I remember the first time a man told me that I should “stop flirting.” He was my boyfriend, I was about 20, and we were waiting to get our coffees. I was talking to the male barista, making conversation about the school we both attended (we were right next to campus) while he steamed the milk. “You’re being desperate” my boyfriend told me, his voice filled with venom, “Why do you have to flirt with every guy you see?” I was taken aback, suddenly had no appetite for the tall vanilla latte I had been waiting for. I apologized, even though I wasn’t sure what I really had done, and from that point on made sure not to talk to male servers and baristas unless it was absolutely necessary (or I was alone).
Of course, it wasn’t the first time someone had assumed I was flirting with a strange man, it was just the first time someone had said it with such overt disdain. I knew from a young age that my ease in talking to people was often misinterpreted as a romantic or sexual advance, regardless of my intentions. There was some nebulous expectation of women — and especially of young girls — to be quiet, reserved, and to not jump with both feet into conversations with strangers. My tendency to engage nearly everyone in a friendly chat was often used as the opening line to something more serious, more sinister, even. To hear my boyfriend at the time reprimand me for talking to that barista, it was just a confirmation of the suspicions I’d always lived with: by simply talking too much, I was branded a slut.
We hear a lot on the internet about how difficult it is to be an introvert, and I don’t doubt it. Drawing your energy from aloneness is bound to be tough in a world where we are constantly surrounded by people and, in order to get ahead professionally or personally, you need to be ready to engage people constantly. I imagine that the fatigue of being around people, of always having to “perform” in some way, is one that weighs and grates as time goes on. I don’t want to imply that it is an easy life in any way. But often, in our haste to celebrate the rich inner lives of introverts, we play into the same stereotypes of extroverts as vapid attention whores that can make our lives so difficult. Just because someone is extroverted, and draws energy from the company of others, doesn’t mean that there is nothing going on in our heads.
There are moments of needing people, though. There are moments of feeling like we will wither and die if we don’t see people, have good conversation, entertain, and share in human connection. Every extrovert has had that moment of desperate scrolling through their contacts, looking for someone to hang out with them, feeling the insatiable itch to relax and recharge in the company of good friends. And we know that it runs a risk of making us seem incapable of being alone, like we can’t just enjoy a moment of silence or solitude — but that’s not true! In fact, many of us are alone quite a bit, and we enjoy it like anyone else. But whether it’s striking up a conversation with a barista, or Gchatting your friend list at 4:45 to see who is down for some happy hour tacos, there will always come a moment where we need to share with others.
I saw the way my boyfriend looked at me. I’ve seen the way strangers looked at me, so sure that I was desperate for their company in particular, so sure that I was asking for something. And I know, when I see the way people can sometimes describe extroverts, that it’s a thought we all have in the back of our minds. To be an extroverted woman, to engage nearly everyone with vigor and joy, always implies something empty or needy just under the surface. And though I couldn’t explain to my boyfriend — in all 20 years of my insecurity — that I wasn’t interested in that barista, I realize now that it didn’t matter. Because our lives should not be about convincing people that we just want to talk. It should be about finding the people who want to be in the conversation.