I am an introvert. Sincerely and completely and absolutely and really the truest of introverts. And lately it seems as though my city is trying to kill me.
Although Springfield is the third largest city in Missouri, it only has a population of around 167,000 and as someone who has spent over two decades in the city and has been a barista at two of the city’s most popular coffee shops, I know about 10,000 people too many. In addition to serving Springfield its coffee, I have a second job at an art museum. One day I finished up my shift at the coffee shop and drove to my second job only to be in the uncomfortable position of reminding one of my coffee shop customers to “please stay at least a foot away from the art.” I recently was enjoying a peaceful walk at my favorite park and saw another coffee shop customer bike slowly past me while maintaining awkward eye contact so I did that weird tight lipped smile that introverts do when they don’t want to say hello. I still run into my first grade best friend’s grandma at Walmart on a monthly basis. I have a friend who was picking up groceries in the Hyvee and spotted a guy from Tinder that she’d ghosted. You get the idea. This town is really, really small.
In terms of personal growth and self-actualization, absolutely no area of my life is linear. If I ever attempted to map out my life it would be a sheet of cheap line paper with a long and curving horizontal stripe that is frequently obstructed with spiral-y and circular scribbles. My social life is perhaps the most convoluted and confusing of these scribbles. I go through periods of being outgoing and personable and often during these periods I am seemingly supernaturally infused with this mysterious and bizarre desire to make friends. However, I also go through periods in which seeing people that I know is indescribably annoying. Periods in which I am instantly filled with the burning rage of the most righteous of introverts when interrupted while clearly wearing headphones and obviously writing angrily in my journal. During these periods, every time I run into someone I know (which is quite honestly every time I go out in public), I engage in that painful small talk, but then my eyes glass over and I imagine the city of Springfield has transformed into this especially gossipy old woman with really strong biceps who has me slammed against a wall and is slowly strangling me while asking me how my day is going and telling me to, “Smile, honey!”
Is this just me? Am I crazy?
Sure, on most days I walk into my local coffee shop and knowing all of the faces there provides me with a warm and fuzzy feeling of community. I am grateful to have so many lovely family members, friends, coworkers, classmates, and customers. However, sometimes knowing so many people is exhausting, and these constant and seemingly eternal encounters require a surplus of emotional energy—an emotional energy that we introverts are simply not equipped to maintain. This does not mean that introverts don’t want friends or that we hate all people (we only hate most people). It only means that sometimes (i.e. often) we want to be left alone. My favorite quote on the subject?
“I said I wanted “I want to be left alone” not “I want to be alone.”
Perhaps this is why I love large cities. There is something almost magical in listening to the mother behind me at the grocery story scold her children in Arabic (and the visceral sense of relief in knowing that the checkout lady is a complete stranger and won’t engage me in the overly-familiar, friendly, Midwestern small talk), in sitting in a crowded subway car while eavesdropping on the melodramatic conversation about the teenager beside me’s recent breakup (and knowing I can sit there silent and stony faced), in blasting Stevie Wonder through my headphones while walking through Washington Square Park (and not recognizing a single face). But I do not live in New York City (yet) and I have accepted the reality that I will see someone I know just about anywhere I go. To avoid this dilemma, I could, of course, stay barricaded in my little apartment all day surrounded only by my favorite scented candles, plant-children, and books, while perpetually blasting “Alone” by Heart, but sometimes I want to be surrounded by people but to be anonymous.
1. not named or identified
2. lacking individuality, distinction, or recognizability
Anonymous: an adjective that is so delectably desirable but due to my positioning in this small town, is largely elusive. So how to survive? When you are trapped behind the espresso machine by your favorite but inevitably chatty customers? When your cousin’s ex-boyfriend is eating pasta across the restaurant from you and you are filled with hot panic on whether to ignore him or say hello? When old classmates jump out of bushes to remind you of a dumb comment you made about Ayn Rand in a lecture during sophomore year? Hyperbole perhaps but seriously—how to cope? Here are 14 survival strategies that have been helpful to me. I hope these strategies help you cope with being a human in a world with a lot of other humans.
The Introvert’s Guide to Being Anonymous in a Small Town:
- Move to a big city. (If you don’t have a job, or if you don’t attend school, or if you don’t have a lease, or if you don’t have family or pets to take care of then this option is for you.)
- Never leave your house. (This is a valid option, right? Asking for a friend…)
- Wear a disguise every time you go out in public. (I have seriously considered this one.)
- Leave town for a day trip.
- Eat out alone. (It’s even better if you dress up and wear dark sunglasses. Gives you a mysterious and untouchable air. But don’t be too conspicuous about it or you might get asked by an older gentleman if you are a Russian spy. This actually happened to me.)
- Go to the movies alone.
- Go on a bike ride. (Then if you see someone you know you can ride past them really quickly and pretend not to see them.)
- Go on a hike.
- Go on a walk while again wearing dark sunglasses and headphones. (This option is for when you want physical activity but still want to people-watch and to be anonymous.)
- Find a coffee shop that none of your friends go to. (Even if the coffee is bad, the anonymity makes it worth it.)
- Hide in a bookstore for 3 hours.
- Go to a museum. (The gallery attendants are probably introverts too and will leave you alone if you avoid eye contact.)
- Read a good book by your neighborhood pool. (Because if you are a true introvert you don’t actually know any of your neighbors.)
- Go on a night drive. (This is most effective at sunset while listening to 90’s R&B with the windows down.)