Community Building for Introverts

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.


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.


  1. Nathan Bowers 16 years ago

    Great post. I can vouch for having a prop or talking to someone else about theirs: “How do you like your MacBook? What are you drinking? Your dog is so cute, what kind is he?” are all winners.

  2. Keenahn Jung 16 years ago


    I’ve been a terrific fan of yours for a while, and I especially like your printable CEO series of forms. I’ve printed a bunch out used some as is, and tweaked some others. Even more importantly, i’ve created some new forms myself =D. Truly, you are an inspiration.

    I want to acknowledge you for addressing an important topic in community building. A lot of self-proclaimed productivity gurus do not speak to social interaction at all and it’s a shame that we’re creating a remarkable generation of workaholics with no social skills.

    This is a topic near and dear to my heart, as I’ve spent a lot of time and effort building up my social circle and becoming comfortable in any social situation. You have a lot of good tips! I like how you’ve basically taken the beginner’s mind approach and are not afraid to try stuff. That is super important.

    I will say this though, the 20% of people who are pretty friendly sounds a little conservative to me =D. When I walk into a room, I treat everyone as potentially my new best friend. I’d say that the numbers are probably around 50-60% for “pretty friendly,” it’s all about your own frame of mind when you approach them.

    Anyway, thanks for posting this, and keep up the good work!

    Peace, K

  3. John Ballantrae 16 years ago

    Dear David:
    I sent you a Tarot book a while ago, and am using a different email address than before. Would you like to participate in a kind of experiment? I was taught not to interfere in people’s lives unasked, but would you like to choose a Tarot card for yourself that will address your current situation/predicament, and I’ll give you some information on what it might mean so you can ideally be better informed and have an idea of what the global optima is, as they say in Theory of Constraints circles.
    John Ballantrae

  4. Mark 16 years ago

    Methinks you need to have a hand in a local coworking effort. Whether loose/ad hoc, or dedicated space with rent and whatnot, it seems like something you’d gel with and find the work-related collaboration you need.

    I’m currently in talks with a handful of local people about sharing office space in the fall. Economies of scale, having some people around to chat or bounce ideas off of are all shared interests.

  5. Mark 16 years ago

    Meant to share this too:

    Also, this isn’t just common among solo professionals. My wife’s going through the same problem as a stay at home mom!

  6. edythe 16 years ago

    nice post. thank you. hard for new(er) divorcees, too.

    i like the “become a regular” idea. much easier to do online, though. :)

  7. marta 16 years ago

    Hi David!
    woah, this post was just what I needed today! I’ve been living in this new town -moved from Madrid, Spain to St Nazaire, France- for 10 months now, and though I’ve made some friends through work, they are not enough, not as available as I’d like them to be…
    I also often need people around to share some laughs!
    So thank you for sharing all those tips – Now I just need to pluck up the courage to make some of those steps! :)
    Thank you for your inspiration!

  8. Steve 16 years ago

    This is one of the best, most insightful posts I’ve read in the past year.  I can totally relate to the alienation you describe and I applaud your rational approach to remedy the situation.

  9. kadavy 16 years ago

    I can attest that being a leader of a group can work wonders for your social life – even if it doesn’t stem around a particular interest of yours. When I moved to San Francisco, I had trouble finding roommates, so I started Flatmate Meetup ( ), and now almost tow years later I’ve made tons of new friends from it. I even have people willing to help carry the torch as I move to Chicago, where I’ll of course try holding the same type of Meetup :)

  10. Tim Chemacki 16 years ago

    Thanks for this inspirational post!  I am an introvert who telecommutes full-time (in a small town) and have been thinking lately about how to get out of my shell and meet some people with similar interests.  Taking that first step seems to be the hardest part.  Maybe some simple, small “wins” will help build confidence.

  11. Wow, great post! Meeting new ppl in adulthood was something I have been concerned abt too. It has been my plan to leave my day job as soon as my business starts taking off, but one thing that got me worried was the potential loss of community connection from leaving the office.

    That was a very insightful post which makes alot of sense and is practical. I’m gonna try it out. Thanks for the ideas.

  12. Melanie 16 years ago

    Really great stuff, with concrete examples for those of us who just get overwhelmed with all the options for following through on the “just get out there and mingle” advice.

    The problem with being an introvert is that even if you’re trying to be social, you still tend to depend on just a handful of people to do stuff with you or introduce you to other people. This gets me thinking about ways to “create my own fun” and “dare to be unique” :)

    Thanks for yet another awesome post!!