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March 3rd, 2003

03:55 am - Shyness, Limits, and Life
Several weeks ago, I was talking with Charles about various topics and he mentioned how effectively and carefully I managed my life (and in particular my social interactions), in the sense that I only needed to deal with exactly the sorts of people I was extremely comfortable dealing with. That comment struck me and since then, I have been giving this idea a great deal of thought. First off, his statement is quite true. As my life stands now, I work at home and have very few interactions with strangers and none that are not by my choice. In 2003, at least 75% of my work (that's all I have contracted at the moment) will be writing for people who are good friends of mine and my interactions with the "the mundane world" are almost non-existent, except for short-term interactions with shop clerks. In a typical week, except for 2 one-hour classes (Feldenkrais and Yoga), the only people I interact with in person are 8 or 9 close friends or (at parties and similar occasions) the good friends of my close friends. I see more people at events like Orycon (the local SF con) or Origins (the big RPG Con that I go to every year), but in both cases, I now have a regular group of friends who I see, and they are 95% of the people I interact with (most of whom are now reading this post).

My first reaction to this realization was that I was fairly pleased with the fact that I don't have to deal with strangers or with aspects of society (like office/cubicle culture) that I greatly dislike. However, I also realized that the reasons for my having such a life are not simply enjoyment or convenience. I seem to need to have a life with fairly well-regulated in-person interactions. I am a caring, outgoing, and generally friendly and loving person, but only with people that I know well and am comfortable with. I am both terrified of and terrible at meeting new people in person. I have little trouble if I know the person via the internet or if they are the close friend of a friend of mine and the friend is there to help with the first few hours of getting to know someone (a few minutes of introduction does not suffice). However, in the absence of such help, I have found that I quite literally can't meet people and am quite bad at interacting with people that I have met before but don't know sufficiently well.

I am vividly reminded of the time 4 years ago that I went to GenCon (the other big RPG Con) instead of Origins. The first time I went to a RPG Con, back in 1996, I got a chance to meet my good friend Geoff (who I now write Exalted projects for). We had gotten to be good friends on-line and via the phone for more than a year and were both new in the RPG business. He is also a seriously outgoing person who can easily meet and talk to anyone and I hung around with him and used him as a way to meet people. This worked wonderfully well, and with the exception of schmoozing for work from people who I had already talked with on-line, he was my primary means of introduction to the RPG community. He has also been at almost every RPG Con I've gone to.

The only exception was 4 years ago, in 1999, when I went to GenCon. Suddenly, I was on my own. I knew many people in the RRG industry at this point, but didn't know any of them at all well and so hung out on the periphery of social interactions and spent a great deal of time alone - I haven't been that depressed in quite a long time. Suddenly, I was again the pathologically shy geek back in High School who intently watched more socially adept people so that I could learn how to perform simple social interactions like saying hello to someone I knew, rather than simply blurting out a soft, half-vocalized hi when my head was turned in another direction.

After that miserable GenCon, I decided to both only go to RPG cons that Geoff would be at and to actually work on getting to be actually friends with the people he knew well. I have succeeded well at both goals, but only because I managed to stick close to him until I could become fully comfortable with a group of people I greatly enjoy seeing (yes, this means many of you folks). I've taken tai chi and yoga classes for the last 5 years now and have had class with a good number of people for as many as 2 years and despite seeing them as often as twice a week, every week for 2 years, I got to know none of them, including people who looked interesting and who I would have liked to meet. I simply don't know how (and I suspect that to most strangers I come off as someone who is not worth meeting). I watch others in the same situation meet people and I am completely unable to emulate them.

However, I'm not solely talking about purely social problems. I've had limited experience with office work and except at the absolute lowest and most miserable levels, where one is expected to be a mindless and easily replaceable drone and not interact with anyone else, there is a level of social interaction that I also can't manage. This lack has instantly marks me into an outsider who is both friendless and unwelcome. I'm essentially unable to work at any sort of more normal job that isn't a minimum-wage horror because of my social difficulties. Oddly, place me in a highly structured situation like a class (as either a teacher or a student) and I do quite well. However, the less formal and obvious structure, the more difficulties I have. The academic politics required for grad-school success eluded me and that (combined with the utter terror that filled me when I realized the level of interaction with total strangers that anthropological fieldwork would require) was why I never completed my dissertation.

However, the internet has been a boon beyond all measure. Almost everyone I currently know (the only exceptions being Aaron, Dawn, and sythyry), I either met via the net or they are the close friends, lovers, or housemates of someone I met via the internet. Prior to my getting on the internet in 1993, my years as an undergraduate in the mid 1980s were literally the last time that I met anyone on my own. After that, everyone I became friends with was someone Aaron introduced me to or who I met while in Aaron's company, where he did essentially all of the initial meeting and conversation (I met Aaron in my Junior year of college).

Between getting my BA and getting on the net (a total of 9 years) I also had a grand total of three romantic relationships. The longest of these relationships only lasted 2 months, while both of the other two lasted less than a month - despite everything from placing and answering numerous personal ads (a complete and utter disaster on all counts) to my attempts at meeting people in grad school or through various gaming groups & pagan meetings.

In 1992, while being amazingly lonely in LA, I discovered the penpal section of the newsletter of the Mercedes Lackey fan club. Through this, I discovered both close pen friends and the dubious joys of long distance romances. After having three times as many (mostly fairly short term) romances in 2.5 years than I had in the previous 15 years, imester and I fell in love. Since that time, my other romances and physical relationships have all been people I met long-distance.

When I got on the internet in 93, I already understood the mechanics of meeting people long distance (and had already met several pen-friends in person). Suddenly, my world opened up. For example, I met Charles, Kip, Jenn, Barry, and Sarah because Sarah and Kip were regulars on (as was I) and I noticed that they had a Portland ISP.

I have absolutely no idea why I find it vastly easier to meet and get to know people long distance. However, for the first time in my life, I have learned that I can be extremely good at meeting people, but only via email or similar non-immediate media, (I'm only slightly better at meeting people via real-time chat than I am in-person). I don't know if I need time to process initial social interactions, if the fact that the initial exchanges are in writing rather than in person or what, but I find getting to know people in this fashion extremely enjoyable and easy. Also, once I know someone at all well, meeting them in person is at most mildly stressful, and usually the stress completely vanishes within the first or two hour of interacting with them in person. A number of people that I meet now don't even realize that I'm quite shy or manage my life so carefully, because they only see me interact with people I already know well.

Earlier today, I was wondering what my life would have been like if I was 10 or 20 years older and had not discovered the internet until far later in my life. I strongly suspect that I would be extremely poor, deeply unhappy, and completely alone except for the few people (like Dawn) that I had met though Aaron. I know a few people who are shyer than I am, but for some reason I am simply not terribly able to interact in person with people that I don't know quite well, either casually or professionally. This is a rather disturbing realization. While I have absolutely no desire to have a different profession (other than suddenly acquiring a vast talent for writing fiction and being paid enormous sums of money for the stories I wrote, or perhaps being paid enormous sums of money for absolutely no work on my part). However, I would definitely like to be able to meet people more easily in person, but I suspect that this is an extremely deep and tough problem.
Current Mood: uncomfortableuncomfortable
Current Music: Hello - Poe

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