Friday 20 December 2002

A permanent reprieve (from socializing)

Although it looks like the boss’s illness has given Dorothea a reprieve from the compulsory office party, it’s clearly only a matter of time before she’ll be expected to attend the rescheduled event:

…there is a social compulsion involved in this office’s activities that does tend to irk me, I confess. It’s just not acceptable to dodge the various after-work get-togethers. Now, they’ll go out of their way to accommodate everyone’s schedule, I happily grant them that—but it’s indeed frustrating to feel that I do not have permission to say, “Thanks, but I have other plans. Have a good time without me, though!”

What’s more, I honestly don’t think this style of compulsory social interaction would exist in a mixed-gender office. Last couple places I worked, if I didn’t want to go out for a beer after work, it was no big. Great if I did come, fine if I didn’t, and nobody cared that I don’t actually drink beer.

I haven’t encountered this style of compulsory social interaction in any of the mixed-gender organizations where I’ve worked. And although I’ve never been employed in an all-female office—which I imagine would be a salaried version of What Fresh Hell Is This? A Guy Marooned in Women’s Studies—I did spend my university summer vacations working in an exclusively male environment, a shipyard, with workmates who drank together for two or three hours at the end of every work day. I never felt any obligation to join them and, when I occasionally did, the group opened up and absorbed me, as though I’d been a fulltime participant all along.

My family, on the other hand, almost defined itself through compulsory social interaction. When I was younger, I found nearly impossible to avoid “family gatherings,” which I experienced as every atom of boredom in the universe compressed into four or five excruciating hours. Gradually, however, I devised strategies for extricating myself. The first, and easiest, was to have other engagements: work functions, gallery openings, babysitting for friends… but, as I suspect Dorothea discovered some time ago, it’s impossible to recycle these excuses indefinitely.

Happily, once I had established myself as a photographer and was showing my work in galleries, I could redefine myself as “an artist” and thus be excused from most social obligations. It didn’t hurt that my mother paints in her spare time and accepts the idea that artists need to be anti-social in order to create. But, even in the larger society, which has almost no interest in the arts, the myth of artistic eccentricity encourages many people to make exceptions for an “artistic” friend or colleague that they would refuse for anyone else.

For the resolutely unsympathetic, I augmented my “I just vant to be alone” persona with a veneer of scientific respectability in the form of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. It only takes ten minutes or so to explain the various types, a little longer if you encourage your colleague to think about the behavior of their family members and friends in terms of the MBTI. And once extroverted people understand how excessive social interaction drains introverts of their vital life force, they respond with a mixture of sympathy and pity. “Poor you,” I see them thinking, “to be missing out on all the fun.” But then, the magic words: “You’re excused.”

So, if I were in Dorothea’s situation I’d use a multi-pronged approach. I would disengage from the workplace by redefining myself as someone for whom the data entry job is simply a means to an end: a career in markup, e-Books, librarianship… in other words, a higher calling. This needs to be handled with a degree of delicacy since I wouldn’t want to come across as a snob. But, in my experience, most people are happy to relax and let us driven folks get on with it. (I learned to do this gracefully while working in the shipyard.)

Then, I would recast my passion for gaming as a form of social research. I’d explain that I function badly in informal situations since I can’t help analyzing the behaviour and interactions of those around me in terms of game theory. I don’t do this on the job, of course, since my attention is fully absorbed by interpreting and entering the census data. But, put me in a social situation, and I immediately become an observer. And who wants to be studied while they’re relaxing and having fun?

Next, I’d explain my introversion in Myers-Briggs terms. (Dorothea revealed that she’s an IXTJ in a comment on one of my recent MBTI posts.) I’d add that my observational behavior at parties is typical of introverts.

Finally, I’d attend an office party every now and again, to show I understand and accept my social obligations—to a degree. Inconsistent? Not at all. Because I would make it clear beforehand that I would only attend for an hour. When the hour was up, I would thank the organizer or hostess, say goodbye to everyone individually, and leave. How would my colleagues react? They’d be thrilled that, given my discomfort in large social gatherings, I’d made an effort on their behalf. (Although I quite like babies, in my guise as Dorothea I would never go to a baby-related event, not even for an hour—since babies only occur infrequently and I’d only attend work gatherings infrequently, it’s not hard to ensure that the two occasions never coincide.)

A long time ago I realized everything would be OK when my mother told me she’d picked up the photographs of a party I’d attended at her house. “There’s one of you I’m going to have framed,” she said. “And I’ll look at it every time I’m planning a party. You’re standing in the background of a group of people and you look as though you’re hoping the ground will open up and swallow you or, failing that, that you might be lucky enough to be struck by lightning.”

That’s the thing about introverts: while all you extroverts are enjoying each other’s company, we’re happy to have a fabulous time on our own.

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I'm introverted, but do enjoy socializing -- I'm just tired afterwards!

I'd love to see that picture.

Posted by Anita Rowland on 20 December 2002 (Comment Permalink)

If people aren't interested in attending social gatherings, they should just politely decline.

It would be better than attending the affair begrudgingly, dampening the spirit of those in attendance.

If one tries hard, one can be left completely alone. And then one will be happy.

Posted by Burningbird on 21 December 2002 (Comment Permalink)

I've found that if you drink and drink, pretty soon you're transformed into an "E," and you're just plain having fun pretending that you're you at a party.

Of course, this was in the good old days when the MP's would drive your car home for you if they discovered that you had too much to drink. Or, if you happened to be a civilian, the police would let you drive home at fifteen miles an hour whie hugging the curb to avoid oncoming traffic.

Posted by Loren on 21 December 2002 (Comment Permalink)

Bb, ma soeur, do you honestly think I have not tried that?

"No" does not mean "no" for these people, as I know very well because I've said "no." "No" means "not just then." So they immediately move to reschedule so that I can come. The meme is "it's no good unless EVERYONE IS THERE." Mandatory fun at its absolute worst.

I can't weasel out without being really truly rude. Which, contrary to appearances, I don't like to do.

Loren, can't attest to the veracity of your statement because don't drink. :)

Posted by Dorothea Salo on 23 December 2002 (Comment Permalink)

Self awareness has (as long as I have known you ) always been your strong suit. Alternative methods of introvertism are available. I think group therapy is the answer. I propose (and second) the following original group participants. Whilst you may believe you are an omlympic finalist in the introvert stakes, I know that whilst you are a qualified introvert you are far from Olympic finalist material. You will not qualify as chairman of the following group, however you are suitably qualified as a member.
Rob Landsberry, Michael Joseph Kenny, Ian Charles Bloxsom, Robert John Sinclair Burns, Sammy Gaha, Jannice ( Sluggo ) Slater. PS there are no chinese members (yet). The first meeting is being arranged and you will attend.

Posted by Bob Burns on 24 January 2003 (Comment Permalink)

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour