This is the second entry in a series about How to be Approachable, in which extraversion is probed as a force of nature that can be harnessed. Today it’s not what you say but where you say it. Or rather, where you set foot, since certain arenas are so rich in extraversive energy that showing up is sufficient. So what are these pro-social venues and what underlying factors make them so?
I began my field study of settings that activate extraversion by watching Netflix alone in my hotel. Twenty-four hours later, I tallied the results, ran a two-tailed p-test, and found that I had met exactly zero new people… On the plus side I did receive quite the education on dealing crystal meth.
So the first step, trivial but not necessarily easy, is to leave the house. But where to?
I The fundamental problem: Inappropriateness of stranger-stranger interactions
I had a ginger-haired friend in high-school called Dexter. One valiant afternoon, after spending weeks reading internet Usenet groups about becoming an alpha male, he got it into his confused 14-year-old head that he’d kickstart his social life by going to McDonald’s by himself and sitting down, unannounced, at a table full of strangers.
Dexter: *Sitting down* “…”
Table: *Looks of shock and confusion* “…”
Dexter: “ehh… hi”
Table: “Who on earth are you? Why are you sitting at our table?”
Dexter: “I’m Dexter.”
Table: “Dexter, can’t you see we’re having a private conversation? Would you be so kind, if you pardon my French, to fuck right off?”
Dexter: *Gets up and leaves*
Me: *standing nearby* “I think they really liked you Dexter!”
In my northern European homeland, fast-food chains are not a place where you expect random people to talk to you. You might get away with a word of complaint in the queue — or a few more if it’s 2am and everyone’s drunk — but nobody plops their ass down on someone else’s table and starts chatting. Generally speaking though, these venues have an affiliative climate so cold that it undershoots absolute zero and shatters physics itself. Only STI testing clinics are even in the same league.
This is supposed to be an article about introverting, but didn’t Dexter make the first, disastrous move? What gives? The point is that social norms about the appropriateness of talking to strangers exist, and these norms are both understood and generally adhered to by all but the most irreverent of extraverts. Maybe Arthur the Swedish coke-dealing underwear model doesn’t give a hoot, but your garden variety opportunivert, the type of person not currently undergoing simultaneous treatment for mania and syphilis, does. Although some settings are obviously much more appropriate for interaction than others (compare accosting a stranger on the sidewalk to saying hi after yoga), most of the places we visit veer towards being risky.
Thus, the stronger the social norms an extravert must break to introduce themselves in a given setting, the less likely it is an introvert will meet anyone there. To choose the venue poorly is to be off to a dead start.
II. Four wildcards transcending the default inappropriateness of interacting in otherwise off-limits environments.
♠ Tribal ties
While I was researching this article, I ate out a lot. (The last sentence sounds ominously sexual…) One thing stood out: People at vegan establishments interacted far more often than those at regular ones. At one tastelessly named place, Sides, I saw a stranger recommend the beetroot salad to a nearby couple struggling over the menu choices. Elsewhere, an old lady whose husband had gone to the bathroom for the fourteenth time struck up a conversation with a reluctant but polite young British backpacker, evangelizing a woo-woo healing “treatment” she’d just underwent. And another time, a dude in a fruitarian t-shirt, with a body frame of proportions that rivalled the fearsome paperclip, inquired what the missus in yoga pants was reading.
Given all this extraverted energy at vegan restaurants, the best way for an introvert to harness it all is to consume one full vegan, ideally atop a bicycle (for extra protein). Well, actually no, if only it were that simple! The point is rather that people who dine at vegan restaurants don’t regard one another as unadulterated strangers, but instead see them as members of a common tribe. Vegans often have a ton in common – aside from shared moral beliefs and the sense that “we’re in this together,” there are many subtle tells and mental associations that betray shared educational background, wealth, and class. Meanwhile, over at McDonalds, the couple sitting one table away could well be galaxies apart in terms of life experiences, the only assured commonality being that of being hungry.
Introverting is, therefore, easier at places suffused with tribal ties. Nationality-based events are a great example. Before my country’s embassy stopped inviting me to their soirées because “our events are exclusively intended for people of value to the country’s political and business interests” (true story), I went to their Christmas party. With a good five hundred in attendance, you’d expect the standard standoffishness that accompanies a gathering of this magnitude. Yet the evening felt like a game of social ping-pong, in that attendees were comfortable hopping into any random circle’s conversation. Strangers became extended family for one night, and by that I mean the imaginary kind that doesn’t yell at each over the Christmas dinner.
The above two examples of tribal ties (vegan restaurants and embassy parties) correspond to closed physical spaces. This needn’t be so — sometimes a tribe is superimposed over a general public space that is concurrently visited by outsiders. In this case, tribe members take measures to distinguish themselves from the muggles in their midst. Visual gimmicks are often deployed, like event-branded name tags, team colors, or cock-shaped necklace whistles.
On the topic of team colors, it’s both a tragedy and a wonder that the most powerful tribal ties in the modern world are probably sports related. During major matches, all existing social boundaries dissolve, to be instantaneously redrawn along the axis of team color. As it would happen, I flew into Berlin minutes after Germany had won the World Cup Final in 2014. The subway, usually sedate and serene, turned into a blowout of armageddon-like proportions, with strangers in German jerseys hugging and singing and — especially — drinking with one another. Even the utterly introverted would be flooded with social attention, provided, that is, they dressed appropriately…
Which, as someone with little interest in sports ball, I had failed to do. Instead, I had inadvertently worn clothing that exactly matched the Argentinian colors.
For what would turn out to be the most painfully delayed subway ride of my life, an entire city regarded me with the deepest suspicion, as if I had spat in its collective eye. Nothing serious came of it, but had Argentina won instead of Germany, I don’t think I would have gotten home without enduring a bit of the old ultraviolence.
♥ Close and intimate quarters
Back in the dumb-phone days, I got lost in the Kōenji district of Tokyo and wound up in what seemed to be a housing estate built specifically for extra-terrestrials. The garage door of one particular parked spaceship was lit up so as to suggest it was a bar. Having already been abducted twice that year, I judged the risk of recurrence minimal, so I walked in, finding myself in a room lined with jars of pickled squid. Along the “length” of the room was a bar, with three stools for guests, two of which contained podgy, middle-aged Japanese salarymen. The barman welcomed me in plausible English, as did the two patrons, gesturing toward the only empty seat.
In such close quarters, there is an inversion of the usual social norms around strangers. When a space shrinks past a certain threshold of tiny, it becomes weirder not to talk to the other occupants than to talk to them. All illusions of privacy become untenable as soon as you and your neighbor’s butt cheeks touch. Elsewhere, this same dynamic explains why people say hello to each other in quiet corridors of university buildings or country lanes but don’t make eye contact on the Shibuya Crossing, treating one another like fleshy humanoid obstacles on Takeshi’s Castle.
Back at the bar, we chat for about an hour, despite linguistic difficulties and much personal energy diverted into insisting I was too full to try the terrifying seafoods presented to me. I was grateful for the experience and knew that if those same two patrons were instead at a bigger bar, we would never have met. Extraversion flows in venues where the clientele are cramped together all close and personal; any principled approach to introverting will emphasize these.
♣ Tendency to attend alone
Bars, restaurants, cinemas et al. are crowd-pleasers. When you arrange an evening of this sort, you can imagine bringing most anyone you know. The same isn’t true for niche interests, like React.js meetups, Egyptian pottery workshops, or try-outs for the next season of Survivor. Here, even individuals with large networks to draw on typically attend alone, it being unlikely their friends share that esoteric interest and are also free that evening, given that we’re all such ballers that we need minimum fourteen weeks notice, plus a check-in text the night before.
As such, niche gatherings draw higher proportions of solo attendees than standard ones, which tendentially draw upon pre-existing groups of friends. Gatherings catering to tourists and blow-ins are similar, also preferentially pulling in individual attendees.
In general, the more atomized the attendance, the more pro-social the event, because, without the comfort and habit of old company nearby, people whose extraverted tendencies would otherwise be attenuated reassert their outgoing sides. When introverting, follow the pack of lone wolves.
♦ Special interest events
Event #1: Unabashed “meet new in-towns” events
During my field study, I experimented with using websites like Facebook and Meetup to seek out events that plainly advertised themselves as ways to make friends. Two stand-out specimens in this category are a) the subtly named “Meeting New Friends” event and b) “RANDOM BAR WEDNESDAYS,” hosted by Couchsurfing, with an event description that read “Every Wednesday a bunch of us travelers, locals, backpackers and expats come together for a night of fun. This is the best place to make some solid friends, find travel buddies and connect with all sorts of wonderful people.”
I attended a bunch of these things with the resolution not to initiate any conversations with other attendees. Even with this constraint, I still met about four or five people per evening, which is remarkable considering that all I did was show up at a blatantly pro-social setting. Dexter, the McDonalds goblin above, could have sat at any table he liked and been welcomed instead of presumed to be the ginger-haired axe-murderer that, based on what I know about his adult life, he probably is.
Thinking about these events in terms of extraversion, attendees know from the tone set in the event description and the warm attitudes of the hosts that outgoingness will be welcomed rather than rejected, and therefore people feel safe expressing this side of their psyches.
Despite meeting so many “new” people, I felt moderately ashamed about attending these events, particularly the “Meeting New Friends” evening. Its undisguised purpose triggered the nagging feeling that, by turning up, I implicitly agreed to the premise that I’m the kind of person who needs to meet new people, that I am somehow inadequately outfitted to find friendship through normal channels and need to switch to easy mode. Logically speaking, I know this line of reasoning is faulty, absolute nonsense. But still…
I mention all this because I suspect some readers may harbor similar reservations. And moreover, had I went to similar events in my childhood home, a town so small that when relatives visited the population practically doubled, I’d worry about what my attendance at a “MEET NEW PEOPLE” event would communicate to existing loved ones. Was I hunting for upgrades?
Also, for what it’s worth, I felt there was a proportion of people at these events who were somehow off, e.g. very socially awkward, and I reckoned they’d have trouble socializing in more standard settings. But, on the flip side, my favorite attendees were the most wonderful, dynamic, interesting and interested human beings I met during my entire experiment. So on balance, I’d definitely attend again, though cynically I’d want to ensure I’m not trapped at the far end of the table.
Event #2: Fig-leaf events
Around a decade ago, I helped organize a repeating language exchange evening at a local pub. As it turned out, practicing languages was of distant secondary importance to the attendees; their real reason for attending was to chat with strangers, especially attractive new-in-towns with Swedish surnames, people who saw the sense in the wisdom that a language is best learned beneath the bedsheets.
This was an example of a fig-leaf event. On paper, we met to carry out some shared and exalted purpose — education, no less. In reality, we wanted to convince good-looking strangers to join us behind closed doors and do appalling things. Obviously I was completely innocent of such transgressions.
The event’s subtitle “practice foreign languages” gave attendees a socially plausible, ego-protective cover for interacting with one another, as well as being a source of conversational gimmicks to help people break the ice. When participants arrived, we organizers placed stickers of country flags on their shirt sleeves to indicate what languages they knew, providing obvious conversational ins, like “omg I used to live in Korea” or “I know German too — wanna practice?”
Much of what you’ll find on meetup.com today fulfills similar purposes, sometimes against the organizer’s wishes. I once attended something called the Meaningful Discussions group where the topic of the evening was “The Rise of Loneliness and Misery in Cities”. I really connected with the randomers on my table and we were having a great time. The host, an uptight and unpleasant man, berated us for “laughing too much” since that indicated we weren’t taking the discussion seriously. The irony wasn’t lost on me.
Event #3: Genuinely purpose-driven communities
There are, of course, lots of outings where attendees aren’t solely there to meet people but instead show up to more-or-less legitimately carry out the advertised purposes. At business networking events, people turn up to talk turnover with other other industry members, as well as to woo potential clients. At church choirs, because they like singing but think American Idol is actually American Idolatry. At coworking spaces, to rent office space on temporary terms, spend three weeks configuring a standing desk, then never show up again.
For many attendees of such institutions and events, enjoyable interactions rank as an important secondary good. According to this study, the second most cited reason people give for staying at hostels is to meet new people. (The first was to travel economically.) And the results of the DeskMag Global Coworking Survey suggest that superior ‘interaction with others’ was the main reason one coworking space gets chosen over another:
Given all this, idle chit-chat will usually be welcomed in such environments. Many people, when approached, will appreciate it and throw down the red carpet. And even the minority who don’t care for expanding their circle will usually still be pleasant, exerting some minimal conversational effort with strangers. This much is assured via the strictures of politeness, community-pushed values of member solidarity, and knowledge that attendance is a repeated game and any unbecoming behavior will be taken into account in future dealings. (Especially after Gossiping Garry Garlicbreath tells all what he saw.) Opportuniverts are intuitively aware not of these exact dynamics but rather of the pro-social results of them and sense that the social risk is reduced. This causes them to feel more comfortable starting conversations and ultimately makes these places good ones for the inveterate introvert.
Note that, due to the many and mixed purposes of these communities, socializing is often, by design or convention, assigned a designated space. For example, in youth hostels (and posh universities) there is often a “common” room where anyone — even noblemen — can drink and eat and hang out. In the larger coworking spaces, there is a division into quiet and non-quiet rooms. Woe is the regular in the quiet zone surprised when lunching alone. And when it comes to communities of music or sport, instead of setting aside a space, it is a time that is set aside, such that turning up early to gossip or staying late for drinks is how extracurricular bonds are forged.
III. International differences in affiliative climate
Imagine someone had infinite travel flexibility and there was nothing stopping them from packing up their stuff and moving to a maximally pro-social land. Where ought they go? Portland? Paris? Pyongyang? (Sources, all of which are the North Korean government, say the latter is where you want to be.)
First off, whereabouts within a country should an introvert go to improve their odds of meeting people through presence alone? Taking eye contact with strangers as a proxy, a study backs up the common experience that people in small town and rural environments are more socially engaged with strangers than city slickers - e.g. 12% of people in cities made eye contact, 32% of people in suburbs, and 45% in the countryside (McCauley, C.,& Newman, Environment and Behavior).
That isn’t exactly breaking news, so let’s zoom out and focus on international differences. Unfortunately it’s not like there’s an extraversion index keyed by country readily available, so I can only approach the question from a combination of indirect studies, polls, and subjective experience. Sample size of one, baby.
There are a few rigorous but narrow studies one might use as proxies for the overall affiliative climate in a country. If you accept that interactions of passersby on streets are correlated with societal outgoingness, then the following study found that Japanese people are 28.75 times less likely to greet passersby than Americans. So at least given the binary choice between those countries, the introvert would vastly prefer America. (I find the cited difference to be suspiciously large though.)
Another hint might be gleaned by looking at the results of a 2018 survey from InterNations, a global network for people who live and work abroad. They asked 13,000 respondents to reveal which countries were the friendliest to live in, arguably a loose proxy for extraversion. Here they ranked the USA down at #36, placing Portugal, Taiwan, and Mexico in their top 3:
While I’m at it, based on my own personal experiences, as a young, English-speaking, professional white male with fabulous hair, I found Americans to be far far far far FAR friendlier than Northern Europeans. At 18, on my first solo flight to America, the middle-aged couple next to me initiated conversation (in spite of my resting murder face), and afterward drove me downtown to my hostel, inviting me to a BBQ next weekend. They even offered to connect me with their son, who I’m sure would have been SUPER thrilled about meeting some random guy from the airplane. (But maybe that’s my European cynicism at play?)
Looking back today on the scores of flights I’ve taken around Europe, I have comparatively rarely landed in extended conversations with European strangers. And I’ve certainly never been offered a ride (though I was once offered a Kit-Kat).
Outward-facing sociability was a constant throughout my stay in America. Store staff who’d usually maintain a professional distance in Europe would, in America, have a non-zero chance of bridging that gap. For example, a girl staying at my hostel started dating a shop assistant she met while browsing Abercrombie & Fitch. Another time, on Hallowe’en evening, I was so drunk I was seeing double and I decided to walk home through the Tenderloin district, or as they appeared to me then, the Tenderloin districts. A passerby saw me, approached, chatted to see if I was alright, and hailed a cab, handing the driver a $50 bill to see me home safely.
Meanwhile, back in Germany, a visiting doctor friend watched, midday, as hundreds of people strode past an ill-looking junkie. By the time the doctor reached him, the junkie had suffocated on his own vomit, a death that wouldn’t have befallen him if someone had taken the 10 seconds to roll him over. I don’t blame the junkie’s death on the German Volk lacking empathy – I’m sure the passersby felt worried and concerned. It’s more that German social boundaries against engaging with strangers are so strong that they transcend even the duty to help a man dying on the side of the street. This reserved attitude, for better or for worse, spills over to much of their society. For example, it’s almost unheard of for German men to approach women in bars. However an exception is made for women in bras.
The series continues in Part 3 The Geography of the Room: The dramatic impact of position, orientation, and visibility on how often extraverts start conversations.