Social Ambivalence

For whatever its really worth, I consistently score as an extrovert on Meyers-Briggs tests. I’ve taken the short and long forms many times since high school, as recently as my early 30s. It’s pretty common for folks to conflate extroversion with an outgoing personality, and for most of my life I had both. I wasn’t really the life of the party or the center of attention, but I loved meeting new people, introducing myself, and generally being in the thick of of group, talking and listening about whatever.

Of course extroversion doesn’t really denote an outgoing nature; I find, rather, that I’m far less likely to do anything without somebody else to share the experience. As my college years gave way to my 20s, and the friendly, open atmosphere of my friends gave way to the corporate world, the outgoing side of my personality mostly stayed behind at Virginia Commonwealth University.

I’m pretty sure this all started once I was in a professional environment. I didn’t know what vocational consequences I’d face for my eccentricity and, coupled with my almost pathological people-pleaser nature, I intentionally held back my full self in the work place for several years. It’s a bit harder to have relaxed, social interactions in the workplace if you (rightly or wrongly) worry about being too much of a goofball or a nerd. But my particular work environment did little to break me out of this state either. I worked in software, so it was mostly white men of widely varying ages and backgrounds talking about women and/or sports all the time. I didn’t want to talk about other women because I was happy in my marriage, and I while I liked NFL football back then, it wasn’t the dominant topic in my life.

It took years to understand what seems so collectively obvious now: men (talking mainly about cis-het white men here) mostly care about objectifying women, sports, and work. Or at least those seem to be the only things most men are willing to talk about. I’ve observed this with so many casual interactions over the years that my social reservations have become self-reinforcing. Meeting folks at my wife’s high school reunion? Sports and work. Co-workers at work functions (or my wife’s work functions)? Sports. Work. The various women at the event. Even these days where most new guys I meet are dad of my kids’ friends, it’s the same. “You following [insert sports topic]?” Or more frequently “What do you do?” Mercifully, I haven’t had yet been asked what I think about any hot moms on the playground.

Sure, I’ve been fortunate to meet new people over the years, make friends, have a healthy social life. I’ve even been fortunate enough to find some real friendship at my prior and current jobs. But my once youthful ease I had around anybody and everybody has all but disappeared. I wouldn’t consider it replaced by shyness, per se. I’m not anxious about meeting new people. I just tend to pessimistically assume that most new interactions with other men are going to be another round of that 3-square conversational bingo card.

I recognize how it may sound like I’m self-limiting my pool of potential interaction to folks like me—white dudes. For better or for worse, though, as a parent of two young kids in an IT job, most of the time I get to interact with other adults in a spontaneous way is at school functions, the playground or park, or at work events for myself or my wife—all before the pandemic of course. In a mostly heteronormative culture with plenty of toxic masculinity and many good reasons for women not to want to talk to men, most of these social settings tend to divide along gender lines like a middle school dance.

I’m willing to bet many of the folks I meet would really rather talk about something cool they read, or a weird hobby, or how much time they waste participating in some obscure fandom. Maybe they’re bursting to share about music they’re writing, or what bothers them about local politics, or where they hope to visit someday when the kids are older. Unfortunately, years of the wrong kinds of experience and my own bad habits of overthinking and projecting have put up such guardrails that I’ve started avoiding opportunities for these interactions. I occasionally wish I was still outgoing in the same way that I wish I’d kept up with playing the piano; I don’t really believe I can recapture that spark, but I miss the personal comfort and fulfillment that came along for the ride.

Well that’s a lot of gloomy words to match the gray weather outside. At least I’m sure that’s how it comes across; I don’t really dwell on it. I have a generally happy, healthy life and I don’t feel like I’m wanting for much (other than perhaps more sleep every now and then). But this has been on my mind for a while and I’ve been chewing over how to write about it. If writing is thinking, than this is me thinking back on and processing perhaps one of the more significant shifts in my life over the years.