#1311: “I don’t wanna hang out post-pandemic.”

Hi, Captain! 

I’m an introverted and empathic human (she/her pronouns) who presents as and often gets mistaken for an extrovert.  I have loved having very real and valid excuses for not seeing people face-to-face, and I’m dreading the return to in-person socializing and its demands. 

Part of this is because the pandemic and subsequent quarantining made me realize how much I was overextending myself in an extroverted world, and wearing myself out.  But the other source of this dread is that I feel like a lot of people I hung out with in the before times just aren’t a good fit for me anymore.

People in my social circles’ responses to the events of 2020 (and now, 2021) demonstrated to me that we’re not on the same page.  We have different values and I think that we really don’t see the world in the same way.  I also have this sinking feeling that I just don’t like a lot of these people all that much, and that maybe I never really did in the first place.   

It’s possible that friends and acquaintances are having similar revelations about me.  But the people who aren’t, and who will maybe want to make plans post-vaccination: what do I say to those folks? 

It’s a big ask, but what suggestions do you have for introverts who would rather not hang out as the world inevitably and eventually opens back up? 

Thank you for being an awesome human and sharing your insights and advice, Captain!


Dear H.,

Thank you for the kind words and the question(s).

The first question within your question seems to be about outgrowing friendships.

I don’t know how old you are, but I’m  thinking of last week’s Letter Writer #1308, hitting his late twenties and realizing that he couldn’t pretend to laugh at his friends’ unfunny “jokes” anymore.  Not everyone goes to university between 18 and 25, of course, but I think there is a definite late 20s/early30s post-college thing where friendships that were based on forming ties with “whoever was around, whoever was new here at the same time I was new here, plus whoever those people also like and invite to things” start to need more than that to sustain themselves. In other words, I think the pandemic accelerated a process that was already happening or would have happened anyway. 

I don’t think that’s the only period of life that people go through this kind of social re-invention, figuring out how to connect with people you like and hold onto the ones who are important to you will most likely be a lifelong process, and you might find yourself here more than once. But it does not surprise me that the forced isolation of the pandemic would reveal the difference between the friends you made because they made most of the effort and it was easy to keep running into them vs. the ones that you would track down  to stay in touch with even if they moved to the moon. Realizing that some people you know don’t share your values and ethics, realizing that you don’t even like them that much, re-calculating how much energy you want to spend maintaining certain ties, is all part of the process of figuring out who you want to spend your precious time with as an adult. I don’t know what it means when you say you are “empathic,” but preferring your own company unless you can find people who match your vibe is a perfectly fine way to be.

But that leads me to the second question in your question, where it appears you are looking for polite, acceptable lies to use in turning down hypothetical future invitations from people you don’t really like anymore. You’d like to stop being mistaken for an extrovert, thankyouverymuch, but you also want to make sure that you never make anyone feel bad in the process, so you want your excuses ready.

I can understand how the collective longing of “I can’t wait to hang out again someday” from everyone you know might hit you in way that makes you think, “Oh no. No. Absolutely not.” Can’t people see that you’ve changed? (No, they can’t, or more accurately, they haven’t noticed and are unlikely TO notice a thing they weren’t wondering about in the first place. Epiphanies about your own growth and evolving needs are kind of a You-thing, and everyone else is busy with their own inner monologues and evolutions).

But may I suggest, as gently as I can, that this is not the right question for this exact moment in time.

For there to be invitations for you to politely decline, everyone (including the people you don’t like as much as you once did) has to live through this time.

When that day comes, here’s what will most likely happen:

There will be a surge in social events and invitations, as we all emerge to hug each other’s necks after a long separation. The giddy “Paris, 1920, We Have To Dance, Because We Surprisingly Managed To Not Die” vibe won’t last forever, but it is definitely coming.  There will likely be so much of this in fact that you will be able to pick and choose when and how much you engage as your affections and energy allow, without anyone noticing if you’re not at every single gathering, as it will actually be more plausible to chalk it up to conflicting social plans without any excuses needing to be issued than it is right now.

The social whirl will come, and it will die down, and I do not think it is either possible or particularly necessary to predict your – and everyone else’s – feelings about it in advance that you might better circumvent them. We’ve all been going through some shit, and I don’t think the collective and individual trauma of the last year, especially in the United States, has even begun to register. For example, I’m introverted AF, a certified homebody who is weathering isolation better than many, and sharing my living space with my favorite person, but I had to take the cats to the vet a couple times last month via a ride-share since we don’t have a car, and “20 minutes of masked, windows-down small talk in real time with a complete stranger” was actually amazing. I wanted to know ALL ABOUT THEM. I wanted to be BEST FRIENDS for the entirety of that 20 minutes. Tell me about your cats, your Christmas tree, your day, how you chose this car, what music is that on the radio, how long has that place on the corner been closed, did you have any cool dreams last night, how is your family? No, I don’t know them, but TELL ME ALL ABOUT THEM AND YOU AND EVERYTHING YOU THINK AND FEEL, do you need a kidney btw, here is a 75% tip, thanks for being my soulmate!

It didn’t last, it didn’t change my fundamental nature or chilly New England upbringing (where stern, inscrutable looks are just how we’re taught to hug), but the painful, electric near-euphoria at fleeting connection was as real as it was surprising. So if you find yourself a year from now, sobbing with weird relief into the shoulder of someone you have nothing in common with because you took a class together 12 years ago and you’re just that fucking relieved that you’re both still alive, it doesn’t mean that your values aren’t real or your personality changed, nor does it mean that you have to remain besties for life. Whether or not you encounter any moments like that, my experience is that the game of trying to perfectly predict and control my feelings in advance is as un-winnable as it is addictive.

Once that orgy of survivor guilt and pent-up social energy subsides, here are my further predictions:

You can go right on enjoying your own company most of the time. This is not a drawback about you, nor is it particularly uncommon, nor are strong preferences the same as defining characteristics. Sometimes people throw the words “introvert” and “extrovert”around as if those things have consistent meanings, and as if other people are supposed to draw consistent conclusions about how to behave from hearing them, when really, how much you identify with those words on any given day is useful information about you, FOR you. “I feel happier when I get a lot of alone time and am picky about friendships and how much socializing I enjoy.” That’s a great thing to know about yourself, so, neat, go with that! Sometimes you will be the life of the party for an hour or three and then utterly collapse when it’s over, and sometimes you will stay home altogether, sometimes you will need to ask your employer for a quiet space with a door you can close so you can concentrate, and as long as you are making decisions to take care of your own needs as best you can on any given day, and not being an asshole to the people around you, you’re good!

You can gravitate to, accept invitations from, and do your own inviting of, people you actually like, cherish, and want to see.

You can let everything else drift. There are a lot of levels between “kindred spirit” and “sweet coworker from seven jobs ago who has nothing in common with me,” and you do not have to maintain an accurate audit of these things, balance accounts, or issue notices of termination of acquaintance. You only have to choose where you want to put your time and effort and then do that thing as graciously and persistently as you can. It’s not that everything will fall into place when you do, but lots of things will, without you having to do anything in particular about it.

People you know can go right on inviting you to things if they want to see you, including people who know you’re an introvert. Invitations are not commands or personal attacks on your newfound equilibrium, and people are allowed to like you a different amount from how much you like them. You get to decide what to do about invitations on a case-by-case basis, so check the “no” box on the e-vitation or say, “No thank you, I have other plans, but have a great time!” exactly as you did before. Those “other plans” can be “being alone on your sofa,” you do not have to elaborate, fake excuses, or have your social secretary issue a statement to the press.

When a particular event doesn’t sound fun to you, but you really like the person arranging it, you can decline the invitation and then follow up with something you would enjoy: “I can’t go to the thing Saturday, but would you like to have lunch with me on Sunday or Monday?” Friends who have different needs and styles figure it out over time.

Something that fellow introverts who are in the midst of a “A PARTY WITH OTHER PEOPLE WILL ACTUALLY DESTROY MY SOUL” flare maybe do not realize: People who like to plan events – including our fellow introverts! –  like it when the people they invite show up, but at a certain point in party planning it’s more like “Please just tell me how many chairs/foods do I need to arrange by tomorrow.” At the actual party, it’s more like “Yay, let me hang out with everyone who is actually here.They probably aren’t thinking about you all that much, in other words, and getting a momentary sad when someone RSVPs “no” isn’t a thing that you, the invitee, have to anticipate or manage. Consider that it’s better from a host-perspective to have accurate information about who is coming to the thing than a bunch of people who are afraid to say ‘no’ and then bail at the last second. A truthful “Can’t make it!” i.e. “No foods/chairs for me” is the kind response.

You also don’t have to match, or preempt, enthusiastic “Let’s hang out soon!” statements from people you haven’t seen in a while. They are announcing a sentiment. Until it comes with a specific invitation or plan attached, you don’t have to do or feel anything about it.  If they do follow up with a plan, and you don’t want to go? Don’t. If someone you don’t particularly like gets an inkling of a true thing, and subsequently stops inviting you to stuff, that is fine! Rejection feels weird, on either side, but weird feelings aren’t catastrophes.

So this is where I leave you: I don’t think you are alone in re-evaluating either your needs or your ties during this strange time. I don’t think you are alone in being anxious that  you’ll disappoint someone without meaning to and wanting to avoid situations where that might happen. I don’t think it’s strange that your brain might be searching for low-stakes, solvable, hypothetical anxieties to map other kinds of anxieties onto. And I am glad you are weathering the pandemic well and learning new things about what you need.

If you attempt to level up one social skill when this is all over, possibly skip over excuse-making, and work on saying yes only to things and people you are enthusiastic about and a polite “no, thank you” to everything else, without assigning yourself a ton of work about that.

If you want to get started now, may I suggest a January scrub of your various social media feeds and online spaces:

  • Block: Bigots and those who argue about how you should be more polite to them. Misogynists. All-purpose assholes.
  • Unfriend/Unfollow: Anybody where you can’t remember how or why you even know them. Will they even notice?
  • Temporarily Unfollow/Snooze/Hide Feed/Mute: *Everyone* who is decent enough but who nonetheless kinda bugs you or makes you feel you’ve outgrown them. Everyone who made you anxious enough that you sent me this question. Put something in your calendar, maybe, for a few months from now, to go through your lists again and see if you miss anybody or if they even noticed you weren’t paying attention.
  • Keep: The people who delight you. Take a look at what and who they have in common with you and with each other. Practice seeking them out. Tell them that you love them, often. Daydream about the next time you’ll get to see each other across a cosy, un-crowded room and hug them close at last.

Hope to see you on the other side of whatever this is, and nod, sternly-but-not-unkindly in your direction, from an extremely safe distance that does not presume on our brief acquaintance. ❤

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