How I Relate To People Socially

How I Relate To People Socially July 29, 2012

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.


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