -  Jerry Maguire 

I used to think that running out of conversation was the worst thing that could happen to a relationship. There was a quiet finality about it, quite unlike rage or betrayal which provided a perverse reassurance ("they're only lashing out at you because they care") even when the relationship itself was falling apart. The popular notion was that if you're running out of things to say, then you're probably running out of things you have in common, which means you're likely to get bored very soon and oh my god, do you not know what happens to relationships in which the two people (or worse, just one of the two) get(s) BORED?

Of course, I was not alone in this. I've had friends (women, always) who pursued me with all the zeal of a newly converted Jehovah's Witness, upon the first signs of conversation wearing out. "I feel like we don't talk that much anymore" was a refrain that once made me shudder and melt at the same time. I then went on some pretty nasty guilt-trips (I mean, I'm a true blue Virgo - I come with the unique talent of making everything MY fault. After which, I will brood, apologise profusely and make amends. Then I will go over the whole episode in my head objectively, rationalize, and get really mad with the other person for not introspecting, not being self-aware and so gladly accepting my apologies). I digress.

Nowadays, I have a completely different take on this. I still think that waning conversation is usually a sign of waning interest (with the exception of those relationships (usually family) that come with this gorgeous, perfect silence that just lets you be). But it doesn't bother me anymore when a relationship shows signs of dying a natural death. It doesn't even bother me when it bothers the other person. While this might sound cold on the surface, there's a simple logic at work here: I only have room for this many (that's about a handful) people in my life.
Of these, some people fall under the lots-of-momentum category. They are people who are constantly pushing themselves, pursuing goals, holding themselves accountable when they aren't being authentic enough, nice enough, interesting enough. The result is magical. I've known them for years and there's never been a dull moment. And here's the thing: There's always something to TALK about. The other category is people who are a constant thorn in my flesh (the ones who seem to exist just to give me grief every now and then) and I can't seem to shake them off. But they have their place too: They make me grow. And besides, they have a way of falling away on their own when they've served their purpose.

My problem is with the ones in between. They're not moving forward fast enough to keep me interested, and they're not painful enough to make me grow. And ever since I hit 29, I've had this constantly ticking clock (no, not THAT clock, you schmuck, I already have a child) in my head. It's like there's only so much time and I have to be very clear about what I want to do in this time. What are the relationships I want to nurture? What are the goals I must accomplish? What are the dreams I want to pursue? All of this aside, there are such things as making a living, running errands, falling in love, doing chores, standing in queues, having heart pounded from falling in love, getting stuck in traffic, recovering from pounded heart, missing flights, fixing A/Cs, catching the flu, etc. etc that get in the way. So how is one supposed to fit in 'Try to make conversation and force a connection with friend who refuses to try to move forward?' into the schedule? Also, WHY should one try so hard when the other person chooses to be stuck in Time-Warp Land? Pray, tell!

I'm not saying you stop caring about people you've run out of conversation with. I know for a fact that I'll be there for anyone in my life should they really need me. And if I have fab memories with them, I'll keep those close too. And who's to tell - perhaps, years down the line, some life-altering situation might change one of us beyond recognition and cause us to reconnect and grow closer than we were the first time.

But until then, would it be so wrong to acknowledge that we have nothing to say and that's OKAY?

Sunday, June 1, 2014

The problem with first impressions (even when they’re true).

I don’t make a good first impression. For starters, I’m vertically challenged and it is a proven fact that it’s the tall people who get noticed first; followed by medium-sized people, and by the time they get down to noticing me, something interesting has happened or someone has said something hilarious and everyone’s now busy focusing on that. Now this situation could be easily fixed if I were Eva Longoria (we share the same height) but I’m not.
That’s all right though, we can still find a way out. All I need is a big, colourful personality.
You know all those people who walk into a room as if everyone’s gathered there just to hear them speak? Yeah, them. Are you picturing someone right now? It helps if you picture them. They can talk about anything – it doesn’t have to make sense or even be particularly funny. And many people even secretly admit to finding their constant need for the spotlight, annoying, after a while. BUT. They make a good first impression. A chance that is entirely denied to us introverted, socially-awkward folk.

So. I have to rely heavily on such things as good nature and my ability to sustain deep, meaningful conversations and relationships. Everything has to be about depth and meaning because clearly, I’m completely lacking on the cosmetic front. This is why I don’t even bother putting my back into small talk. People mistakenly conclude that this is because I must be some kind of snob, but it’s completely untrue. It’s because I need time.

 See, unlike all those flashy, charming people who will swoop right in, bowl you over and disappear before you can pick yourself up, I will take my time to grow on you. Sure, I can’t hold a party together, dance to save my life and no, rooms do not get brighter when I walk into them.

But give me some time, and I’ll know all your faces, all your noises, your defence mechanisms, your weird things, your annoying traits - and unlike most people who will give up on you at this stage, I’ll just be getting started.
And suddenly, you won’t even remember what you thought when you first met me because by now, we’d have the kind of friendship that actually matters. And all the party chit-chat in the world will not be able to replace it. If you’re a sucker, this might even cloud your judgment and make you think I’m kind of pretty. Deep and meaningful with even a healthy amount of delusion. What’s not to like?

It’s because I’m not trying to make an impression to begin with. I’m looking for people worth investing in. In some ways I feel like this has a lot to do with the fact that I’ve lived in Chennai all my life. It just strikes me as a quintessentially Chennai trait. I mean, while all the colourful complaints about this place might be true, I also suspect it’s because people might be looking at it with all the wrong expectations. Because as almost anyone who has adopted this city would tell you, it does not make a good first impression.  But it has a way of sneaking up on you, getting under your skin and much to your surprise, you realize that you don’t even want to shake it off.

It doesn’t have Bombay’s appetite for constant excitement or Bangalore’s fabulous weather, but for some unfathomable reason, it’s the one place you want to rush to when you’ve spent more than a few weeks anywhere else. Because while all those other cities are great for small talk, Chennai is the one that really gets you. And not the you-in-high-heels-blowing-page-3-style-air-kisses, it gets the you-in-pyjamas-listening-to-Ricky-Martin-in-secret-shame. And it loves you anyway. So you reciprocate in the only way you possibly can – you call it home.

As I recently overheard a twenty-something guy describe Chennai– ‘It’s like the not-very-good-looking-but-sweet chick you ignore at first, but end up marrying.’

Yeah, sounds about right.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

The New Law of Reciprocation

Someone recently enlightened me about how teenagers in London, say hello to each other. I’m cutting the story short here, but it involves two teenage girls in the tube, having a casual exchange that goes something like this: ‘He sent me a naked picture.’ ‘Oh. What did you do?’ ‘(Shrugs) Sent him back one of mine.’ ‘How do you know him again?’ ‘Met him just once at a party.’ ‘You said you didn’t like him right?’ ‘Yes, but I didn’t want to be rude.’


After discussing it with a few others here in India, I realized that it’s how it is here as well. It’s probably not yet a norm for politeness, but it does exist. I responded to this in three ways: As a person, I was appalled. As a parent, anxious. And as a writer, curious.

When I was a teenager back in the 90s, playing hard-to-get was still in vogue. Girls gave boys a good long run before they expressed any interest in them and the boys, in turn, seemed to appreciate this because it made them feel like they had won something. But like all cute traditions involving teenagers, this one also came with a rule. A rule that no one spoke of, but understood. And in my case, learned after several embarrassing situations. And the rule went like this: The length of time a boy chases you, is directly proportional to how good looking and popular you are. And oh, how much the other boys want you.
So. I learned politeness early.

I learned not to be shrewish and fussy, to not take anyone’s interest in me for granted and to always appreciate the nice things that people did for me. But most of all, I learned to reciprocate – a trait that has served me well in adulthood. Of course, reciprocation in the 90s didn’t always have to be in the same capacity. So if a boy liked me ‘like that’ but I didn’t, I responded by being nice to him and treating him like a friend. Because the rule of reciprocation went like this: You can’t like everyone ‘like that,’ but you can still be nice.  

Clearly, the law of reciprocation has been drastically revised since. And yes, I understand that it is the bane of every generation to attempt to exorcise the demons of the previous one, thereby begetting new demons. But what I don’t understand is this: What did these kids find so wrong with our hellos that they had to take such an extreme step?

Perhaps they recognized all societal norms to be a farce. They noticed that hellos between boys and girls are often loaded with sexual tension. And where there is tension, there is always an agenda.
Maybe, at a subconscious level, all they’re really looking for are friendships without hidden motives. And this is just their way of freeing themselves of said motives – by getting the sexual tension out of the way in the very beginning. And what better way to say ‘All right, get it over with and then we can be friends’ than sending naked selfies to boys you barely know and don’t really like? It’s kind of brilliant when you think about it. Right?

Hahaha, no. I’m messing with you. It’s warped, freaky and in every sense, a cry for help. We need to fix this. But how? Especially since it’s established that no generation has ever listened to the previous one. But what is also established is that they are programmed to go in the opposite direction. SO. I’m thinking, we should go completely cuckoo on them. Like, 90s-grunge cuckoo. Show up with weird hairdos, walk around in ripped jeans, break things for no reason, stay perennially high, appear promiscuous and generally act angry and misunderstood. They won’t know what hit them.

And they’ll learn to reciprocate by living on a freakishly high moral plane. If they don’t, we’ll start twerking. Just as soon as we find out what it means.

Monday, February 24, 2014

New People vs Old People (and the science of small talk)

People are always talking about how they like to meet new people. And they always say it like it's something they really like about themselves. Like, 'Oh, I just luuuuuurv meeting new people. It keeps things interesting' and 'I get a rush out of meeting and making friends with new people.' This bothers me. It's okay to like meeting people and all that, but why this over emphasis on NEW people? I mean, what about the old people? Now, I'm not against new friendships at all and I agree that newness is always exciting. But for me, the rush is in discovering new layers in people I thought I had completely figured out. You know? That moment when someone you've known for years, turns around and says or does something so out of character, that it makes you dig deeper. And then, upon digging, you find this whole story attached to this trait that's so familiar to you, and yet it's so different from the story you told yourself. It's like every person in your life comes with an infinite number of Easter eggs that are revealed to you from time to time if you won't stop looking. How cool is that. So yeah, for once in my life, I'd like to see a social media profile that reads 'I like hanging out with people I already know.' 

But then again, I'm on the other extreme of this situation. I'm so supremely happy with the alarmingly few people in my life, that I need to be pushed, bribed or blackmailed into putting myself in a situation that would involve small talk with new people. I'm like the fox in that episode of Full House where Jesse and Joey go into the forest to film the 'fast fox' for a Fast Fox Fax commercial (heh). And they sit there all night making vague noises, trying to coax the fox out of its hole, but it refuses to surface. And after a whole night of no-show, they start singing Happy Trails in their desperation and the fox finally comes out. Yeah, it takes a lot of effort and most people pack up and leave. 

But see, this is not because I'm snooty. It's because I really don't get the science of small talk. And it’s a science, mind you. An exclusive science that everyone but me seems to be in on. I've tried and I don't get it. Everything about it makes me anxious. Like, when people you've just met, look you squarely in the eye and say "Let's keep in touch." See, now everyone agrees that this is just plain, old fashioned manners, but I just don't get it. Because for me, keeping in touch is an entirely spontaneous process that I give no thought to. I meet you at some vague party, we talk for sometime, we do okay, we leave. Then we randomly bump into each other again, talk some more, find that we get along good. Then we end up working together on something and this time, we really hit it off and suddenly, tada! We’re friends.
SO. I get very nervous when people just DECLARE it like that – Let’s keep in touch. Because then, it becomes a plan. And when something is a plan, my brain goes off into OCD mode. I need to know everything about the plan so I can decide if I’m on board with it. So I want to ask this unsuspecting, friendly new person I’ve just met, a few questions about this PLAN. Like, how are we going to do this? Are you going to  call me or am I supposed to call you? If I don’t call, will you think I’m ignoring you? Also, what will we talk about when we’re keeping in touch? So many questions.

Of course, I refrain. It is never OKAY to unleash the crazies on someone you’ve just met. You should wait at least 3-6 months and see if they’ll pass the test. This is why old friends rock. Because they’ve seen you go batshit  and for some unfathomable reason, they’ve decided to stick with you. And since their expectations are so low, it can only go uphill from here, see? This is just logic.

Some people argue that you never know what to expect around new people and the whole unpredictability of it all is what they find so exciting. And then they'll annoy you with that overused sentence "because I'm a very adventurous person." I don't get it. If adventure is what you want, why not jump off a plane with a half-broken parachute? That way, you might even make it to the front page. But using new friendships as some sort of bungee jumping exercise? That's just uncool, dude. 

But they aren't the worst offenders. It's the ones who are out there "networking." I think networking is perfectly legit as long as you make your intentions known. Then it becomes a purely professional exercise for both individuals. But meeting people, pretending to be their friend, regularly keeping in touch with them and then referring to them as a "good contact" behind their backs? I will never get that. 

But that's all perfectly OKAY. As long as you're adventurous and like to meet new people.