I’ve been quarantined (thank you Winnie the Flu) for the last two weeks and that got me thinking.
I am an introvert…I think. However, I’ve been doing those “My Life” posts and that got me wondering about something. How much is being an introvert an innate characteristic and how much is learned behavior. Allow me to explain.
I have not been diagnosed as being Autism Spectrum. I suspect I am, but have never been formally diagnosed. At this point in my life, I don’t see that there would be any value to a formal diagnosis. However, whether I’m on the spectrum or not, one characteristic typical of autistics I do have, and that’s difficulty/inability to recognizing and responding appropriately to social cues. The hints and “tells” that guide neurotypical people in their interactions with each other are a complete mystery to me. This is a problem both in recognizing the cues in others and giving off cues to others. As one example, I have no idea where the line is between “playful flirtation” and “being creepy.” (Now, I know folk who don’t get that difference and consistently come across as creepers–maybe; it’s possible they really are creepers and are just using “autism” as an excuse. However, I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt since I have the same problem although my reaction is usually to just not do either since I have difficulty telling them apart.)
So, take a young person with difficulties with social cues and what happens? They misread cues and mispresent them all. the. time. When they misread cues, they respond inappropriately. And kids, being kids, can be savage in their “punishment” of misread cues.
When the young person mispresents cues, they evoke responses quite different from what they were hoping for. Sure, even folk who are good at social cues frequently don’t get the response they want but they have several advantages. One is that they recognize that things aren’t going as hoped early–reading the cues the others are sending in response–and can “abort” before things get out of hand. Other times, they do get the response they were hoping for. For the person who doesn’t get social cues it never works out because even if the person were responsive to the message they think they’re sending, they’re not actually sending that message.
This combination ends up making social interaction almost universally a negative experience. A person who might enjoy and thrive on social interaction if they just understood the rules well enough to have internalized them (i.e. if they were “neurotypical”) learns instead that social interaction is a chore and downright painful. Thus you get anxiety any time they are forced into social situations because they are minefields where any step they take can blow up in their faces.
The person can be miserable being alone but still avoids others because the anxiety and the near inevitable disasters that social interaction creates for them is worse. Alone is safe. It may not be “good”, but it is “safe.”
Now, don’t get me wrong. There are certainly people that thrive in “alone time.” These are the natural introverts. But I do wonder how many people identify as introverts who aren’t actually introverts. It’s just their difficulties dealing with the vast majority of people create sufficient anxiety such that “alone” is better.
So, as I have been sitting here going slowly stir-crazy in enforced isolation, denied even my few “safe” social interactions (skating class and, yes, work) and have to wonder, am I really as introverted as I’ve always thought I was or is that just inability to get social cues, leading to social anxiety serving the same function?