As with any fairly smallish group, when it comes to polyamory bizarre stereotypes abound. While I could (and probably will, with with BloggyWriMo/NaBloPoMo) expound on many of them, today I’m gonna stick with one: the idea that poly people are all massively extroverted social butterflies. I can see where this one came from. After all, the whole idea of polyamory is that you’re up for having more than one partner. It’s not a vast jump from “likes to have more partners than I do” to “likes spending a whole lot of time with lots of different people”. And while plenty poly people are like that, there’s also a lot of us for whom that isn’t true. So from one somewhat-introverted poly person to you lot, here’s why it works for me.
Smaller, closer groups
If there’s one thing that distinguishes extroverts from introverts, it’s our preference for spending our time with smaller groups of people who we’re close to. I’m like that. Lovely as they can be (and they really can!) I have only so many spoons for acquaintances. It’s the people who I know really, really well that I prefer to spend lots of time with.
That doesn’t make me poly, of course. Being poly just means that in those small groups of people I love dearly, I’m able to fall in love with more than one. And I’m only okay with getting in relationships where that’s fine by everyone. The way that I ‘do’ poly fits in with my introversion. My poly is all about letting relationships find their own level, embracing the gray area between ‘friend’, ‘lover’ and ‘partner’, and seeing what kind of interacting fits me and a particular individual best. That isn’t unique to polyamorous people, of course. For me, though, one of my favourite things is seeing how my close relationships evolve over time. How they ebb and flow, and how we love each other in different ways and the months and years go by.
The Basic Social Unit Is One
I have no idea where I first heard this. But it’s something that I really, really like about lots of poly ways of interacting.
You know the way that sometimes the world feels like it’s built around couples? Plus-one on invitations. Hotel rooms booked per-person-sharing. Talking about your partner as your ‘other half’ (or even more vomworthy, your ‘better half’). The entire rom-com industry. I could go on, but you get my drift.
In poly circles, you don’t get to do that. If a person could be seriously involved with four people or nobody at all, then you can’t make assumptions and you end up with two choices. Either you put plus-n on your invites and risk your party being six times larger than you had planned, or else you start acting as if the basic social unit isn’t people in a romantic relationship after all. And the basic social unit ends up being one.
As someone who likes my solitude, being in communities where it’s assumed that the individual is a perfectly great social unit all on their own is fantastic. If there’s no assumption that I’ll be with a particular number of other people, then it’s perfectly fine to be on my own. Poly also comes fully-loaded with language to describe my need for alone time. I tell my partner- mainly just kidding- that although she’s the only person I’m dating right now, I’ve gotta take time for my other primary relationship with nobody at all. And as we’ve mentioned time..
I have this friend who is both mono themselves, and who is one of the biggest introverts I’ve ever met. They’re a sweet, caring, loving person who needs absolute oodles of alone time. And while they’re generally either cheerfully-single or monogamous themselves, they’ve said to me several times that, when they do date people, they prefer their partner to be polyamorous. You see, the handy thing about dating someone who’s in another relationship or two is that they’ll be wanting to spend time with them. Lots and lots of time. Time when you can be pottering about by yourself with not a smidgeon of guilt that you’re leaving your lovely partner(s) alone. In fact, you could even describe yourself as delightfully giving! Your partner is off spending tons of time with their other partners, with nary a hint of complaint from yourself. Shure, you’d get a medal for it if you weren’t not-so-secretly loving it.
Oh god. Is this thing on? It is, isn’t it? After spending yesterday absolutely itching to get writing, when I woke up this morning my inspiration, shall we say, declined to get out of bed with me. Fecker is still lazing about halfway through the afternoon. So I figured that, after a morning doing all sorts of errands I’ve been not getting around to, I might as well just start without it. I figure that 90% of this lack of inspiration is the GIANT NERVES that I have around this massive project that I’ve set for myself, so if I keep on writing things it’ll be shamed into showing up. And then we can really get this show on the road.
Let’s start with something seriously introspective. I want to talk about introversion, social anxiety, how they’re not the same thing, and ask a few questions about ways in which those of us of an introverted(ish) persuasion can and do engage. Yes, I’m starting off BloggyWriMo with a post about things that make people feel anxious and awkward. This feels appropriate, since the idea of writing 50,000 words over the next 30 days makes me feel anxious and awkward and I just can’t help sharing with you lot. You can thank me later.
Introversion, Social Anxiety and Social Awkwardness, and Activism
Anathem: Heaven or Hell?
Sitting the other day in a cafe with a rather extroverted friend of mine, I tried to explain why, despite knowing it to be a messed-up way to make a society, the idea of living in an Anathem-style math is one that I daydream about more than I care to admit. For those of you who haven’t read Anathem, and without spoiling too much, it is set in a world where, if you’re going to be a nerdy academic type, you have to live in a cloister locked away from the rest of society for up to a millennium at a time. You get out for ten days every decade, century, or millenium depending on where you live and how advanced your research is. The rest of the time you live cloistered away in communities of other academic types. You own nothing but the clothes on your back, you grow your own food, you study the things you want to study.
To me it sounds heavenly. To live in a nice small community of people who I know really well? Where I get to study what I like and be around people who are full of ideas and smart as hell themselves? Where I can spend as much time as I like alone learning things? And, yes, grow my own food and not worry about possessions? And to be able to pop into town every decade or so and catch a movie with the family? It sounds amazing. Yes, yes, so it’s messed up for a society to be so scared of knowledge that they’ll lock up all the academics, nerds and smart people. Whatever. Somebody get me a freakin’ TARDIS and send me to this place. I am signing up.
ExtrovertFriend did not agree. She made the (rather good) point that this sounded a lot like an extreme ivory-tower fantasy from the most feverish of middle-class intellectual brains. While I would love to be able to disagree with this, I, well, can’t. I have that special kind of middle class-ness that means that people are nice to me at the dole office. I exude Arts grad from every pore, and the things I like and want are absolutely tied up with that privilege. ExtrovertFriend also said that she felt that the idea that I thought of of heavenly sounded entirely hellish to her. To only spend time with the same few hundred people for years on end? To hear from the outside world every decade at best? She said, in far less polite terms than I’m using, that it would drive her completely bananas. Possibly barmy.
In the conversation that followed, myself and ExtrovertFriend went on to talk about what our experiences are with introversion and extroversion, how one often gets confused with social awkwardness and anxiety, and wonder about ways in which people of a more introverted persuasion can avoid the temptation to live in an ivory tower-esque bubble while still being true to our more solitary selves.
Introversion vs awkwardness
I’m reasonably introverted. If introversion and extroversion were a spectrum, I’d be swimming around the grey area a bit closer to the solitary side. Don’t get me wrong- I love people. I have an incredible partner, fantastic chosen/birth family and friends who I love to pieces, and wonderful circles of acquaintances that I’m delighted and inspired by.
And I need time alone. A lot of time alone. Today, for example, I’m spending most of the day on my own. I have a to-do list, a house to potter about in, and errands to run. I’m writing this on the sofa in gorgeous, blessed silence broken only by the noise of trams passing every few minutes. Well, that and &^^&%& telemarketers phoning the landline constantly. As long as I have things to do, I’ll happily spend days on end with only my own company. A lot of social interaction, on the other hand- especially with people outside of my closest circles- leaves me exhausted and craving quiet. I like small groups of people or one-on-one interactions. Large social interactions- great big parties and the like- I can take in very, very small doses. ExtrovertFriend, on the other hand, loves being in a room packed with people.
But I love people! I really enjoy being around people. I couldn’t live in a hermitage. And as introverted as I am, there are people who I can almost seamlessly integrate into my peace and quiet. Like with many introverts, one of the most meaningful ways I show people I love them is by hanging out in a room with them for hours on end and ignoring them completely. It means that someone is close enough to me that their being around doesn’t disturb the sense of comfort, peace and productivity I get from being alone.
In our conversation the other day, ExtrovertFriend talked a little about her own experiences with what she described as introversion, and of how she overcame her own social awkwardnesses over the course of her life. And then I asked her a question. I asked her if she thought of me as socially awkward.
You see, I’m not tremendously socially awkward. Oh, I’m a bit, definitely. There are social situations- generally the kind that I don’t like and don’t do much of anyway- that give me massive nerves. I can’t understand why people like clubbing, for example. It’s one of those weird, geese-juggling phenomena that most of the people around me really like and that have me cringing in horror. And the idea of the kind of social events where you’re expected to mingle and small-talk with people baffles me. Buggered if I know what to say to utter strangers who’ll be off talking to someone else in a few minutes anyway. And isn’t it rude to just go up to a stranger and start talking to them? I never got the hang of it.
I think, though, that when naturally extroverted people talk about overcoming their introversion, what they really mean is that they overcame their social awkwardness or anxiety. As an introvert, I can be happy as a clam while out being social. But I’ll still want a lot of time alone.
What on earth, you may ask, has all of this got to do with activism? As intersectional feminists, both myself and ExtrovertFriend are committed to the idea that activism- any activism- has to involve getting out of yourself and your own situation and taking into account what’s going on for others. If you don’t do that, you might as well stay at home. This is, of course, a lot more difficult when you’re someone who tends towards solitude and small groups of people. If you’re simply less likely to want to be around other people all the time, and if the time you do spend around others is likely to be focused more on smaller groups of closer friends, then- we figure- you’re simply less inclined to get out there and get to know a lot of people from different backgrounds and situations to yourself. And while introverts are perhaps more likely to read books by people from all over the map, it’s not really the same, is it?
Of course, as an intersectionalist I also feel it’s important to mention that we do live in a world that’s geared toward extroverts. You don’t get to walk into an interview and say “Other people and teamwork are okay, but really, I’d far prefer to be just left alone to get on with it”. There’s a glamour to being a social butterfly that you simply don’t get if your idea of fun includes, say, sitting on your own typing away while your latest experiment in dessert bakes away in the kitchen. And you wouldn’t believe the looks you get when you tell people that yes, you are off hiking for a month on your own.
But when it comes to activism, how to make use of introverted qualities is a question worth asking. Once we stop looking at introversion as something like social awkwardness or anxiety that is somehow a problem, we can start looking into what to do with it. How do we compensate for our tendency to have smaller circles? Is that even a problem to begin with? What are the valuable things that introverts can bring to the activism table? And is this idea of activism itself something that suffers from being geared, as so many things are, towards the extroverts among us?
And similarly, as we talk about valuing what’s awesome about introversion, what about asking questions about what’s the matter with extroversion? Are there ways in which the social butterflies among us tend to take over, and should they be taking responsibility for compensating for that?