‘If you’re quiet, there’s something wrong with you’

This is the biggest and most frustrating lie on which just about all social interaction is built. If you’re not the loud, assertive, life-of-the-party type then there’s something amiss with you. Obviously. ‘What’s wrong with you, don’t you like having FUN?!’ Now this may be shocking to some, but what constitutes ‘fun’ differs from person to person. I’m sorry you had to read that, come back to me after you’ve had a cup of tea and the shaking stops…

I will now borrow some warped wisdom from Coolio (because, you know, why not?): Been spending most my life living in an extrovert’s paradise. We are living under a paradigm that Susan Cain, in her magnificent book Quiet, calls the Extrovert Ideal. It is pretty self-explanatory – the ‘ideal person’ (in the Western world, at least) is an extrovert; he is outgoing, loud, assertive, ‘fun’ etc. (I put ‘fun’ in inverted commas because people say it like there is only one version of it, like it’s an absolute value that everyone shares.) The problem is, though, that I’m an introvert. About one third to one half of everyone on the planet is, in fact. The prevalence of the Extrovert Ideal puts us quiet ones in a very awkward position indeed.

We are often and summarily accused of being no fun, of being too quiet for our own good, of being socially awkward. In her eye-opening book, Cain extols the very qualities that are so often the reason for which introverts are on the periphery – or altogether outside – of social interaction. Deep thinking and a propensity for quiet and meaningful conversation do not a party animal make. They do have their own set of advantages, however, which often come to fruition later in life.

Being a teenager is hard enough, and being an introverted teenager is harder still. I know this because I was one. While everyone was going out and drinking and discovering the world through socialising, I was happier most of the time to stay in reading and – dare I say it – studying. Persistence is a hallmark of the introvert, and I realise now that it is mostly thanks to this temperament that I have learned French and Spanish.

But I did of course have to learn how to interact with people too; it just took me a little longer to get the hang of it. These days, though, I’m very happy to go to a house party full of friends and have a great time, as long as I have some quiet time beforehand or the day after to unwind. Unwinding for me constitutes silence and a good book, or playing a video game for a few hours, speaking of which…

A friend asked me recently if I played any videogames online. When I told him that online gaming didn’t interest me, he surmised that I’d had a bad experience by getting killed too many times in Call of Duty or one of the other shoot ‘em ups. He got a good laugh out of his hypothesis but the reason I play videogames alone is that I want to get away from people, not interact with them more. Escapism, in a word.

Similarly, not being able to get away from people for eight hours every day takes a huge toll on me. I’m talking of course about the particular hell that an introvert suffers in a noisy open plan office. Oh for the days of cubicles! I hate small talk, and I especially hate the open plan office variety. I have no doubt this makes me seem distant and aloof to my colleagues, but the very way our workspace is set up is geared towards their (mostly) extroverted personalities.

And so if you’re an introvert struggling to fit in, take comfort from the fact that the world just isn’t geared towards your temperament. If you’re a raging extrovert, enjoy being ideal but for the love of god cut the introverts around you some slack, and maybe, just maybe, learn to be quiet every now and again!

‘There’s someone out there for everyone’

The devil is in the details with this lie: why must there be only one other person out there for everyone? Do you honestly believe that, on a planet of more than seven billion (fucking billion) human beings, there is only one person you are absolutely meant to be with? Fuck off Disney and every romcom ever made! And you can fuck right off while I’m at it, ‘fate’ and ‘destiny’.

The problem is not that there isn’t someone out there for us, but that there’s got to be at least a couple of thousand people we can potentially be truly happy with (and vice versa, of course). The trouble is that we might only ever meet one or two of them; Dunbar’s number holds that the average human can, throughout his or her life, maintain about ‘150 stable relationships’. This is about the size of your average prehistoric tribal community. It is the amount of people with whom you can expect to regularly have face time and with whom you will interact somewhat meaningfully.

150 individuals out of more than seven billion; the average person really only knows 0.000002% of this planet’s population (yes, I did the math, and it was easy because I cheated). This includes those ridiculous Facebook people with more than a thousand ‘friends’.

Chances are you will meet someone within these 150 or so people with whom you’ll be happy to spend the rest of your life. In fact, common sense suggests you will, for a variety of cultural, historical and social reasons. My sister’s husband, for example, is from our own neighbourhood – he grew up 300 metres down the road. My own girlfriend is from the other side of my hometown. There’s an awful lot to be said for cultural compatibility.

This is not to say, however, that only people from your own milieu are the most suitable mates. Not at all. I also know many people who are happily married to or going out with people from all over the world. Let’s call it globalisation because this certainly would not have been the case two or three centuries ago. More people these days speak the same languages – English, French and Spanish in particular – and this makes cultural communication that much easier.

And now for the romance (or lack thereof – apologies). From a very young age we are conditioned to think that there is one person we are meant to be with. Girls grow up listening to tales of how Prince Charming will rescue them from their mundane lives. But – sorry girls – Prince William has since married Kate Middleton’s already privileged ass. Fantasising about his brother (only third in line to the throne; why bother?) will have to do for the time being.

Now for some illustrative soul-bearing (again, sorry). Five years ago I met a girl who I thought was the ‘one’ for me. We went out for a few weeks and then it ended – she ended it, obviously. I haven’t taken anything this hard in my life, not even some relatives’ deaths. I thought I’d never get over her, and it did indeed take a hell of a long time, relative to the relationship’s brevity. I’m not going to get too deep into all of this – the world has enough emos already.

Let’s just fast forward to five years later: I’m a year and a half into a (hopefully lifelong) relationship with a woman I love. The woman I love, in fact. That girl I thought was the ‘one’? Turns out she was only one of several possible ‘ones’. I’m incredibly happy with my current girlfriend, while my ex is now a very close friend.

It bears mentioning, for the purposes of this post, that the first ‘one’ I spoke of is Latvian, while my current girlfriend is, like me, Irish.

Cultural compatibility.

Several close friends of mine are on their second or even third ‘ones’. I’m on my second (and again, hopefully definitive) ‘one’. So if your first ‘one’ happens not to work out, don’t worry, just go out and find another!

Please do share any thoughts or stories of your own.