How do you feel in a room filled mostly with people you don't know, and only a few whom you barely do? Do you fit right in, comfortably moving from person to person, enthusiastically engaging in various conversations? Or do you feel like shrinking into a corner, stealthily passing along a well like a ninja on your way to sneaking out the door? More often than not, I feel like the ninja, just not as cool.
Social discomfort in large groups
Large groups of relative strangers intimidate me. Being someone who enjoys quiet and solitude and slow, drawn out productions, the contrast in busy, chaotic environments densely packed with bodies sets me on edge. I clench my jaws shut (so much so that at the end of such an event my jaws are tired or sometimes hurt) making flapping my gums exceptionally difficult, and in an especially loud room I lose nearly all ability to communicate. If asked a question, I can barely form a sentence in response. Yet, in a room with just a few people where the volume is low and the ability to thoughtfully engage is high, I enjoy freely connecting with the people around me.
Examples of comfort and discomfort
Just the other day I was in two different meetings for the same non-profit organization with which I've recently become involved. The first meeting was in the morning and attended by only two other people. There was ample time and space to talk and listen to best process and respond to each other. While there were fewer perspectives to integrate in the conversation, the shared thoughts were discussed with considerable depth. At the second meeting, held in the evening, there were seven other people, half of who have a good deal of experience working together in the non-profit. In addition, and due in part to their previous experiences, most of the participants moved through the conversations quickly and loudly with confidence and familiarity. They needn't slow the conversation because they've had similar ones many times before, and given the number of potential perspectives present, topics needn't be critically unpacked: time and results are important. Mind you, this is a room with only seven other people. Imagine a room, with most of those seven others, with the addition of another twenty or so strangers. That's where I was at the next day after those two meetings.
The ultimate discomfort
This next occasion was an event organized by the non-profit. The room in which it was held was tight, dark, loud, and filled mostly with people I hadn't met. While everyone around me chatted (shouted) freely and with ease, I could barely engage with anyone else, including my own partner who was kind enough to attend the event with me. Now, take any one, two, or three of those people and put me with them in a quiet setting, provided I'm welcome to do so, I would have no issue engaging with them. But the tight and especially loud environment, which was the reality, was too much for me. Instead of chatting it up like everyone else, I felt like shrinking against a wall and sneaking my way out the door like a ninja. However, sneaking out of or altogether avoiding situations where there's a lot of people is no longer an option.
The reason for change
Joining the non-profit challenges my inability to function in a crowded environment. I want to be involved in my community and to support and make decisions that grow our little city into something we all are inspired to invest ourselves into. Little of what all that entails can be done without actively engaging in sometimes crowded and loud environments. Being in a community of varied perspectives that need to be shared and heard forces me to embrace my social discomfort and push past it; no easy task, I can assure you. But to be more of what I want to be in my community, the ninja persona is being retired, or at least the suit is being packed away. So rather than shrink into a corner, it's time to use my strengths in quiet settings in those crowded and loud environments to grow with this non-profit and my community.