On not being social

· life ·

When I was young, I used to swim at the local swimming baths. While other people ploughed up and down on the surface of the swimming pool, I revelled in swimming below the surface. I would skim along the bottom of the pool, brushing the ceramic tiles with my fingertips, like an inflated manta ray. I adored being underwater. I loved the booming silence, the all-enveloping embrace of the water, and the fact that everyone else was on the surface and I was in my own little world. Of course, I couldn’t stay there forever. At regular intervals I had to come up for air.

Yesterday I posted the following to App.net:

I’m also at work today, talking to visitors to our Open Day. Quite hard work for an introvert, but I’m doing my best.

We have Open Days a couple of times a year when students at school and thinking about University can come and find out about our courses. Along with other lecturers, I help out by talking to students and their parents, answering their questions, and giving talks. Just like being underwater, I enjoy the experience of meeting people, but it is not my natural element, and I can’t survive there long. When I meet new people, I concentrate very hard on what they want to know and what they want from me, and I try to provide it as clearly as I can. Spontaneous chatting is much more difficult for me than giving a talk in front of 100 or so people. I prepare talks, and there’s a carefully planned and structured form. It’s tiring in another way, because it’s a performance of a kind, and you have to concentrate to deliver the information in the way that you planned. But it’s nothing like as terrifying as talking to people with no pre-planned topic or structure. That’s exhausting. After a few hours of that, I had to sneak away and just sit quietly in my office for half an hour, decompressing.

I think that people who are naturally sociable and outgoing probably find that hard to understand. I wonder if people who meet me under these kinds of circumstances detect that I am out of my element? I hope not, because I work very hard to conceal my discomfort. In the past, I suspect that outgoing people have interpreted my need to get away on my own at these kinds of gatherings as a dislike for the company I was in. It’s really difficult to explain that it’s not the case, and that while being in company for them is like swimming on the surface and being solitary is swimming underwater, the reverse is true for me.