Community Building for Introverts

As an independent freelancer, I’ve found it challenging to meet new people. In the past I had a workplace and a flock of friends to help drive social interaction, but as my friends have gotten married and moved away, the easy source of new people is now gone. A lot of single people face this, I think, once they’ve left school or have settled into a routine at a company job. Some of us find communities on the Internet, but I’ve found that there is no substitution for being in a room with real, live people all laughing their asses off. We become lonely, isolated, and despondent.

I initially attributed the problem to where I live: a bedroom community without a strong design or cultural community. We get our cultural fix piped in by The History Channel and NPR, supplemented by periodical trips to Best Buy for material fulfillment. There is not a lot of obvious opportunity for “meaningful” or “fun” interaction, because the population density is lower here than, say, Cambridge or downtown San Francisco. I’ve thought of moving, but at this time I can’t afford to buy a place there. And besides: there’s no guarantee that moving would take care of the social problem because I still have to get over the real problem: it is now my responsibility to make new friends. In the past, being forced to live in the same dorm or work in the same office took care of this. As an independent, it is completely up to me. And then there is the challenge of meeting people, because I tend toward introversion and find it difficult to just walk up to someone and talk.

Over the past few years I’ve figured out how to get beyond some of these challenges. I still find it hard to meet people, but at least now I have a process for doing so. I’ve just had to adjust my expectations with regards to how many people it takes to improve one’s sense of community (answer: just one to start) and how to create attractions that help like-minded people find each other.

Confidence First!

My greatest challenge is just introducing myself to someone I don’t know. It feels awkward, because I don’t know very much about the other person, and there is probably some anxiety about whether I will somehow appear foolish. This is an old childhood pattern, I realize. I’ve been able to overcome it by applying a couple of observations:

  • Not everyone will like me, but that’s to be expected. I can probably expect a 1-2% return rate on “great friends” and up to 20% on “pretty friendly”. These are numbers I’ve pulled right out of thin air: the 1-2% is the common wisdom with regards to receiving responses to unsolicited direct marketing, and the 20% is kind of a gut feeling. Keeping this numbers in mind keeps the pressure off me when I meet new people. I no longer worry about making a good impression; I just focus on trying to have a meaningful conversation.

  • If I have a role to play, I don’t have the luxury of being self-conscious. If I know I am the host, the introversion drops away because it’s important for me to do a good job and put others at ease. I personally hate feeling uncomfortable at a social event, so I try to do what I can to ensure that people feel included and clued-in if I can. This is one of my own personality quirks, but I imagine that the idea of having a “role” will help others as well. Especially if it’s a role that one believes in and can fulfill with competence.

Once I became comfortable with living these observations, I started to find the following ideas more palatable:

  • Be the Mayor. I had an insight a few years ago that once I defined what was important to me, it was pretty cool to be the mayor of your own self. I am much more aware now of what I can offer to people authentically, which makes all the difference. For example, I like figuring out how things work, I have considerable expertise in computer graphics, and I have a pretty good intuitive feel for how people perceive the world around them. These are resources. The trick of “being the mayor” is to turn those resources into community-oriented action and establishing a vision that people get get excited about.

  • If it doesn’t kill you, then do it. There isn’t very much that will actually kill you, and this becomes more obvious as we grow into adulthood and take control of our own lives. We can choose who we associate with, where we live, and what we do to make a living now. However, I think we’re also imprinted with the natural desire to avoid humiliation and pain once we’ve created out comfortable adult nests. I would rather try and be humiliated–yet exhilarated because I tried something difficult–than to live in empty contentment. If you follow this path, know this is where leaders often must tread.

  • The first step makes you a volunteer leader. It’s funny, but there is a tendency for the person who “started something” to be perceived as “the leader”. People will bend over backwards to not “step on your toes”, concerned about “messing up plans” and so forth. You can use this to your advantage is you are more concerned about control, or you will need to get other people join you so you can delegate power to them.

Create Your Own Fun. Others Will Follow.

A few years ago, I was rather irked at the lack of interactive designers to converse with, because I like to bounce ideas off of other people to build momentum. I otherwise would find design work quite boring. Seeking the company of my peers, I attended a few user group meetings, but none of them quite fit what I was looking for, and they were too far away to drive to. “There’s got to be some people nearby who are doing what I’m doing,” I thought. “Knowing just one or two more people would be a tremendous improvement”. Thus reassured, I sent out an email to a couple of email lists I was following on the subject, and got a few nibbles. That’s how the New Media User Group was born. Over the next year I developed a pretty good idea of what was important in the group to ensure a certain level of activity. Although the group has been in hiatus for a couple of years, the lesson I learned is that it just takes a couple of interested and willing people to get an organization off the ground. The second challenge is to make sure that people are enjoying themselves and telling others about their experience. So what do I mean by “create your own fun?” Instead of looking for something that looks fun, try doing something that you find interesting that can literally be seen or experienced through other media (writing, video, photography). It’s not enough to just say, “I’m doing this!” unless it is a pretty simple activity with broadly-understood rules. By creating a publicly viewable event, you are essentially advertising; people are much more likely to join in if they can assess, from a safe distance, what is involved and whether they find it interesting or not. It may take several impressions (more on that later), but by creating a public activity (say, playing frisbee or volleyball in the park and inviting people to play) you can draw new people in. My friend Brandy does something similar when she goes dancing. Instead of standing around and waiting for someone to ask her to dance, she just gets out on the floor and has a good time dancing with herself. This invariably attracts other people. Someone’s got to break the ice. If you’ve been able to create that public event, keep an eye out for people who are watching you with interest. This is your opportunity to be a generous host: invite them to join you. You are providing a public service of fun. Tell them who you are and what you’re doing, and perhaps provide a way for them to contact you again through some kind of public email address.

Advertise Your Interests.

For more solitary special interests, I like using props. Just about any activity that involves specialized gear (e.g. photography, target shooting, fishing, shortwave radio, etc) is likely to catch the eye of informed and intrigued bystanders who are now potential friends. For passionate, introverted people, the prop is much easier to talk about than you. Use the prop to establish the connection, and then if opportunity presents itself go ahead and introduce yourself personally. If you catch someone looking your way with interest, wander toward them or wave them over to say hi: “Are you a photographer?” “Have you ever shot the Casull .454?” Shared interest is a catalyst that can help establish a conversation and perhaps activity-based friendship. For example, when I got my digital SLR and started carrying it around with me, I’ve noticed that people with an interest in photography would come up to me and ask a question. Some people find it a lot easier to talk about a thing than to talk about you; the prop (the camera in this case) becomes the gateway to further conversation. It helps of course if you have a nice smile; if you’re frowning or look too busy, people will leave you alone. It works even better if you are hanging out with people who are just getting to know. Just this morning, I was at Starbucks with my camera out, and one of the barristas I’ve gotten to know by name commented that she didn’t know I was into photography. It so happens that she is in a hip-hop band and needed some photos shot this weekend. Cool! I told her that I was still figuring the camera out, but she was cool with that. One more link in the community chain is forged! So the moral is: if you can be brave enough to show some interesting props in a public place such as a coffee shop or public park, you just might meet your next buddy. Just remember to give them your card.

Badges? We Like Badges!

Another form of prop is the badge, like having a novelty license plate that says RAMONES or sticking the ubiquitous Apple Computer sticker on back window of your Mini Cooper, or showcasing the latest t-shirt from Threadless on your own back. The badge helps define your individuality, somewhat ironically, by publicly declaring your allegiance to a particular cultural symbol. My personal feeling about badges is that unless they are rare/unique in the environment they are in, people are unlikely to find it compelling enough to approach you. For example, if you’re walking around with an Apple sticker on your backpack, they are common enough that people will just note you as a likely Apple user and pass you by. It is much more interesting, however, if you are walking around with that Apple sticker in a PC-centric company. That makes you more of a rebel, and like-minded insurgents will surreptitiously follow you to the water cooler to ask you about it. Every demographic has their own set of rare/unique badges. If you can figure out what yours are, prominently displaying them can help you draw a tribe to you. Alternatively, you plan badge-wearing expeditions to places where everyone is out of context. Locations like the airport, any kind of trade show or conference, hotel lobby taxi stands, and train stations are prime examples of this; everyone is “in between places”, and more likely to feel isolated. And when people are feeling isolated, they are much more likely to be attuned to symbols that they identify strongly with. If you happen to be wearing one, that can help create the connection if you appear open to conversation. Again, it’s more comfortable to talk about the symbol (“dude, is that the new album from…”) than inquire about one’s personal life from scratch. Breaks the ice!

Become a Regular; Build Up Impressions Over Time.

Unless you live in a small town, you are probably used to tuning out people unless they somehow stand out from the norm. And most of us, I’d guess, are pretty normal looking on any given day. However people are pretty good at noticing patterns over time given enough impressions over time. This can work for you when you’re trying to make your town feel like home—not just the place where you crash. To do this, you need to become part of the group context: if you keep showing up at the same place at the same time and are not perceived as a threat by the people around you, that helps set the stage for acceptance. Then bring in your props and your badges and see what happens. In my experience, I’ve noticed 4 stages of impression building:
  • The first stage is recognition, when people notice that they’ve seen you before. For example, every morning I go to Starbucks to have coffee with my friend Erin, and we’ve been doing this long enough that people have accepted us as “those people who sit outside all the time.” I’d estimate it took a month or so before I was in the “regular” category from the staff’s perspective, and it probably longer for the other “regulars” to start noticing that I seemed to be there all the time.

  • The second stage is classification, where people have formed some kind of opinion about who you are and what you do, drawing superficial conclusions from superficial observations and deciding what level of comfort they have with you. What can accelerate this process is observed interaction with a third party; watching someone talk with someone else can tell you a lot about them. If you seem like an interesting person to them, that sets you up for the next stage.

  • The third stage is interaction, which is when you invariably make eye contact or make some comment about the weather with someone you happen to be standing in line with. You’ve been recognized and classified already as a probably OK human being, and perhaps you’ve already generated some curiosity. It’s completely natural to just say something. When people hear your voice and experience your mannerisms up close, this provides them with a lot more information to judge your personality. If your personalities seem compatible, the foundation is laid for future conversation.

  • The final stage I’ve noticed is continuity. That’s when you start remembering things about the other person from a previous conversation, which gives you something to talk. You start to learn about each other’s lives, and this evolving conversation helps form the basis of a new community relationship. Congratulations! You’re now part of the community.

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p>I’m sure a more extroverted person could cut through all these stages, creating the semblance of community in mere minutes compared to the MONTHS it’s taken me. However, I would argue that for an introvert, the long chain of impressions I’ve described is probably accurate; I’d be curious to hear about other people’s experiences. I used to be self-conscious about joining groups or moving to new cities before, wondering how the heck I was going to make new friends. Now I know: just show up and the process will start to take place.

Dare to be Unique.

I find the most interesting relationships come from noticing the differences from my expectations. For example, the demure young lady who daintily eloquates a string of prime cuss words, or the burly biker waitress at Denny’s who is an accomplished sculptor or poet. I find this unexpected and delightful, and these are the kind of friendships I’d like to have. A corollary observation is that everyone breaks your expectation, if you dig deeply enough. I remember having fascinating philosophical conversations on America Online, back when it was just a single chat room, with what turned out to be a school bus driver. I was surprised, and I had to adjust my world view that day with regards to how relevant formal education was with regards to native intelligence. More recently, I was being talked up by a mild-mannered Costco employee about joining their price warehouse, and it turned out that he was a retired special forces operative who’d reported directly to General Schwarzopf during Desert Storm. After he talked about this for a while, I realized that his observations about Costco as an organization were to be taken a lot more seriously than I originally had expected. You just never know.

Lately I’ve been participating in more group activities coordinated through Meetup, the social networking internet portal that’s been around since 2002. I decided to start a Nerdy Fun Activity Planning Commission meeting that combined my own interest in personal histories, interesting gear, and creating my own fun. By being very specific and purposefully “nerdy”, I know that this event will appeal to fewer people, but I am hoping to attract people with unique interests. Some people probably don’t like the idea of being labeled a nerd, or even being around nerds. Other people don’t really care about personal stories or learning about the lives of other people. A conservative marketing person would probably say that I’m doing myself a disservice by not picking some that’s more general interest, equating success by the number of people who attend. The approach I’m taking, however, is to establish a niche that captures the imagination of a variety of creative kooky people. You can read the writeup and judge for yourself; I figure that if just one person shows up, that will be fantastic. The more that show, the better, but I’d rather have one excited person than ten “slightly-interested, slightly-bored” people. The latter case is a lot more work.

BTW, if you are near Nashua, New Hampshire and are interested in brainstorming, the first meeting is Tuesday June 4th at 6:00PM. Details are on the meetup site.

Concluding Thoughts.

I may not be as introverted as I have been before, and I suppose that the very idea of building a community is not very introverted to begin with. However, I think that a lot of us have the same desire for social interaction. By building your own community and understanding some of the processes that make it work, you will have a semblance of control. That reduces the anxiety that comes from comparing yourself to the extroverted approach of thrusting out a hand and bellowing “HI!” As I’ve learned in client meetings, the person who speaks most quickly is not necessarily the person in control. You can take you time, so long as you are able to convey your message and intention in a way that steers the entire situation toward a resolution that benefits everyone. In the context of community building, that is providing alternative entry points for conversation (props, badges, familiarity) and learning to recognize interest so you can be confident that you will get a positive reaction (inviting people to join you, try out your camera, etc.) Even if people choose not to join you, you were in control of the situation, and you do not have to take it personally. There is a certain percentage of the population that shares your interests; you just need to help them find you.