All introverts know how it feels to stand on the sidelines and be the silent observer.  We regularly find ourselves on the outside looking in.  Sometimes keeping our distance is a personal preference.  Sometimes it’s not.

The truth is, we often want to engage and interact, but feel inhibited by the circumstances. A cozy campfire circle of twenty people can seem more like an overcrowded inferno. House parties make us feel like those poor animals in foreign zoos (chained down and forced to perform on command). 

Given the choice, we’d rather speak with one or two people than the entire party.  We don’t like fighting our way into fast-paced group conversations.  So we don’t.

Like many introverts, I struggle with certain group dynamics.  These include:

  • Breaking into an already formed group where everyone knows each other.
  • Speaking to more than two or three people at once (unless I’m giving a rehearsed speech, which I quite enjoy).
  • House parties where the primary activities are drinking (A LOT), watching music videos and/or trying to make conversation with people I have nothing in common with.
  • Nearly every activity involving electronic music.

This begs the question: how can we fulfill our desire to engage and connect without feeling like chained elephants in a pit of flames?

There are several social niches that allow introverts to be part of the action without being overwhelmed.   While these niches take on several different forms, they share a few uniting factors:

  • They give us a place when we feel out of place.
  • They provide a road map to navigate social settings that make little sense to us.
  • They protect us from feeling overwhelmed, awkward and drained.
  • They provide a shield against boredom.

Introvert-friendly social niches include, but are not limited to:

  • Being an event photographer or videographer
  • Being a party host
  • Participating in or running a club (book club, hiking group, etc.)
  • Being a helper/organizer/planner

Over the years, I found my stride in a wide variety of social nooks and crannies.  I survived my high school years by being a joiner.  I was a students’ council rep, church youth group leader, rugby player, choir singer and honor role student.

Reading this, many people would assume that I was super confident and outgoing.  Nope.  I felt just as awkward and unsure of myself as the next kid.  Being a joiner helped me to find a few cozy corners in a world where I’ve never fit in.

Instead of feeling left out during rowdy youth group activities, I gained purpose and confidence as a leader.  Rather than trying to force my way into an intimidating high school clique, I naturally connected with my like-minded students’ council chums.  As a choir member, I found comfort in the fact that I always new my place (soprano, third row, center left).

Although I’m no longer a serial joiner, I still benefit from the social niches I’ve carved out for myself.

The other night, while I was writing in the common area of my hostel, a fellow traveler made an intriguing comment.

“You’ve been working all day,” he said, “first you were practicing dance and now you’re on the computer.  Come share with us.”

This statement gave me pause. It’s true that I had spent hours with my new dance partner choreographing a salsa routine for an upcoming competition.  But, I didn’t consider that work.  I love dancing and I especially love choreographing and performing.  For me, dance is both a passion and a social niche.  It is a space where I can interact on my own terms.

I was perplexed and a bit annoyed that this man expected me to “share” at 11:30 pm on a Monday night when I had already shared breakfast and lunch and the better part of a weekend.  Gimme a break!  I gave him my least convincing forced smile and returned to what I was doing.

The moral of the story?  As introverts, we may not always fit in, but we can find pleasure and fulfillment in mastering our social niches.  We can quietly ignore the people who think we need to share what we don’t have the energy or motivation to share.  We can proudly declare (mostly in our heads or in writing) that we too are sociable … in our own introverted way.