The How to Be Approachable series
- Introduction: A few introductory words about real world vs. Hollywood extraversion. The key to being approachable is to understand extraverts’ fears and alleviate them.
- Bastions of Friendly: Settings and venues rife with raw extraversion in a keep-to-yourself world.
- The Geography of the Room: The dramatic impact of position, orientation, and visibility on how often extraverts start conversations.
- Exhibition “You”: Allowing strangers to try from afar before they buy.
- Get Caught Staring: The unsung importance of read receipts in stranger-stranger preludes to conversation.
- Performative Standing Around: How talking to oneself sparks spontaneous interactions.
Day one at a new coworking space in a new town. It’s 1 o’ clock. I know no-one but I don’t want to lunch alone.
Ok… screw it… what’s there to lose?
I stand up, harshing the quiet and announcing, “Hey everyone. I’m Less Penguiny. I was about to get lunch nearby if anyone wants to join me???”
Two commiserative smiles. Pierced by a deafening silence.
I become keenly aware that I’m still standing in the middle of the room. “No takers, eh? ha.”
I take my stuff and walk out, all on my lonesome. On the road outside a lorry screeches to the halt, having mistaken my burning cheeks for a red light.
When I return, a Norwegian guy, Bjørn comes over and whispers, “I had to write a client email earlier so couldn’t lunch with you….but wanna get a beer later? I’ve been coming to this coworking space for 3 weeks, but you’re the first person to talk to me. Actually, as far as I know, you’re the first person who talked to anyone here at all. There’s something wrong with this place…”
I arranged to meet Bjørn at a jazz bar that evening. When I arrived, he’d already befriended some tourists on the next table. So the guy clearly wasn’t crippled with shyness. This got me thinking about the events of the day. What intrigued me wasn’t any overwrought grand narrative about the real or imagined rise of loneliness in an era where Instagram is more popular than calling up your actual gran. No. What tickled me was the mismatch between Bjørn’s extraverted demeanor outside the space and his apparent introversion in it. I’d always thought of extraversion exclusively as a personality trait, but now I began considering how certain situations can strip extraverts of their extraversion.
I. Opportuniverts: Garden variety extraverts
Let’s first take a detour to make some general observations about extraversion.
When you think of an extravert, you probably have in mind someone like Arthur the Swedish coke-dealing underwear model (who’s secretly on Prozac). Arthur is a caricature. This is so despite the fact that he exists and I have his number in my phone book. Purely for research purposes.
The overwhelming majority of real-life extraverts aren’t like Arthur; rather, they are opportunists. They weigh the pros and cons of any given engagement, the potential for amusement, camaraderie and profitable connection against the risk of awkwardness and losing face.
This suggests then that there must be various levers and cranks, nudges in the trending language of behavioral economics, that affect how an opportunivert appraises the situation, considerations that may ultimately raise the chances the opportunivert’s extraverted side bursts into a spontaneous friendly interaction. Something about that coworking space or the people in it nudged Bjørn into not talking with anyone.
While thinking about this topic, I found it both helpful and satisfyingly dramatic to conceptualize extraversion as a force of nature, something that exists not just as a personality trait but also as a property of physical space and a characteristic of a given situation. If you arrange things in such-and-such a way and the other people are acting so-and-so, the extraversion field lines become densely packed and conversation will begin to flow.
While this force clearly lacks the physical certainty of a ball falling to ground after being thrown upwards, it does capture the fact that there are real, often physical, causes for situational variation in extraversion – factors like one’s position and orientation in a room, the acoustic possibility of overhearing an enticing conversation, or the wearing of visible markers of tribal affiliation.
II. Am I approachable?
As someone generally if clumsily extraverted, who labored under a world-view overcooked in 90s-era self-help ideas of taking infinite responsibility for my reality, I thought of conversations as things I started with other people. Active acts, initiated by words, tendentially my own. If anyone engaged me, that was a bonus. But I never counted on it.
Nor should I have. The fact was, people rarely engaged me. I’ve always assumed this was because I have the male equivalent of a resting bitch face, which esteemed and authoritative sources (one guy on reddit) define as “resting murder face” and I call “resting Eminem face”. But after observing others who were also perennially given the slip despite not looking remotely bitchy, I questioned whether my face was as off-putting as assumed and started entertaining another theory: Maybe I just don’t know how to make myself seem approachable.
III. A tale of two introverts
Later that week I showed up at another coworking space. The difference in social atmosphere was astonishing. In the garden I overheard people trading a round of what-do-you-do’s (“after life products for pets. you?”) In the kitchen, two girls seemed to be synchronized dancing. The place had what corporate middle-managers and now I will call “community”.
While the community was certainly vibrant, it was hardly extensive: About half of the members were perpetually not involved. Sure, plenty of people don’t like to muck about at work — I get it. But I can’t imagine that someone surrounded by people of a similar age and of a similar background would prefer zero interaction to at least some interaction. I believe it’s fair to assume that people, along with characters in Jane Austen novels, like to be engaged.
If you take two random people in the space, what distinguished the ones who’d join the community from those who remained outside? The simplest theory is that people who take the social leap and introduce themselves would be most likely to be subsumed. While such outgoing actions were often sufficient, they were far from necessary. Many members, despite never striking up any conversations of their own accord, would nevertheless be pulled into the local social scene by virtue of the overtures of other members who reached out to them.
To see what I mean, consider Logan and Isabella, both of whom were shy in the sense of never initiating a conversation with anyone new. Logan was a gay Scottish writer of slight build who wore the same t-shirt with balloons on it every day. For reasons I will explain in later installments of this series, Logan was almost always the first person an outgoing new member would introduce themselves to. It seemed like he was equipped with a 10kW social tractor beam set to overdrive.
Now compare Logan to Isabella, a tastefully tattooed Spanish architect, so varied in her outfits that I can only assume she incinerated anything she’d already shown up in. She seemed edgy, educated, and eccentric. Yet I never saw anyone speak with her in the entire four weeks I spent at the space, save for one guy asking her for a light. Why, I wondered. Both out of curiosity and out of a selfish desire to understand my own predicament.
Reverse engineering how some folk draw people in and how certain situations are conducive to impromptu socialization struck me as a worthwhile study. For one, I derive joy from unplanned interactions so why not encourage more of them: Breaks in routine enliven me, and encounters that seem forgettable and unimportant at the time have a weird way of later upending your life. Secondly, because I’m not Arthur the Swedish coke-dealing underwear model, there are days I don’t have the nerve to start a conversation and I wind up awkwardly fiddling with my phone, wishing someone would take the lead and say hi.
I realize that I may be on the wrong side of history, in that every new relationship may soon be mediated through online channels. But if that’s the case, consider this a nostalgic homage to a curious but soon-to-be-defunct social phenomenon.
Continue reading part II, where I look at venues rife with extraversion in a keep-to-yourself world.