Editorial Notebook

Extrovert discovers himself

When I wave at this year’s freshmen as I walk past them on my way to class, they wave back at me. Maybe they just haven’t picked up on RPI’s shoe-staring culture yet, but it seems like a step in the right direction.

Of course, being a little introverted isn’t a huge problem, but the ability to interact with other people in a social setting is helpful on both a personal and professional level. Also, the introvert/extrovert distinction isn’t as black and white as people seem to think.

For the longest time, I thought of myself as very introverted—I wasn’t very good at talking to people, and too much interaction tired me out. I would usually choose to stay home instead of doing social things. It actually turns out that I have never been an introvert—I was just bad at being extroverted. I wanted to talk to people, but didn’t know how to keep a conversation going, and so I decided that I didn’t like conversations. I was wrong, though; talking with interesting people is a great way to pass time and make friends.

What changed? I joined a fraternity; I worked in New York City for a summer; I got a little bit older and a little bit more comfortable with myself. I’m still no paragon of social elegance, but nowadays I can at least get by. Put me with a group of strangers and I can have a good time without wallflowering too hard.

There are plenty of little things that help, but it’s not really important which ones. Wear nice clothes, get a haircut—whatever it takes to trick yourself into a bit of self-confidence. For example, there a couple of rules or guidelines I try to follow when having a conversation. The first one is honesty: don’t try to embody a “persona” or be someone you’re not. People are very good at picking up on insincerity and usually find it annoying. On the other hand, social settings are shared; “being yourself” doesn’t excuse hijacking the topic to something that no one else is interested in. Make sure everyone gets a portion of the group’s attention; ask follow-up questions if someone else talks about anything interesting.

These sorts of rules aren’t any sort of gospel, but following them helps reassure me that I’m not being “that guy” and lets me feel more comfortable participating. Like anything else, the real key is practice; any tips or tricks are really just ways to make you relax enough to start that practice.

The RPI stereotype might be smart people without social skills, but I’ve met plenty of gregarious students, and a good deal of more reserved people that still are great to talk to if you approach them. Sometimes assuming that everyone doesn’t want to talk to you is a self-fulfilling prophecy; give people a chance, even at a tech school!