I want to be alone: We are all introverts now
The pandemic has taught us to see the world through the eyes of people who avoid it
The meek shall inherit the Eart. Obviously. Photograph: Getty Images
Covid-19 mocks our assumptions about what to expect of tomorrow. The long-term effects are even less clear. Some experts tell us that the office is dead, and that trousers will remain optional in meetings. Others say we will party, spend and travel like never before, fuelling a second Roaring Twenties. Still others predict that we will become more responsible to the planet.
Some of these experts must have a degree in wishful thinking. All of them are chancers. For if this wretched pandemic teaches us anything, it is that a little humility is long overdue. Whisper it: as a species, we are not very good at reading the future. But of course, I would say that. I’m an introvert.
Our time has come at last.
Lockdown has exposed the folly of chasing the new new thing
Until last year, the ideal human was a socially confident extrovert. Nobody minded the noise, so we designed open-plan offices for maximum interaction. Restaurants were supposed to enable raucous chatter. Trains and buses were stage sets for domestic melodramas. And we surgically attached ourselves to smartphones, as we needed to talk. To share. To make an exhibition of ourselves.
Lockdown is a nightmare for many extroverts, who feed on the company of other people and dislike spending time alone. These periods of enforced isolation have also revealed a societal bias towards manic sociability. You know the drill: Get out. Shop! Talk! Party! In return, you get bank statements. It’s your reward, in the same way that mud is a prize for rain.
Some people have always struggled to accept the terms of this grand bargain. Our spokesman is Alfred J Prufrock, who imagined himself as “a pair of ragged claws, scuttling across the floors of silent seas.” For introverts, the promise of no parties this weekend is the culmination of a pleasant week at home. We don’t think of hooleys as amusement, but as long dark nights of the soul. Small talk is our kryptonite. (“The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase.”) And frankly, most of us are not “happy out.” We are happy in.
The volume goes up to 11 in Spinal Tap – and everywhere else. Our society was designed to privilege the empty vessel, but this pandemic has made introverts of us all, and the quiet regime of the latter-day hermit may finally be described as a valid lifestyle choice. Lockdown has exposed the folly of chasing the new new thing; of going to parties for the sake of it; of shopping in person and sweaty cinemas; of throwing ourselves at the world in the hope of convincing someone that our presence enhances it.
Actually, this planet was fine before we arrived, and when we go it will endure our absence with remarkable equanimity. Of course, people are not normally encouraged to reflect on such matters, as we are all too busy crawling through the weeds of modern life. From social media to billboard advertising, the apparatus was designed to make us feel inadequate and buy stuff we don’t need. It’s called consumerism. The clue is in the first syllable.
Introverts never understood how a strong grip could indicate probity, or why anyone would want to embrace a stranger
Covid-19 is a curse that has ruined many lives. However, ironic as it sounds, this dreadful virus has made the world a slightly better place for some introverts. Why? Because all the loud people have finally realised that creativity does not have to come from an oddly gregarious place. Meditation is cool. Our longing for serenity is reflected in quieter streets. There are less invitations to decline. And many activities are now online, from yoga classes to court sittings. Soon, you might even be sent to prison from the comfort of your own home.
If you must shop online, you can now find whatever you want. Shopping in the real world has also improved. Perhaps you met a neighbour while popping out to buy this paper. In your pyjamas. At dawn. Only an extrovert would describe that as fun. While a mask brings its own discomfort, wearing one has made shopping bearable, as it is now easier to dodge acquaintances without causing offence. Good riddance to accidental meetings.
The handshake is another casualty of the pandemic. Introverts never understood how a strong grip could indicate probity, or why anyone would want to embrace a stranger. We can’t stand all that touching and false bonhomie. It is tremendously icky – worse, it spreads germs. Please continue to keep your hands to yourself. Namaste.
Wallflowers enjoy solitude. For us, it is the source of revelation. This is not good or bad; reserve is not a flaw that needs to be corrected; it’s just who we are. So we avoid loud noise, jamborees and phoney expressions of affection. And now, at last, everyone can see what the world looks like through the eyes of people who avoid it. That deserves some small celebration.
I don’t know what the future holds, but I do hope that one legacy of the pandemic will be more tolerance for the stolid quietness of the introvert. And for the record, when everyone is vaccinated, I also hope there will be parties. Yes, lots of parties.
Remember that one or two introverts are bound to attend, because sometimes we are too polite to decline an invitation. And we will try “to prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet,” in Prufrock’s gallant formulation. But as evening becomes night, the revelry will seep into the nether regions of the house, at which point you can have the kitchen. If I’m still around, you will find me in the pantry. Or hiding under a stack of coats. Do try not to sit on me. Yes, that would be nice.
And while you’re at it, please turn down the volume.
Trevor White is the director of the Little Museum of Dublin