What's wrong with keeping to myself?

ST ILLUSTRATION: MIEL

On the way home the other day, I got into the lift with a neighbour whom I know vaguely by sight.

We each pressed a button and settled into opposite corners. Then, he broke the silence by introducing himself.

"Which unit are you from?" asked my neighbour, who looked to be in his 60s. I could not think of how to avoid answering him without being rude, so I had to reveal where I live.

"Oh, the new neighbours," he remarked.

"Not that new," I replied. We moved in about 1-1/2 years ago.

"Well, you guys hardly mingle, so we still think of you as the new neighbours."

I gave a polite smile and said nothing. Ours is an old condominium with many long-time residents who know one another well.

He pressed on with what I assumed was a joke: "You know, usually the newcomers would throw a buffet lunch and invite the neighbours over."


ST ILLUSTRATION: MIEL

"I guess we are special then," I said and flashed him another smile.

While recounting the episode to my husband that night, I realised something had changed.

In the past, when faced with evidence of our anti-social behaviour, I would wonder: "What's wrong with us?" 

Perhaps we should be more proactive in socialising, I would say. Then, life would go on and we would do nothing of that sort.

This time though, I did not feel a single prick of guilt or discomfort about how I like to keep to myself.

Yes, I am an introvert and I am done with being made to feel as if there is something wrong with that.

Unlike extroverts who thrive in social situations, I prefer solitude or the company of a few close friends. That is all I have anyway.

I have no problems being the first to greet or smile at others in familiar settings, such as around my estate or at my kids' schools. But do not count on me to strike up a conversation or introduce myself.

I find ice-breaking games excruciating and have always dreaded the first session of anything that involves strangers.

Unfortunately, I am both introverted and shy, a double whammy in the lottery of personal attributes, going by today's society where being voluble often equates with being valuable. 

The two traits may overlap, but they are not the same thing. Introverts may prefer their own company and quiet surroundings, but they can be at ease around people too. Those who are shy, however, are prone to social anxiety.

Growing up, I found my shyness crippling. A teacher in junior college once called me a traffic light because, as he put it, my face would turn various shades of colour before settling on a deep, dark flush whenever my name was called.

I did not stand out for my sparkling personality, results or sporting achievements. Words such as "quiet" and "conscientious" littered my report cards, which I took to mean the teachers had no problems with me, but did not have much of an impression either.

At work, the chatty, outgoing ones dominated. As long as they had something to say or, better still, a joke to share, they deserved our attention.

American writer Susan Cain, author of the 2012 bestseller Quiet: The Power Of Introverts In A World That Can't Stop Talking, notes that there is a cultural bias towards extroverts: People tend to rank fast and frequent talkers as more competent, likeable and even smarter than slow ones.

This has led their quieter peers to view their inwardness as "a second-class personality trait, somewhere between a disappointment and a pathology", she wrote.

I used to wish I was more gregarious and vivacious, social traits that are celebrated and widely held as unspoken ideals. When I was younger, I even believed these were skills I would grow to acquire, like learning to drive, and that I would eventually morph into the proverbial life of the party.

It has taken me years to accept that that is the last thing I would want to be. In fact, I think I will skip the party altogether.

The few times my husband and I hosted large gatherings at our place, I found myself counting down to the end of the night. I was having fun, but I find prolonged social interaction, especially in a big group, immensely sapping.

It is pathetic, I know. But I would rather be boring than annoying, which is what some who seek to be the centre of attention can be.

As it turns out, I am hardly the minority. In the United States, for instance, studies show that one-third to half of the population identify themselves as introverts.

But Cain, a former lawyer and self-professed introvert who has gone on to set up a website and company called Quiet Revolution aimed at harnessing the talent of the silent segment, argues that introverts are not so much anti-social as "other-social".

I may prefer communicating via e-mail and text messages to receiving phone calls, but it does not mean that I am cold and aloof. I just like being able to choose when and where I can be reached.

Introverts may be more reflective than assertive, but it does not mean we are wallflowers without strong opinions or convictions.

I prefer to share when I am ready, not as and when someone demands it of me. I love catching up with good friends, but the group has to be kept small or I will find my energy depleting fast.

After a lifetime of feeling apologetic about not being more sociable and wondering what is wrong with me, I can now say: Nothing. It's not me, it's you.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 30, 2015, with the headline 'What's wrong with keeping to myself?'. Print Edition | Subscribe