Have you ever thought about going against your natural personality patterns for a year? That’s what Jessica Pan did when she embarked upon a year of extroversion (she identifies as a shy introvert) in her new book Sorry I’m Late, I Didn’t Want to Come. Although Jessica is married, I couldn’t help thinking that the lessons she learned along the way relate strongly to the single and dating life. I caught up with her for some insights on what she discovered along the way.
Tell me about your book?
I reached a low point in my life. I had just become a freelancer which meant that I was basically sitting on my sofa all day alone. And I was also 32, at the time, a lot of my friends were having babies and moving out of the city. I found myself lonely and I didn’t have co-workers to talk to, basically I lost perspective. I realized that I didn’t have that many friends in the city I lived in, I felt like my career was stagnating, and I wanted to make a change. I’m a shy introvert, and I was fine with that beforehand, I accepted that that’s who I was. But I realized that over the years I’d started to use the label ‘introvert’ as a license to say no to things. I started to say no to everything, like going out, or meeting new people, or networking opportunities—just taking any risks. So I decided that if I wanted to change my life, I would have to live it differently. I decided to extrovert for one year, meaning that I would do all of the things that I always actively avoided doing. I made this list of things that I hated, basically my nightmare, like talking to strangers, performing stand-up comedy, taking improv classes, traveling alone to make friends. I just kind of wanted to see what would happen if I did that.
Although you’re married. I know that so many single people can relate to the difficulties of putting yourself out there with the hopes of forging connections, either with romantic interests, friends, or people they’d like to network with. What were some of your strategies for being brave in that way without hating every moment?
Throughout the year, I interviewed mentors who led me along the way—I was doing things that I had never been good at, like talking to strangers or stand-up comedy, and I wanted to have extroverted mentors who could guide me through these challenges. One of the first things I did was talk to strangers, and I interviewed this psychologist and he told me that when we’re all sitting on a train or a bus and nobody’s talking, it doesn’t necessarily mean that nobody wants to talk to each other, it just means that nobody else has broken the ice so everybody is obeying the social convention and following everyone else’s lead. But then he said the thing that really stuck with me, which was that nobody waves, but everybody waves back, so if you start talking to someone, generally, they start talking back to you, or if you smile at someone who looked grumpy, usually they smile back at you. Knowing that, and practicing that in real life, really made me feel less socially anxious about going out and meeting new people.
I think everybody in their life has gone through a phase where they felt lonely, or they wanted new friends, or they’ve wanted to meet a new person to date or fall in love with, and I think it’s important to remember that. So throughout the year, I had to meet lots of different people, and before the year began I was socially anxious and I always assumed the worst of people—that they wouldn’t like me, or they would reject me, or they wouldn’t want to talk to me—I found that really was not the case. It felt like people were a lot kinder and more open than I had ever imagined, because in my head it seemed scary, but when you actually go and do that, it really takes away the fear, because we realize everybody’s a little bit scared but people are usually open.
You write about realizing that most of us aren’t terribly practiced at striking up a conversation or maintaining one, especially with someone we don’t know well or at all, would you talk a bit about what you learned about conversation throughout your year of extroversion?
One of the things I learned in the year that really resonated with me and I think about literally every day and in nearly every conversation I have with someone that I don’t know very well is this concept called deep talk versus surface talk. I took this class in London called How To Be Sociable, full of 40 other people, and the instructor talked about how there is surface talk and there is deep talk. So surface talk is talking about the weather and complaining about your commute, what you’re going to do this weekend, whereas deep talk is talking about your fears and your desires and your vulnerabilities. If we don’t engage in deep talk with people, we won’t have meaningful connections, and I think that sometimes we’re so scared that we could stay in surface talk all the time, but I actively made an effort to try to go into deep talk with people who seemed willing, who I met, and I feel like it really deepened my friendships and my relationships.
I went on a blind friend date with a friend I met on Bumble BFF, another woman, and she was telling me about a guy that she’s been dating for a few months and she said that she really liked him. He seemed really nice. He had a good job. He seemed responsible, they had a fine sex life, but she seemed really hesitant. I said ‘well, what’s the problem with him then?’ She said ‘well, I feel like it’s all banter, there’s no deep conversation.’ I had not told her any of these things that I learned that year. I said to her ‘well, have you ever asked him a deep question?’ She said ‘no, because I’m so scared to show how I really feel or that I really want to know these things about him.’ I think that’s a really common fear. But I also think that it goes back to ‘if nobody waves, nobody waves back,’ if nobody takes that leap, then your relationship will just stay in a shallow territory. In my own experience, with my husband, after six months I had a similar problem. I felt like everything was going great but I wanted to ask him all these personal questions about his past and future and what he wants from a relationship, but I felt really scared to ask. We sort of agreed, one night while the sun was setting, that in that twilight hour that we could ask each other anything we wanted to. We both were able to finally go deep and I feel like that is what really cemented our connection and that was the foundation of our marriage.
To enlarge your friend group you used apps, treating the process similarly to online dating. What was that experience like?
I found that really tricky. I have so much respect for people who are on dating apps because I had no idea how hard it would be to just meet a platonic woman that I wanted to have coffee with a few times a month. I think chemistry is so hard to find and and also you want to find someone who has time in their life, who lives relatively near you. I found that a lot harder than I thought I would. I did meet one good friend from Bumble BFF who is still my friend today, so it can happen.
What do you see as the greatest gifts of your extroversion project?
I think that after talking to strangers on London public transport—which is a total faux pas over in England—it was really embarrassing and really tough to do because I’m naturally shy, but once I did it and people were nice to me, even though they definitely thought I was strange, all of a sudden my social anxiety started to evaporate. I’m not as scared to talk to strangers at all. I’m a lot less socially anxious, and I think that’s a really big change. I think everybody tends to have a self definition—the story they tell themselves—I’m this kind of person, I’m a shy person, I don’t talk to strangers, I’d never give a presentation, I’m not going to throw myself parties, or whatever it is that you tell yourself. By spending a year doing all the things that I never even thought were possible, like stand-up comedy, it really felt freeing to have the definition of myself expand and to realize that I could do things that previously I thought could never be possible. I had really intense stage fright and I had to perform to an audience of 900 people without any notes and it was being recorded. But, with the help of a mentor, I survived that and I feel a lot more confident and can’t believe that I did that. I feel very empowered by that.
What are your hopes for your readers as you send your book into the world?
There are some psychology studies that say that our personalities are fixed at 30. I didn’t like reading that. It’s like, ‘oh so I’m going to be this way forever, I’m going to have the same anxieties and weaknesses forever.’ But then I found this other psychologist named Brian R. Little. He says that we are shaped by nature and we’re shaped by nurture, but our personalities are also affected by the things that we choose to do. I found that really freeing and like that had happened to me over the year. I was living proof of this—I was more confident, I had less social anxiety. I definitely don’t want people to think that I think everybody should be an extrovert or everybody should change who they are. Introversion and extroversion are generally agreed upon to be inherited traits, so I don’t think I’m going to be an extrovert, I was born an introvert, that’s my natural tendency but I feel a lot more confident and less socially anxious and I think that anyone else who doesn’t want to be tethered to their anxieties for the rest of their lives can have hope that they can do things. It doesn’t have to be the things I do, obviously, but can do things that can free them and change them for the better, if they want.
Cara Strickland writes about food and drink, mental health, faith and being single from her home in the Pacific Northwest. She enjoys hot tea, good wine, and deep conversations. She will always want to play with your dog. Connect with her on Twitter @anxiouscook.