Ever since the pandemic and the attendant lockdowns began, we have heard a great deal about the introvert-extrovert divide and how our changed circumstances have affected those at either end of the spectrum. There have, for instance, been pieces by introverts about how they are temperamentally better equipped than “social people" to deal with this situation. It’s what one might call the “apna time aa gaya" (our time has come) subgenre of writing.
On the face of it, I should be able to relate to this gloating, if one may call it that. I have been a solitary type for as long as I remember—or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that while I can be gregarious and social at times (and have a performative Mr Hyde-ish side beneath the surface), I am most comfortable with long periods of being alone. One offshoot of this quality is that I have been working from home for 14 years—good practice, as it turned out, for 2020.
But I have found much of the personality analysis during this period quite reductive, and my own pandemic experience has been different from what you’d expect from the classic introvert.
Partly, this was circumstantial. For the initial weeks of the lockdown, when most people were cooped up at home, I was out and about quite a lot. First, because I live between two flats located 10 minutes apart in the same neighbourhood, with responsibilities to discharge in both. Second, my concern for street animals during the lockdown culminated in daily feeding expeditions, and soon I was interacting with other like-minded people—including local animal-feeders and rescuers whom I had never met or spoken with before. During these many outdoor stints, I also inevitably spent time conversing with colony guards, shopkeepers and pharmacy employees. It was atypically social behaviour in a very unsocial time—and a disquieting indication that I might not be the irredeemable misanthrope I’d thought I was.
Then, after things had stabilized a bit on the animal-feeding front, and covid’s widening net dictated that one become more cautious (even as the lockdowns officially ended), I began to feel the introvert’s unrest.
In my view the stereotypical image of the introvert—sitting at home, nose buried in a book (or in Netflix)—is simplistic, even though I have often been that creature. Nor am I impressed by the homily that goes “Someone who has developed the reading habit can never be bored."
Avid readers can get restless and distracted too—and not just because of the worry that is gnawing away at all of us these days, for our own health, the health of those we care about, and our dwindling income. There is the other, peculiar challenge of being an unsocial sort in a world where “unsocial" is no longer a choice but an imposition.
It is said that extroverts derive their energy from being around other people, while introverts need to “recharge" alone. This may be broadly true, but what if being “alone" or “with yourself" doesn’t necessarily mean being confined at home? What if you want to exercise the option of being alone in a crowd? To get out every now and then, do regular-seeming things, but without them being tied to specific, planned activities with people you know. What if you feel stifled by the lack of privacy and me-time at home where your needy dog’s ever-loving eyes are following you around all the time?
I might not miss getting out to meet friends, or even feel the need to speak with friends on the phone or through video—but I do miss going to a restaurant alone for a quick bite or drink. Or watching a film (after carefully picking a seat that is unlikely to have other people nearby—social distancing was possible in an earlier time too). Walking around in a (not too) crowded mall or park, going on a short metro ride when it isn’t rush hour: absorbing human energies, feeling the hum of being around people, but without any pressure to interact or to do things. (Is being introverted a sort of commitment-phobia?) And, yes, for someone who is mostly unsocial but capable of being very social when it comes to things that excite him, there are also frustrations that outgoing people will relate to.
When it comes to teaching classes or leading film-club discussions, I miss the electric thrill of being in the physical presence of a group of people who are invested in the talk; the option of being able to walk between desks, stand next to someone who is making an interesting observation. To make eye contact while gushing about a film or a scene that affected us similarly—something that isn’t possible in the same way on a computer screen where all of us are shut up in our little boxes like characters in Hitchcock’s Rear Window or Tati’s Playtime.
With these possibilities reduced, even the world of the grumpy recluse has diminished.
Sorry, extroverts—I know it’s hard enough for you already, without us unsocial types making it all about ourselves again and sticking our paws into your jar of sympathy cookies.
Jai Arjun Singh is an independent writer and critic.