Thoughts on Conferences, Friendships, and Introversion

Skepticon this year was a roller coaster. I was dealing with some pretty heavy stuff in my personal life that week, and cons are always a bit of a risky proposition for an introvert. I’m not sure I’ve ever had quite so pronounced an experience of the nature of my introversion than I got this year at con.

What I like about cons is that it’s a chance to be surrounded by people who are like me. People who are thoughtful critical thinkers, and interested in science and the world’s big questions and who are able to keep up with my own thoughts about such things. Being surrounded by people like that can be its own special type of intoxicating.

The biggest problem with cons for me is that they are designed around group interactions, which is something that I can only do in small doses. I very much enjoy talking to most of the people that I meet at conferences, but what I really enjoy are the one-on-one interactions. Group interactions with more than three or four people tend to paralyze my brain. You could predict my mood at any given time at the conference pretty reliably by looking at the amount of group versus one-on-one conversation I had had in the previous hour. A lot of group interaction and my mood would be pretty low. A lot of one-on-one conversation, and my mood would be pretty fucking good.

I’m not sure what this means for me for future conferences. I do love the people at conferences, but conferences aren’t designed for the types of interaction that I really enjoy having with people, and I would imagine that most people who go to conferences are better suited to group interaction than I am, and may be actively looking for more of that type of interaction.

Sometimes I think of the distinction between one-on-one versus group interaction in terms of operating serially or in parallel. I don’t much like parallel social interaction most of the time, but I do serial social interaction very well.

This reality leaves me in a position of not having a lot of control over whether or not I have a good time at conferences — either a lot of group interaction happens and I end up anxious, on edge, and at risk for a period of increased symptoms of depression, or I chance upon enough interesting, person-to-person conversations that things are awesome.

I don’t know if there’s any good way to control which of those possibilities actually happens, which means conference experiences in general are a coin flip, and at times a coin flip that is potentially dangerous for my mental health.

This is a broader problem for my life in general. Most group interactions feel, to me, like a period of waiting to get to the good part. The good part is the part where you have the chance to stop operating in parallel. The good part is plugging your brain into someone else’s brain and watching your ideas refract through the media of their ideas, and their ideas through yours, and seeing things entirely new come out the other end.

The difficulty, in my experience, in strongly preferring one-on-one interaction, is that it is much harder to find ways to have it happen passively. If I want to interact with someone one-on-one, generally, it happens by chance or it happens by intention – e.g. I call someone up. If I want to interact with or meet people in a group setting, I can go somewhere where there are groups of people. I can go to a party or a conference or a meetup and be interacting with a group of people just like that. All I need to do is be in a place where there is a group of people and those interactions, by default, start to happen. And I hope that at some point we’ll get to the good part.

Dance is the best way I’ve found to operate in serial for a while, but, for the moment, it’s a risky proposition for me, physically. I’m becoming more and more aware, though, that I very much need to find some better ways to have one-on-one interactions with people that can happen relatively passively. I don’t think most people have quite as strong a preference for it as I do, and it gets frustrating quickly when I feel like I have to put an enormous amount of energy into making it happen whenever I want to make it happen.

I think it creates a certain amount of frustration for me in my friendships as well. To an extent, my brain doesn’t interpret group interaction with friends as “real” time spent with friends. It doesn’t feel, to me, like the type of time spent with people that builds a sense of interpersonal intimacy — which is generally what I like to do in friendships — so some of my friendships end up feeling very different from my side versus the other person’s side, because the other person may be able to experience a sense of building history and intimacy from group interactions that I will not experience. This may lead to my feeling like people are less interested in my time and friendship than they actually are, because to me the expression of that interest is in large part defined by the amount of time they try to find with me one-on-one, and for others it may not be defined that way.

At this point I’m just throwing out hypotheses. This whole thing is a complicated issue for me, and I feel like I need to understand it better before I’ll be able to come up with good, actionable solutions to the problems.

So, the questions are:

How do I find a way to have a good time at conferences in spite of my issues with group interaction, or how do I find a different way to interact meaningfully with the kinds of people that I love to interact with conferences?

How do I find a way to feel valued and balanced in friendships with people who may express and experience friendship in ways that don’t line up very well with the ways I do?

How do I find less effortful means to experience the types of interactions that make me happy?

Is there a way to manage to get less anxiety and more satisfaction out of interacting with people in groups?

Here’s hoping I stumble upon some solutions.

4 comments on “Thoughts on Conferences, Friendships, and Introversion

  1. Pingback: Having Dynamic Emotional States Feels Weird | Research to be Done

  2. I suspect to a large extent it’s a matter of practice. Probably if one is comfortable with group conversations, they would also become less stressful and more enjoyable. Or that’s my running hypothesis. But I really don’t like them either >.<

    Maybe read there's a non-zero probability it might help a bit.

  3. I’m sorry to hear you had a somewhat-difficult time! I hope that the one conversation we had one-on-one did help a little. If not, maybe we can think of something that would make it better next time.


    We can and should talk about this plenty more. Preferably in a large group! (I kid.) But really, there are tons of pressures in every direction on this, from people wanting to absorb as much from as many people as possible in a short time to the appeal of the quiet, private conversations to the frustrations I heard about from the number of people wanting personal time with certain individuals.

    There’s a sweet spot to be found in small groups with numbers like you said. Larger than that and I can have a good time, but it doesn’t take on the same tone as the one-on-one brain pickings.

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