I spent my seminary reunion on the phone. For an hour and a half. Not because I was busy, not because the babysitter fell through, and not because a client had an emergency. Ten years ago, the thought of walking up to a stranger, breaking into a circle of people chatting, or just renewing an acquaintance after several years made me break out in cold sweat.
Social situations were especially awkward if I didn’t know anyone well. Really well. At weddings, conferences, and community events, I was always on the lookout for familiar faces. If none was present, I’d hit the smorgasbord or the meat platter. And in really bad cases, I’d just leave and save myself the double misery of feeling out of place and the embarrassment of others noticing.
After years of conscious work and taking many, many social chances, I can actually talk about it. No, walking into a room of perfect strangers is still not exciting to me (I know there are people like that out there). But I can work up the courage to address someone I don’t know or join an already going conversation. It gets better with practice. And it’s no longer painful.
Last week, however, a client reminded me of that pain. In her early 50s, although all her friends and neighbors are marrying off their kids, she avoids weddings. Even at extended family events, she is daunted by having to start a conversation. Though she has a lot going for her, this woman is really shut in. She told me about living behind closed walls and my heart went out to her.
Her story (and the reminiscence of mine) pushed me to take this step forward on behalf of all the introverts out there (present and recovering) and ask for a favor. If you feel comfortable with social interactions, next time you are at any sort of an event, please consider looking around to find one person who is clearly feeling out of his or her depth, and strike up a conversation with that person. It would be a tremendous kindness.
With the High Holidays upon us, we are all looking for New Year resolutions that will create a source of merit for us during heavenly judgment. The Talmud teaches that the way we treat others is the way we get treated by G-d. What goes around, comes around. When you reach out to people with kindness, it all comes back to you in spades.
If you don’t know how to identify an introvert, here are some tips:
An introvert might be hanging near the walls looking like he or she is taking in the décor.
Or making frequent trips to the food stand and then walking around with a plate. No, the introvert didn’t forget to eat lunch, but a full plate makes him or her look busy. Like me, an introvert might be spending all his or her time on the phone. Don’t worry, you won’t be interrupting any urgent instructions to the stock broker. The introvert is just desperately trying to find something to do.
And then there are the people who look aloof or snobbish. Trust me they don’t think they are better than the rest of us. They just can’t stand the pain of being alone, so they try to pretend that they don’t care. Deep down, they really do.
At first glance, “wallflower” introverts don’t seem like the most engaging conversation partners. But you’ll be surprised. Ask them a few questions. Talk to them about what they do. This could be the beginning of a wonderful relationship. Introverts don’t have loads of social interactions, so the ones that they have tend to become deeper and more meaningful.
This resolution will take only 10 or 15 minutes out of any social engagement you attend. Yet you’ll be doing an immense favor to someone. And to yourself. If you choose to look past superficial appearances and give just a bit of thought to changing your socializing habits, G-d (or whatever you prefer to call It) will be sure to look past your superficial weaknesses and give you preferential treatment.
You’ll be all the richer for it. Chatimah tovah!