My friends at university threw me a surprise party for my 22nd birthday. As soon as everyone jumped out of the dark, I burst into tears. They thought I was touched. Actually, I was horrified. I had nowhere to hide. How long until they left?
I feel this way because I’m an introvert. Actually, I’m a shy introvert, and any shy introvert has invariably done the following: faked being sick, walked into a networking event and immediately backed out, and pretended not to speak English when approached in a bar.
I would say 90 per cent of my acquaintances don’t know that I’m an introvert because I take such pains to hide it. After-work drinks? Sorry, I’m busy. Lunch at the pub? Can’t, I have plans (eating ramen alone in blissful solitude). Co-workers just think that inside the office I’m distracted, and that outside the office I have a full social calendar (not true).
Meanwhile my husband Sam doesn’t really get it, because he’s a different breed – a quiet person who likes going to a busy pub and hanging out at festivals. But he’s grown used to most of our nights out ending with me hissing, ‘Get my coat and meet me by the lifts!’
Nearly a third of the population (depending on which study you consult) identify as introverts. As a kid, growing up in Texas, I didn’t understand why I felt so differently about life from my extroverted family. My parents love chatting to new people. My two older brothers were always inviting big groups of their friends over to our house. I was confounded: why did they love meeting big groups of new people and socialising for hours when I didn’t? I thought that there was something deeply wrong with me.
Nearly a third of the population identify as introverts
Still, I dreamt of a bigger life full of new experiences and after university, I moved to Beijing, then Australia, and eventually London, where I live now. But one thing remained constant: no matter how far-flung the lands, I remained essentially a shy introvert.
My disposition is one reason I became a writer, and it meant that I had very close relationships with my small group of friends. Then in the space of a year, it all went wrong. I became unemployed from my marketing agency job and my closest friends moved away. My career had stagnated, I was lonely; I had no idea what to do next.
I had a lot of time to ponder: what did I want from life? I wanted a job, new friends who I felt truly connected to, and more confidence. So what were other people out there with jobs and close friends and rich, fulfilling lives doing that I wasn’t?
Eventually, and with mounting fear, I realised: they were having new experiences, taking risks, making new connections. I had taken my introvert status as a licence to wall myself off from others. The way I saw myself had become a self-fulfilling prophecy: ‘Speeches? I don’t give speeches,’ or, ‘Parties? I don’t throw parties.’ I accepted who I was – but I believed a larger life would make me happier.
I knew what I had to do.
I would talk to new people. I would travel alone and make new friends on the road, I would say yes to social invitations, I would go along to parties, and I would not be the first to leave. It would be like jogging: sweaty and uncomfortable, but possibly good for me in the long term. In other words, I would extrovert. I gave myself a year.
Challenge 1: The How To Be Sociable workshop
The man sitting next to me is good-looking. We glance sideways and lock eyes. I take a deep breath. ‘I live far away from my parents, and I can’t bear for them to know that sometimes I don’t know what I’m doing with my life,’ I say to him. He blinks. And then he says, ‘I haven’t seen my family in 10 months, and I don’t miss them and I’m afraid that makes me a bad person.’
A bell rings.
Chris and I both signed up for the same workshop. The advertisement promised it would teach us how to make better connections. Neither of us knew this meant confessing humiliating, personal secrets to strangers. ‘If what you’re saying makes you feel like a loser, you’re doing it right!’ shouts our group leader Mark encouragingly. Chris and I nod in agreement, as we sink lower into our seats.
The class is called How To Be Sociable at the School of Life, the brainchild of the author Alain de Botton. It takes place in a basement and there are about 40 people of all ages.
Mark tells us to talk to each other. But, he stresses, that doesn’t just mean everyday small talk, but deep, meaningful conversation. Honestly, I’m happy to have permission to dive right into more interesting territory. Introverts tend to hate chitchat.
The advertisement promised it would teach us how to make better connections
We’re told that we can engineer conversations to be more emotional and interesting by understanding that we all have a Surface Self and a Deep Self. The Surface Self talks about the weather, facts, what we had for dinner, our plans for the weekend. The Deep Self talks about what these things actually mean to us and how we feel about them. Mark shows us a short video of a dinner party to demonstrate. In it, a man describes his commute, before asking the woman across from him what she studied at university.
This is an example of ‘shallow conversation’. It feels eerily familiar. In another clip, a different man mentions the death of his mother, before he brushes it off and swiftly moves on to football. Then he is interrupted by a woman, who asks how he feels about the death of his mother. Mark stops the video. ‘You might think, “Maybe it was rude of her to ask,” but he’s the one who brought her up. People are usually happy to answer personal questions if they feel the person asking them is genuine and kind.’
As Mark had predicted, I feel a connection with Chris. The shared emotional turmoil means that despite having only just met, I feel a kinship with him. The class has been an emotional roller coaster. But I feel like I’ve been given a new outlook. It’s OK to go deep. It’s OK to share our worst failings. In fact, it’s encouraged – and it feels great.
Challenge 2: Talking to strangers
I start as I mean to go on. I’m walking through a park, and vow that I’ll strike up conversation with one stranger. Suddenly a lively brown Labrador puppy stops to say hello and as I’m nuzzling its soft ears, the owner appears – a tall older man in glasses – and yells, ‘You talk to me first, then you can pet the dog!’ Terrified – and embarrassed at my unsolicited petting – I hurry away.
Disheartened but still determined, I try again later when I’m in a café. Approaching a communal table, I grab a seat and turn to a woman who is shaking off her umbrella. I take a deep breath, smile and say, ‘Hi, how are you?’
‘Great, I’ll have an oat latte, please,’ she replies, looking down at her phone. Mortified, I tell her I don’t work here and she looks at me as if I’m insane. Which I probably am for trying to talk to strangers. I slink off to a different table.
But a few weeks after the class, I board the Eurostar to Paris to visit my friend Rachel. My window seat is next to an older French man in his 70s. I’d planned to stare out the window or read but the peace is being violated by an extremely loud woman in her 20s shouting at her friend. I glance at the older man sitting next to me. He’s looking at his tray table, also frozen by the inane, shouty conversation. If I don’t talk to him, we’re going to have to endure this for the entirety of the journey.
Stacked on top of his tray table are four books, most of them about Kafka. He’s wearing a beige trench coat. What can I say to him? ‘Are you a professor?’ I ask. He turns to me, surprised. ‘I was,’ he says, in heavily accented English. I gesture towards his books. ‘Are you a writer?’ I ask. He tells me that yes, he is a writer. His name is Claude, and he writes art criticism.
We keep talking and he tells me about all the countries he’s lived in: Spain, Brazil, Japan. He starts talking about his mother when I ask him where he grew up. Then he stops. ‘The thing about my mother is…’ He pauses and looks at me.
He tells me that he didn’t know his mother was Jewish, that she kept it a secret during the war because she was afraid of the Nazis, and he only found out that he was Jewish after she died. He doesn’t know who his father is… I’m stunned he has told me. Claude and I talk non-stop for the entire journey. We disembark together. As we walk out of the station, I feel overcome with an excited rush – I can’t believe I made such a deep connection with a total stranger.
Challenge 3: Going on ‘mate dates’
Bumble, the dating app, now has a feature that matches you with new friends. These days, it’s the norm to meet romantic partners via apps. So could I use them to find my new best friend? I download Bumble BFF and Hey! Vina, two friendship apps. On my profile I write that I like live comedy and plays, as well as spicy food, good cafés and books. Then I’m swiping.
Most of the conversations are friendly but banal. There are women who simply don’t reply. Then a woman with long dark hair appears. She’s elegant. 44. A novelist named Abigail. I swipe right on her. Ding! She sends me a message. ‘I’ve never done this before, do you want to get coffee? If it’s bad, it’ll make a funny story, at least.’ I message her back, ‘Yes! Let’s do it!’
Days later, I’m getting ready for my first friend-date. I’m nervous. In romance, potential suitors can pretend you have no chemistry. But because we can have as many friends as we want, being rejected is brutal.
I walk into the café and spot Abigail sitting in an armchair in the corner. She stands up and gives me a brief hug and then asks what I want to drink. I order a flat white and settle into my chair. We immediately start talking about writing – she’s working on her second novel. She’s open about how difficult she finds writing the first draft. She’s honest and warm. She’s doing Deep Self talk – this I can do.
She talks candidly about her recent divorce, mentioning that her ex-husband has a new girlfriend, so I take the plunge and ask if she’s started dating again. Abigail nods. ‘Unsolicited dick pics are a very real thing,’ she jokes.
I feel confident that by the end of this experiment I’ll have about 10 new best friends
Later, I walk out of the café on a high. I met a stranger, had a great conversation. She’s busy so we agree to get in touch in a month or so. I feel confident that by the end of this experiment I’ll have about 10 new best friends… Only my next friend-dates don’t go as well. One cancels. Others just don’t click.
Then just as I’m losing heart, Abigail gets in touch and wants to hang out again. We decide to go swimming. Afterwards, she invites me into her house to give me a book. A few months ago, this woman was a total stranger; now I am in her house, discussing writing. And I know I’ll see Abigail again. I can tell my year is already changing me. Talking to strangers has made me less shy.
12 months on…
By the end of the year I have been to networking events, improv classes, performed comedy on stage, been on many more friend-dates, travelled solo and met new people along the way – I even threw a dinner party for my new friends.
It was fear that if I never changed I would never know what it was like to live a bigger life that propelled me on. I’d spent most of my life telling myself I was one kind of person, not believing I could do things that I saw other people doing. Then I spent a year doing all of those things that petrified me.
A small part of me thought I’d do all these challenges and emerge as the most socially savvy, articulate, gregarious social butterfly. Or wind up hiding in a ditch. But I am still who I was at the beginning of this year. Only I know more now.
Ultimately, I have found a new way to experience the world. I really like my comfort zone… but I also know I’ll be OK if I leap into the unknown or the scary for a little while.
Portrait credit: Ian Cook
This is an edited extract from ‘Sorry I’m late, I Didn’t Want To Come’ by Jessica Pan (out now), Doubleday, RRP $32.99