Tuesday, 7 February 2012

In cyberspace, no-one can hear you stammer

Rudyard Kipling's illustration for The Cat That Walked By Himself
Last year, I went to my first tweet-up. I wasn't impressed. It consisted mainly of people sitting around a table looking at their phones.

Twitter is a brilliant hiding place for shy people. In cyberspace, no-one can hear you stammer.

As a child, I was what is called 'painfully shy'. (That makes it sound like an affliction. And, if you believe in the social model of disability, it quite often feels like it.)

I'm grown up now and I've worked hard at being able to do what passes for normal grown-up behaviour.  I haven't quite cracked small talk (except online), but I can do meetings and conferences and presentations and parties, if I have to.

But who decides that all that stuff is normal? And why can't I just stay in my bedroom if I feel like it? After all, 'solitude is crucial to creativity', according to a new book reviewed by Oliver Burkeman in the Guardian magazine.

And solitude is also crucial to introverts – defined not necessarily as shy but as 'finding social interaction tiring and solitude revitalising'. Count me in.

Don't get me wrong, I like people and I'm fairly sociable (that's why I'm on Twitter). But I do like – and need – to be on my own too.

As a child, you didn't get much opportunity for solitude, sharing bedrooms with siblings and classrooms with thirty other kids. But I remember being taken to my mother's best friend's house and being expected to play with their kids. And while my siblings went along with this, I crept into the kids' bedroom and spent the afternoon reading their Puffin Club magazines.

Given the choice, that's what I'd always do. But, as the article argues, you don't get the choice. Because the extroverts make the rules. I realised the other day at work, trying to get some thinking space, that there is literally nowhere you can be alone in our office – apart from outside (where you're likely to bump into another introvert 'going for a walk') and the toilets.

This is why I panic at the suggestion that some day, They might turn off the internet. I embraced email immediately as a safer alternative to the phone. And I love social media because it lets me be sociable, in my own way.

And because I'm sociable, I'd like to share something with you. The Guardian article also references another, older article 'Caring for Your Introvert: The habits and needs of a little-understood group' by an American writer called Jonathan Rauch. It's a brilliant manifesto. I'd like to go up to all the extroverts I know and tell them about it.

Obviously, I won't, because that would mean starting a conversation. So I'll just join the 117,000 people who have already recommended it on Facebook. And hope that the extroverts stop talking long enough to notice.

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