I realised I was an introvert when I was 14, sitting in my room alone doing personality quizzes having not talked to any of my friends during the half term yet feeling as energised as ever.
But contrary to my often-antisocial tendencies and reluctance to leave the house unless it’s totally necessary, being an introvert doesn’t mean you dislike people and social interaction, nor does it mean you’re debilitatingly shy and have nothing to say. In her book ‘Quiet’ Susan Cain sums it up well, ’Introverts recharge their batteries by being alone; extroverts need to recharge when they don’t socialise enough’, which is why drained introverts are often misinterpreted as shy or standoffish and extroverts in their element confident and outgoing. While introverts tend to be more introspective, finding comfort in solitude, and extroverts more social, thriving in groups, introversion and extroversion aren’t binary. It’s a spectrum. Some people fall more to one side than the other and the personalities manifest themselves in different ways. For example, some introverts are genuinely shy, easily distracted and love cancelled plans whereas others are super analytical, highly creative, and good listeners. And many have a few extroverted qualities or thrive in areas often associated with extroversion like public speaking and leadership. It wasn’t until I started my first semester at university that my introverted traits began to feel like negative aspects of my personality. The flurry of new people, constant socialising and the seemingly endless small talk was draining. The self-imposed pressure to always be ‘on’ leaving me prematurely exhausted, longing for my bed, books, and Netflix watch list before stepping out the door. But in the process of being thrown into the loud, mile a minute, often overstimulating world of university I learned a few things.
Independence doesn’t equate to being a loner, your downtime is nothing to be ashamed of.
‘I had about 20 people in my class and I was friendly with everyone but I only had about 2 people who I would say were my friends in that class and that’s kind of normal for me, I don’t like to socialise in large groups, I prefer one on ones or small groups because when I hang out with a lot of people it drains my energy.’ – Maxine
I never truly feel like I’m missing out on the nights where I chose to stay in. In fact, when I’m catching up on books I’ve been meaning to read or making something I love, my strongest thought is ‘I wish I felt this way all the time’. Yet sometimes I have this strange feeling that I’m missing out on the fear of missing out. That I couldn’t possibly be enjoying the empty hours in my schedule and that I should instead be crying into my journal, tapping snapchat stories and wishing I was a different way, but I don’t (at least not most of the time). As young people, we’re generally pushed two ideas; that university is supposed to be this constantly exciting colourful time or that if it isn’t the fact should make us miserable, envying the lives of those who do live that way.
You will have as much small talk as you allow.
“Let’s clear one thing up: Introverts do not hate small talk because we dislike people. We hate small talk because we hate the barrier it creates between people.” – Laurie Helgoe
A common trait of introversion is an aversion to small talk. Not because introverts can’t make small talk but because they find it to be deeply inauthentic, fostering the type of superficial conversations where people speak without ever really getting to know each other. I dislike small talk, I don’t enjoy talking about the weather or assignments or how awful 2016 was, but for most my first semester, that was all I did. Found the most basic of common ground and ran with it, fruitlessly trying to form solid friendships based on conversation fillers, until the middle of my first semester. I started a project for my university’s magazine, a series in which I went out onto campus and asked stranger’s short meaningful questions. The 2-3 minute stories I heard in the course of doing so, stories I would have never heard otherwise, affirmed one thing in my mind. To have meaningful conversations that go beyond knowing what someone studies and where they live, you must ask meaningful questions. Yes, it can be daunting and might take a few tries, but the good conversations that can come of it are worth the risk.
‘I hate small talk lol. Like I’d do anything to avoid small talk. I’d prefer silence. Honestly. Small talk is dreadful’. – Refiloe
Trust your instinct, honour your time.
‘I mean, is someone you’re meeting during a forced social event really someone you can call a friend? Friendships at university can feel forced sometimes’- Rhyanna
If you, like me, are an introvert who loves the idea of parties but generally finds them a little stressful/disappointing, you’ve probably found yourself standing in a bathroom stall trying to convince yourself you don’t want to leave or in a kitchen talking air wanting nothing more than to leave. We’ve all been there, some more than others, but it’s not just a fact of university life that you must accept. If there’s one thing I’ve become certain of in the past few months, it’s just how well I know myself when it comes to predicting what I will and will not enjoy socially. The pressure to be seen at social gatherings and the ever-present fear of missing out is strong at university and so I ask myself three questions before leaving the house. 1.Do I actually want to go? 2. Why do I/don’t I want to go? and 3. Is this a decision I’m making based on FOMO or genuine interest?
Challenge yourself to get out of your comfort zone
‘But Rufaro, you just said-’ yes, yes, I did. A part of knowing yourself is being able to differentiate between knowing yourself and just saying you do to justify never leaving your comfort zone, so one of the things I did in my first semester was set myself challenges. I would find an event that I was hesitant to go to then set myself a challenge, goal, and reward. For example, if I went to the event, stayed for 1.5 hours, and had an actual conversation with three people, I could go home and watch the newsroom for the rest of the night. Or if I intentionally made plans with to meet up with 2 of the new people I’d met I could stay in my room for the rest of the weekend without feeling a hint of shame. It sounds basic, but it works. I moved into a new flat midway through my first semester and after a week of telling myself that all was lost and that it was too late to know my flatmates, I took a stand, against myself. Challenge- sit in the kitchen for two high traffic hours a day, making a concerted effort to have actual conversations with everyone who comes in for a week and if nothing comes of it; you don’t end up speaking to anyone or the conversations you have make you wish you’d stayed in your room, you can just use all the vouchers you got in fresher week to order pizza for the rest of the year. I’m still yet to order any. Being intentional about leaving your comfort zone without shaming yourself for not having the university experience you feel everybody else is having, can be a great way to make the most out of your time no matter what your personality.
Embrace Your Introversion
‘Generally, I didn’t struggle with anything in terms of introversion at university, doing presentations, I actually found that pretty easy as long as I was prepared and I knew what I was saying…being an introvert doesn’t mean that you’re not good at presenting.’ – Maxine
Being introverted is nothing to be ashamed of nor is it something particularly out of the ordinary. Introverts make up a third  to half of the population and our hidden talents and traits can make university the place where we thrive. If we find them. Before starting my first semester I had a handful of things I knew I was good at and several things I knew I was interested in or liked. And so, I pursued them, using my introverted traits, to my advantage. Introverts are often independent, good listeners, observant and self-aware and these traits can translate to a host of skills that can help you thrive at university. From leadership to public speaking, university can encourage introverts to discover aspects of their personality that they might not have found otherwise. So, join societies, explore those things you’re interested in, try out for the roles you’ve always wanted to pursue and see where the products of your personality can lead you.
Introversion isn’t a negative characteristic nor is it a trait to be cured, it’s a part of who you are, so embrace your introversion, discover the ways it makes you who you are and trust your instinct, know who you are.