Comfortably Alone

"As a shy person, I’ve believed for most of my life that being among new people required an elaborate social disguise, one that would allow me to feel both present and absent, noticed and unnoticed. I’d yearn for some sort of social recognition without the bother of having to be recognized, without that oppressive pressure to live up to anything that might get me attention in the first place. So I’d find myself executing oblique tactics — being stingy and stealthy with eye contact; wearing a mask of deep concentration; staring at an underappreciated object in the room, like a light fixture or molding — in hopes of discouraging people from engaging me in actual conversation while still conveying the impression that I might be interesting to talk to.

The problem with polite conversation, I thought, was that it required the orderly recitation of platitudes before one can say anything interesting, let alone something as original and insightful as I wanted to believe myself to be. I couldn’t bear it. I had an irrational expectation that people should already know what I was about and come to me with suitable topics to draw me out. Rather than attempt agreeable chitchat and compromise my “authentic” identity with false congeniality, I would isolate myself, hoping that withdrawal would make me come across at a glance as mysterious and different rather than rude and feckless. If I had to volunteer talk about my tastes, interests and opinions out of context, they might be exposed as somehow wrong or worse, as not especially distinctive. And even if I hit it off with someone, my ineffable singularity could have easily vanished in the consensus of compatibility. I’d rather my self-importance remain undisturbed by anyone’s curiosity about me than risk seeming ordinary to myself.

This gave me my basic framework about how to behave in social situations. The possibility of discovering genuine connection with other people receded to fantasy; I could only try to make it through without embarrassing myself. Shyness had made me so deficient in empathic experience that I could only view social life in terms of risk rather than opportunity. The best way to manage that risk, I thought, was to be unapproachable but legibly fascinating at a distance, to present myself as an object to be read but with a message that’s inscrutable and fleeting, one that could convey the complexity of the real me without reducing it to something superficial. I could not get past the wish to broadcast my identity without having to interact with anyone..."
--Rob Horning,