One fine morning, I sat with my family in the local IHOP, drizzling my pancakes with watered-down syrup and making plans for the day. One booth over, a man was staring at me. Not in the “hey, baby” kind of way. More like he wanted to say something but couldn’t make up his mind. Eventually, he finished his meal and approached.
“I noticed your t-shirt,” he said. It bore the logo of the movie Serenity, which was based on my favorite but unfortunately short-lived sci-fi show, Firefly. “Are you a Browncoat?” he blurted. Ordinarily, a stranger talking to me would send me right into anxiety sweats, but this esoteric, nerdy question was right up my alley. “Yes!” I beamed. He nodded, satisfied, and left. I felt like we’d just given each other a secret handshake.
As an introvert with social anxiety, I hate small talk. Ask me about the weather or something bland and innocuous, and I might be tempted to chew off a limb to escape. Weird, inappropriate, even over-sharing – that I can do. That’s why I might wear a shirt with an obscure pop culture reference or make jokes. It’s like a shortcut or a distraction. This is also why a quiet person might have loud hair.
For me, no talk with strangers is small. I can do it, but beneath the surface, my brain is spinning madly, and alarm bells are going off all over my nervous system. Polite chitchat gives me exactly zero indication of what you’re actually thinking. It’s opaque. My anxiety gives me incorrect thoughts that make it hard interpret signals correctly. What helps is having information, and I’m not going to get what I need discussing where you went on vacation. I’m already burning brain calories just being around other people. We introverts exert energy when we socialize. Doesn’t mean we can’t do it or that we don’t enjoy it – but it drains our batteries.
I would a thousand times rather share my deepest, strange yearnings with one person than talk about that new restaurant that just opened with a dozen people. It comes off as snobbish, maybe, or bitchy (that’s just my face!) but if I’m using my limited powers to engage, I want to get right to the vulnerable underbelly – mine and yours. As you may imagine, this is not always a successful conversational tactic in person.
It’s my theory that this is why the introverted and anxious prefer to communicate online. We can connect, but on our terms. It’s easier to get right to the good stuff (I’m not talking about cybersex, not that I judge). I don’t know about you, but I don’t spend half an hour IM-ing about whether it might rain. I will, however, gladly message with a friend who might be struggling with depression or weigh in on the latest fandom news.
These days, it’s popular to declare a social media fast or proudly unplug. It’s the Internet equivalent of going gluten-free to be fashionable, but for those of us who are twitchy and awkward, plugging in is our way of meeting up. It’s not a substitute for real relationships; it’s a way to build them. Neurotypicals and extroverts may judge, but we’re busy navigating the world in the way that works for us.