How I Relate To People Socially

Personality wise I am a mixture of both extrovert and introvert.  I enjoy long stretches of time with people and long stretches of time mostly alone. The introvert in me will constantly resist going to be with other people. The extrovert in me will never want to leave once I am with other people. I find that it’s a really great personality to have since it means I am usually happy, whether with people or without. I just really need those stretches of time mostly alone, at fairly regular intervals.

I say mostly alone because even when I am alone I love to read, which is an engagement with other people’s thoughts. I love to watch videos or TV or listen to podcasts or the radio or music, all of which engages with other people. I love to write, and when I write readers are always there with me in my mind. Even when I think and write ostensibly alone, there are all sorts of real and hypothesized other people in my head speaking to me, giving me counter-objections, expressing their emotions, or reminding me of things to include or be wary of.

One of the reasons I love social media so much is that it caters to, and further socializes, the introverted side of me. Thanks to blogs, tweets, texts, e-mails, and Facebook, even in those long and frequent stretches of time where either I cannot or I prefer not to commit to activities with other people that would consume all of my attention, I can nonetheless always engage with people immediately, whenever I want to. There they are. I’m sorry–there you are. There is your latest e-mail, your status update, your photos, your blog post, your text message, your tweet, your latest comment on a thread that I started or joined. And there are just so many of you. It is nice to have you always around.

I love public discussions with many participants. But I am made uncomfortable by most small groups. As far as I’m concerned, two is company and three is a crowd.

I think it is generally superficial to talk about having a “true self”. We all vary our temperaments and our behaviors quite a bit in each social setting, to fit each context. What is appropriate in one place is not appropriate in another. There is not a real self that exists apart from all the contexts. Even sitting alone with my thoughts is just another context that brings out just another side of me among others. If there is something meaningful in the phrase “true self” it would not be just one of my many selves among the others, but rather some kind of account of how the many selves contrast with each other and are consistent with each other, and what all that reveals about what tendencies and what tensions ultimately characterize me the most.

Not only does my self change with each social setting but it changes with each friendship. I never stop being amazed by the endless diversity of people. No matter how generically similar we all are in our basic features, the more I get to know any given person, the more unique they are. And I love this about people. And part of what I find so staggeringly remarkable and satisfying about each friendship is the way that each friend’s fascinating uniqueness develops and reflects a different side of me. Through my friend, I realize a different one of my own selves in a way I would not have without her or him. He or she brings out a certain combination of my potential traits and behaviors, exercises them, and gives them practice working as a distinct personality among my others.

Each friend does this a few ways. One way is that our shared interests or temperamental dispositions call to each other and reinforce each other. With my friend, I emphasize and develop the parts of me which are most in common with her or him. A friend can also implicitly or explicitly inspire or motivate me to practice traits that I do not have but that he or she does. And sometimes a friend’s differences with me intensify the parts of me that are in tension with his or hers. And with each friendship, how the differences and the similarities work to shape each friend’s personality specific to the friendship itself differs.

Given myriad factors like social circumstances, age, life situation, years invested, personal temperaments, activities shared, formal relationships, quirks of interests, etc., we can wind up either having a friendship heavily defined by our differences or by our similarities, or by some interesting mixture of both. I have had close friends who were philosophical opponents and sometimes they were people that I hardly ever debated with (even in cases where we were both professional philosophers). On the other hand I have been close friends with other philosophical opponents where almost all we did was vigorously debate.

Even with many of my more casual friends, and sometimes even with people with whom I have had just one great conversation or a few, I enjoy the uniqueness of the connection and the ways that communication among humans is not between fixed beings but between changing ones who morph a bit in order to meet each other and who are affected by having done so. There is a bit of intimacy in every one-on-one connection between two people. There is a bit of direct revelation of who you are that can never be fully articulated to any third party or experienced the same by any other person  with whom you interact. We always present ourselves a little differently and are understood a little differently.

This leads me to my gripe with small groups. Often I hate being in a group of 3-8 people. A group of three, in particular, can cause me the greatest social anxiety of all. This is because as soon as there are more than two people, the dynamic is no longer one of me and another person finding our own equilibrium. No longer are we gravitating only to our shared similarities or the differences that mutually interest us. With more people involved what I experience is either a dominant personality that might not jive with my own taking over, with little accommodation for my interests or comforts, or an unsatisfying, awkwardly negotiated, group personality emerges, or, worst of all, the others find an equilibrium with each other that marginalizes me nearly altogether. I also feel a lot of social pressure to be outgoing. I am generally a decent conversationalist but feel a lot of anxiety to entertain people and will feel a kind of guilt when conversations flop despite my best efforts. I also find a lot of everyday chatter overwhelmingly boring and would far rather be alone than trapped with others who deprive me of stimulating conversation.

I can only thrive in small groups wherein the group personality is one that actually brings out a side of me I feel comfortable with. Those occasions where my personality is the most dominant in a small group are some, but not all, of those cases.

But even though I have trouble with small groups, I thrive addressing a group, whether large or small. I am like a duck in water giving a lecture (or writing for a wide audience). As I experience this it is because rather than awkwardly struggling to fit into the group’s personality, I engage it as a single personality, as I would a unique individual. Just as I feel naturally comfortable and adept at finding my point of edifying contact and mutual identification with most people one-on-one, I feel that I am on a one-to-one level with the group taken as a whole. It is not 35 (or 3000) people I need to connect with but their general spirit.

And in contexts like these, even though I am outnumbered, I have control as the lecturer, or the author, and that balances the power and keeps me from feeling swallowed or marginalized or bored or demanded upon. And I can always address critics one by one, meeting each person one to one. All of this prevents the kinds of anxieties I have in small groups from ever surfacing when I am engaged with large groups, either lecturing to them, dialectically guiding them through issues, or answering their challenges.

Your Thoughts?

For more on my inner life see the post in which I was interviewed about my personal (atheistic) “religiosity” and “spirituality”. And related to this post’s meditations on friendship, I also recommend my post trying to make sense of the concept of love. A discussion with a friend this afternoon about what I meant in that post by the concept of an exclusive sort of intimacy inspired me to finally write this post after many years of thinking through the observations and speculations in it.

 

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Sheila G

    I love to be by myself! But, as you said, ‘by myself’ means I am reading books or magazines, blogs, or am on FB commenting.

    It’s difficult for me to ‘be with people’ after I have been at work all day. I work in a large hospital laboratory with 55 others; during the day I won’t interact with all of these but many of them, as well as RN’s in person, and many more RN’s and physicians via telephone, e-mail, or Office Communicator.

    So I feel like my ‘people interactions’ occur at work; in the evenings and weekends I don’t always want to interact with gives my family short-shrift.

    Sometimes I have to force myself to attend social events such as family reunions, office parties, etc. Even going out to movies/museums/symphony practically takes a cattle prod. BUT, after I get there, I enjoy it.

    My son, age 17, has Asperger’s and he will just flat-out say, “I would rather not eat dinner with the relatives”, lol. Of course their feelings are hurt and they think he is a weirdo, but I secretly WISH I could say so and get by with it.

    Thanks for sharing your idiosyncrasies; those of us who share them feel less alone.

  • bubba707

    I don’t relate to people socially at all. I avoid groups as much as possible and when I can’t avoid it look to escape as soon as I possibly can. One to one is fine but in groups people become an absurd mob.

  • joel

    And part of what I find so staggeringly remarkable and satisfying about each friendship is the way that each friend’s fascinating uniqueness develops and reflects a different side of me. Through my friend, I realize a different one of my own selves in a way I would not have without her or him. He or she brings out a certain combination of my potential traits and behaviors, exercises them, and gives them practice working as a distinct personality among my others.

    Each friend does this a few ways. One way is that our shared interests or temperamental dispositions call to each other and reinforce each other. With my friend, I emphasize and develop the parts of me which are most in common with her or him. A friend can also implicitly or explicitly inspire or motivate me to practice traits that I do not have but that he or she does. And sometimes a friend’s differences with me intensify the parts of me that are in tension with his or hers. And with each friendship, how the differences and the similarities work to shape each friend’s personality specific to the friendship itself differs.

    I read this as a nice explanation of interactions as an adult.
    However, I think most interpersonal anxiety is old, meaning developed in response to childhood experience. Here is what occurred to me in response to your threesome anxiety, just a thought experiment.

    Consider that we had to learn to do this give and take early on with our parents, caregivers. We learned to show different selves to each parent depending on their individual expectations of us. We had to figure out how to be okay for each of them and not only were their expectations different from each other but would be different day to day depending on their moods. Plus they were not entirely aware of how they wanted us to be and no doubt were conflicted themselves. We had a lot to figure out. So we get it worked out pretty well with each parent individually, we are able to present ourselves to please them enough to secure their love and attention and to interact in a relaxed manner. But, then there are times when the child is with both parents. Which self does s/he present? How invested is each parent his/her unique expectations? It easy to see how a child could feel boxed in and at a loss as how to behave and for whom. Which parent can s/he afford to disappoint? Anxiety ensues and may resonate with other threesomes later on.

    • John Morales

      You’re generalising; not every person grows up with two parents.

      I, for example, had my mother only.

      (Others are worse off)

  • Pen

    I feel a lot like you about the way different aspects of the self come out in socialising but to a point where it’s sometimes disturbing. I’ve been around so much that I don’t really have an accent and speech patterns of my own and automatically adopt those of the people I’m with. I don’t have a good answer to basic questions like ‘where are you from?’ or ‘what do you do?’ so the ones I come up with are always relational and contextual. It’s all those little questions that come up first and most obviously in relationships that feel like a minefield in which sincerity and integrity are vitually impossible or at least boringly longwinded. Get me on politics, religion, history, or any of those other things you’re not supposed to discuss in polite conversation and I’m absolutely fine. I guess I don’t like meeting people but I like knowing them!!

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      I guess I don’t like meeting people but I like knowing them!!

      YES! THIS!

  • Ysanne

    Nice to read this, and I’m glad not to be the only one with these thoughts! :-)
    joel in #3 already pointed out that a good part of the difficulty of small groups stems from having to find a kind of personality that matches all of the conversation partners; whereas for a large group (especially if you’re the lecturer) it’s easy to merge all the individual members into one group personality.
    I might add that there might be a little bit about “true personality” that makes this easier… where I’ve come to define “true” as “the way I’m trying to be when I’m alone”. Totally by accident, I discovered one day that sticking to this personality is totally practicable in social interaction, and not only does it eliminate the problem of catering to a few different people at the same time, it also has a comfortable feel of openness to it. Of course I still adapt to the people I interact with, but more consciously than before, which combines the fun of a new perspective with the secure feeling of being aware and in control of my boundaries.
    It’s totally embarrassing to admit it, but this is exactly the trite “go ahead and be yourself, they’ll like you the way you are — why wouldn’t they?” advice that probably all shy kids get from their parents. :-) Then again, that advice is totally useless, because one has to experience the acceptance to believe it. I guess it’s a part of growing one’s self-confidence.

  • joel

    Daniel,

    I should have prefaced my earlier comment this way.

    I try to ask myself about any bit of human behavior, how might this be related to evolutionary thriving. The resistance to this habit of thinking is slowly crumbling, yes? With that same intent of seeking understanding of the present by looking at what may have been the circumstances in the past, I try to look at the ‘evolution’, if you will, of the individual life. There has also been considerable resistance to this approach which seems to ebb and flow. A third approach to understanding our emotions and behaviors is to acknowledge that the vast majority of our mental or brain work goes on unawares. A small amount rises to consciousness. Since we are aware only of what we are aware of we tend to assume that is all that is going on, until we are forced to admit there is more to our conjectures than meet the eye(of conscious awareness)

    Oops, time to mow the weeds before it gets too hot.

  • kaboobie

    I’m an introvert married to another introvert. We both have different thresholds, so for example he’s more comfortable than I am hanging out in a large groups (e.g. when we attend conventions like TAM or Dragon*Con), while I’m better than he is at making “small talk”. We’re both bad at mingling when we’re at a party with people we don’t know. In fact, we sometimes use that as an “in”, walking over to someone else who is hanging out on the sidelines and saying, “Hi, we suck at mingling too!”

    It surprised me to find out that introverts make up such a small percentage of the population, since I don’t feel like I know more than a few true extroverts. I guess most people are a mix that lean more toward the extrovert end of the scale.

    • jacobfromlost

      “It surprised me to find out that introverts make up such a small percentage of the population,”

      I think you are looking at some very old numbers that were wrong (but commonly passed around). The new research shows a continuum of 50/50. Those near the end of the introverted spectrum do tend to see the population as a whole as extroverted–but that is biased based on their perspective.

      (And there is also the problem that even extreme introverts or extroverts do not always behave according to their type, so that the labels indicate a personality tendency but not an absolute rule.)

    • kaboobie

      jacobfromlost, I had heard that statistic from Marti Olsen Laney, author of The Introvert Advantage, in an interview on the podcast Skeptically Speaking. Thanks for the additional information.

    • Ysanne

      It’s also a bit of a question how you would define a “real” introvert or extrovert… What is the huge slice of nerd population who would love to interact more with people if they could just work up the courage to join a conversation? What about people who are very happy to be social with a certain group of like-minded people but feel extremely out of place with mainstream groups? I guess a lot depends on the standards you set, the example situations you imagine and the people you compare yourself to.

  • http://www.mountaintrail.us joelj

    I enjoyed reading this, Dan. I seem to be a bit more of an introvert than you, but what I appreciated most was observing that you appear to be just as introspective as I am. That trait seems relatively rare.


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