What I learned about making friends

After dedicating the past several months to trying to make friends, I feel like I’ve pretty much reached the end. I tried a lot of new things, went on a lot of friend-dates, and met some interesting people. But I didn’t become friends with any of them.

I’m not saying I’m done trying now, but I’ve exhausted every resource I could think of, and I’m exhausted. I pushed myself way beyond my comfort zone of social commitments, sometimes going to more than one social engagement every day for a week. It was unsuccessful, and now that we are well into 2017, the New Year effect is dwindling and there are a lot fewer people who are also looking for new friends.

So I didn’t make any friends, and I didn’t really learn how to make friends either, but I did come to a few realizations about why making friends is so hard:

1.  Making friends outside of an academic environment is much harder than I realized.

I’ve been in academic environments my whole life, up until a few years ago. From going to an academically rigorous high school, to college, to working in a scientific field, to grad school, I was always surrounded by people with intellectual interests and a deep knowledge base. Even if they didn’t always have an abiding personal interest in those topics, it still provided an intellectual basis for conversation and a common experience on which to build friendship.

The academic environment is where I feel most comfortable, so being in those places was a big advantage for me socially. Now that I’m completely out of that world, I have a huge social handicap. I realized that I have no idea how to actually talk to people in the real world, or how to relate to people who are not interested in academic topics.

I never had a lot of friends when I was in school, but I had some great ones, and I was so careless with them. I lost touch with almost all of them years ago, and I took for granted that I would be able to make new friends. I never knew how hard it would be to make friends outside of school.

2.  A friendship has to be based on having some kind of commonality as well as having compatible personality types.

When I was younger I used to think that the most important factor in forming a friendship was having common interests. After I learned about personality types, I realized that having compatible personality types mattered much more to me than having the same interests, background, or beliefs, or being in the same stage of life. I like learning from people whose experiences are different from mine, and the way a person’s mind works is much more interesting to me than what they think about.

I met a few potential friends recently who I had nothing in common with. One was a single woman who owns a successful tech business and is a business school student. She’s very dedicated to her career and very passionate about the business world, which is completely foreign to me. Her other interests and hobbies were all things I know nothing about, and she knew nothing about any of my interests. We really had nothing in common, but we had some great conversations and I learned a lot from her. I think we got along so well despite our lack of commonality because of our compatible personality types— she’s an INFJ. We were both interested in learning new things and hearing from each other’s perspectives. I really wanted to be friends with her.

But our relationship fizzled out after a few get-togethers, because we just didn’t have any common thread to sustain our connection. All of our conversations consisted of telling or teaching each other things; there was no topic we could discuss as equals. I believe that if we had started with some common ground on which to gain familiarity with each other, we could have gotten over that hump to become good friends.

I now believe that a friendship has to start with some kind of shared experience or interest, whether it’s having a shared hobby, being fans of the same genre of books, going to the same school or workplace, or even just living in the same area and being aware of the same community events and happenings. You need to have something you can both talk about. Sadly, there were a few people I met who I feel I could have had great friendships with if only we had something in common.

3.  A friendship has to be based on spending time together in person, face-to-face.

When I posted a platonic personals ad on Craigslist, I got a lot of responses from people who were reluctant to meet in person and only interested in being texting or email buddies. Emailing, texting, and online friendships don’t do anything for me. I know a lot of people can form close friendships with people online without having met them in person, but I can’t. It’s hard if not impossible to really get to know a person without spending time together, and it’s hard for me to have an accurate gauge of whether I even like them. Someone’s online persona can be very different from their actual personality, and I’ve met people in the past who I thought I liked online, but really didn’t want to be friends with in person.

More than that, I just crave face-to-face interactions. I’ve never been very interested in web forums or message boards, because although I crave intellectual conversations, I want to have them with a real person while also getting to know the rest of that person’s life. To me, online interaction is theoretical and not much different from reading a book, and usually I would rather just read a book.

I agreed to exchange emails with a few people I met online, but they all quickly dropped off and stopped responding. Because an online friend is much more theoretical than one you see in real life, it’s easy to forget about them. You don’t feel their absence as much because you’re not as invested in the relationship.

4.  Having my husband as my only friend for the past year has set a high bar for what I expect to find in a friend.

My husband KJ and I have great conversations. It’s so easy to talk to him, he’s intelligent and knowledgeable about a wide range of topics, and he has (what I consider) a great sense of humor. And we’re both pretty quirky— or weird— whatever you want to call it. KJ is as weird as I am but in slightly different ways, so being with him has made me even weirder. Because we embrace each other’s weirdness and we can be ourselves with each other, our conversations start at the level where most of my conversations with other people end.

The downside to becoming even weirder is that it makes me less able and less willing to act like a normal person. I used to be a lot more skilled at assimilating. After having KJ as my sole adult conversation partner, I’m not only out of practice, but I also have realized just how much I like having conversations within the cocoon of our mutual weirdness, and how much I dislike trying to hide my awkwardness and quirks. Going out and meeting new people who don’t affirm my quirks is pretty uncomfortable. But I can’t rely on KJ to fulfill all of my social needs. I still want to have friends with different perspectives, interests, and opinions. It’s just so hard to find them.

This might be why I have no friends…

Last weekend I met a woman at a Meetup who I really liked. She seemed to meet all the criteria for someone I would want to be friends with, and I could tell immediately that she was either an INFP or ENFP. We had a really interesting conversation about different theories of personal development and she told me about one theory I’d never heard of. (The specifics are not important to this story.) After she explained it to me, I said, “That’s really interesting; I’ve never thought of that before. But I don’t think that’s true.” I explained why I thought it was wrong and proceeded to tell her about a theory of mine that contradicted hers.

I realized much later that I was kind of being a dick.

While I was listening to her talk about her theory, my train of thought went something like this: “Hmm, that sounds really interesting. No, wait. That’s a logical fallacy. When she stops talking, I’m going to point that out to her and give her this piece of evidence that refutes her theory. She’s trying to be logical but her logic is flawed. This study she just mentioned probably didn’t even have a control group.” And then I responded by telling her these things, but not quite as bluntly.

Why do I do that? Why couldn’t I just be supportive while she was telling me about an idea she was excited about instead of shooting it down? It’s not like it really mattered to me whether her theory was correct or not. Why couldn’t I have been thinking, “Hmm, that sounds really interesting. It’s fun to talk about abstract ideas like this. This theory seems to be important to her, so I should ask her some questions to find out why. If she’s interested in this topic, I think she’ll also be interested in learning about X.”

There are two tracks of thought that follow from conversation. My brain drives the train of logic and reason, and I can’t jump off and find my way to the train of friendship and empathy. Even if I could, I wouldn’t know what to say. Especially when I’m with more than one other person, it’s so hard for me to speak up that pointing out when someone else is being illogical is often the only time I feel really confident jumping into a conversation. I wish I could think—and more importantly, converse—in friend mode instead of fallacy-finding mode all the time.

On the other hand, I hate the idea that I need to change my personality in order to be liked. I’m a Thinker, not a Feeler. That’s my personality type and there’s nothing wrong with it. And while I think I do need to learn to be a better Feeler, I also think Feelers should strive to be more logical thinkers. Otherwise it further reinforces the notion that some personality types are objectively “better” than others, which is not true. I’m completely normal for an INTP, and I shouldn’t have to bend my personality to others anymore than they bend their personality to me.

But on the other hand, it’s also completely normal for an INTP to have no friends.

Is there a way to be more likable while still being true to my personality? Are there better ways to harness INTP-ness for friendship that I’m not seeing?

Parenting is an extroverted activity

Before I had kids, I never really knew that parenting is an extroverted activity. I was woefully misinformed in general about what parenting is really like and how much my parenting experience would be affected by my personality. But INTPs have a limited amount of talking and listening we can do every day before getting cranky, and I get pushed past that limit every day. I use up at least 50% of my daily word allotment just repeating the phrases “wash your hands,” “you’re being too loud,” “brush your teeth,” “stop that,” and “do you want to go to time out?” I use up 50% of my daily listening allotment just listening to screaming. 

Even when everything is going well, having kids requires a lot of talking and listening. Young kids need a lot of things explained to them, they need you to repeat everything five times before they will acknowledge it, they need to be read to, they want you to sing songs with them. Even babies need a ton of talking from their parents because that’s how they learn. (You’re supposed to say 2100 words per hour to your baby for maximum IQ benefits, according to Brain Rules for Baby by John Medina. I did so with my first child, but she used up all of my words so my second child thinks I’m mute.) And that’s just at home. When you take your kids to the pediatrician, school, daycare, extracurricular activities, and birthday parties, there’s a plethora of other people who you need to make small talk with, discuss your child’s progress with, and listen to politely while they spew meaningless words into your ears. Meanwhile, when you are at any of these places, your kids will be trying to have a conversation with you, because they don’t understand that you can’t have two different conversations with two different people at the same time.

The extroverted demands of parenting have many far-reaching effects. For one thing, the amount of talking and listening I have to do with my kids takes away from my capacity to talk to and listen to anyone else, like my husband. I usually use up my entire talking and listening quota before he gets home from work, and when he walks in the door I often greet him with, “Don’t talk to me about anything. I’m at my word limit.” When he says “I love you,” I grunt and grudgingly think, “I love you too, but please shut up and don’t make me say it right now.” Fortunately he is understanding, because he reaches his word limit daily, too. Every evening after our hours-long marathon of wrangling the children through dinner and bedtime, we collapse on the couch in mutual silence for an hour or so before we can have an actual conversation with each other.

A lot of important conversations get put off because I just don’t have the energy to push any more words out of my mouth or process any more words coming in my ears. If my husband tries to talk to me about something important, my frustration at reaching my word limit often manifests as impatience and anger towards him. And I have to use more words to explain that I’m not actually mad at him, I just need silence. We never have enough energy to talk about everything that we need to talk about as well as things we want to talk about. We have to pick and choose. I have a mental list of four different things I need to discuss with my husband right now, and we probably won’t get to all of them in the next 24 hours. 

One unforeseen consequence of my limited capacity for listening is that I can no longer listen to anything with words for recreation. Ever since becoming a family of four greatly increased the noise in my life, I can’t listen to the radio, podcasts, audiobooks or even music with words. Whenever I am within earshot of any of these things, my brain feels torn in two and I become mentally fatigued. It makes me very overwhelmed and flustered. Which is really a shame, because listening to podcasts and audiobooks is a stay-at-home parent’s last opportunity for hands-free intellectual stimulation.

Since listening is already difficult, I have no patience at all for strained listening. I can’t stand it when my daughter talks to me in mumbles, nonsense words, or whispers. Or when my husband shouts something from the other side of the house. I refuse to listen to anyone unless they are standing in front of me and speaking clearly. It even stresses me out when the volume on the radio is just a little bit too quiet, and my ears must impart an extra half-second lag before it reaches my brain. God forbid if anyone should try to talk to me while there’s music playing.

My daily word requirement is actually not as bad as it could be, given that I spend most of the day with only 10-month-old Buddy, who is an introvert. AJ, my extreme extrovert, is in preschool most of the time; staying home with only me to talk to all day is as much torture for her as it is for me.

I had always planned on going back to work as a teacher when my children are older. I’ve always enjoyed teaching, and it’s one of the few professions compatible with the geographic limits of my husband’s career. That is, I used to enjoy teaching other people’s children, before I had my own– when I could go home to a silent apartment at the end of the day and not have to talk or listen to anyone else for twelve hours. Now that I have kids, there’s no way in hell I will be able to spend all day talking and listening to other people for a living, and then go home for several more hours of talking and listening to my family. And the weekends. Oh, how I hate weekends now, those long days of endless family togetherness and noise.

INTP vs. INTJ: Social Skills

This is part of an ongoing series on the differences between INTPs and INTJs, and how those differences are evident in myself and my husband. If you’re not familiar with them, you should first read this primer on Myers-Briggs and cognitive functions.

In my recent interactions with a number of INTJs, I’ve noticed a trait that they all seem to share: in casual conversation, INTJs often seem incredibly smug. This holds true for my INTJ husband, who often seems like a completely different person when he’s interacting with other people compared to when we’re alone. He tends to come off as a smug asshole when talking to people he doesn’t know well.

I thought this air of smugness might be because INTJs think they’re smarter than everyone else, but according to my husband it’s actually a façade of false confidence meant to hide their insecurities in social situations or when interacting with people they don’t know well. (When INTJs actually do think they’re smarter than you, it’s usually so obvious to them that they’re more matter-of-fact or exasperated than smug.)

This got me thinking about the differences in how INTJs and INTPs approach social situations. Continue reading “INTP vs. INTJ: Social Skills”

The Sound Limit (or why I don’t like talking about my kid)

As an extremely introverted INTP, I feel like there are a limited number of words that can come out of my mouth each day, and a limited amount of sound that my ears can take in each day. After I reach those limits, I shut down. I don’t think those limits were ever really tested until I became the parent of a toddler. Boy, does she test them.

Not only does my daughter enjoy screaming at the top of her lungs for sport, she also narrates everything that she sees at all times and will repeat, “Mommy, that’s a yellow car! That’s a yellow car! Mommy, Mommy, Mommy, that’s a yellow car!” until I acknowledge the yellow car and begin an in-depth conversation about it. The amount of talking I have to do per day is mind-blowing, because I have to repeat everything at least five times before my daughter will acknowledge it. I also spend a lot of words talking about her and discussing parenting issues with my husband, which decreases the reservoir of words that I have left for discussing things that actually engage my mind.

When I take my daughter to playgroups with other kids, I can’t bear the conversations that go on between the other moms. They center around all of my least favorite topics: baby sleep, toddler feeding, kids clothes, cute things kids do, cooking, crafting, home renovations, etc. I don’t feel the need to talk about my daughter’s cute antics with anyone but my husband, and I don’t like to talk about her sleep and feeding issues even with him because I think they’re boring. Unfortunately we have to do a lot of troubleshooting in those areas, so we talk about them out of necessity.

If I don’t even like spending my limited number of words per day talking about my own kid, you can bet I don’t want to spend my limited sound intake listening to someone else talk about their kids. And I like my house a lot less than I like my daughter, so why would I ever talk about it, much less want to hear about someone else’s house? There are times when I can tolerate small talk and even times when I can be reasonably engaged in it, but being a parent of a toddler is not one of those times. Obviously I don’t have much success making friends these days.

I recently started my own playgroup for parents who don’t talk about their kids. We get together for playdates and while our kids play, we talk about science, books, art, philosophy, anything that doesn’t involve parenting or “homemaking”. It’s a pretty small group, as you can imagine that the number of stay-at-home parents who prefer talking about intellectual topics to talking about their kids is rather small, but it has made a huge difference in my mood.

Other parents often give me weird looks when I show no interest in talking about kids, like I must not like my kid because I don’t want to talk about her. But it just seems redundant to talk about kids and parenting when I already spend every day living it. My daughter is awesome and the proof is right in front of me, so I’m not going to state the obvious. I love spending time with my family, and there’s nothing better than getting a hug from my daughter. I would just rather be talking about science while it happens. I have a finite number of words and an infinite number of things I want to talk about.

The awkward tribe

My husband and I wrote our own wedding vows, and one of the things we vowed was to always protect each other. There are many ways of protecting one another—protection from physical harm, emotional protection, financial protection, and even in the future for whichever one of us outlives the other, protecting the other person’s memory and legacy. But there’s one that I hold as a unique and especially sacred duty: we each protect the other from their own awkwardness.

Being an INTP and INTJ, we are incredibly awkward people. We don’t pay attention to social norms, or we just don’t care about them. We say and do things without being aware of how we’re perceived by other people. We don’t know a lot of common-sense things that everyone is supposed to know, and we make a lot of social blunders.

I often feel like I am the biggest victim of my own awkwardness. When I say or do something awkward in the presence of others, even if they don’t say anything about it (which they often do), a look of recognition will pass over their eyes for a moment, a look that says, “that was awkward, and I feel sorry for you.” That look is my own awkwardness bouncing off of them and coming back to attack me. It magnifies my awkwardness to see it reflected back in the words or expression of others, and it destroys my social motivation. It can happen with anyone and at any moment, and sometimes I dread social interactions because I fear being attacked by my awkwardness.

With my husband, I was never afraid of that. He always absorbed all of my awkwardness so I never had to face it again. He passed by every opportunity to magnify my blunders, and every time he did it felt like a gift. That was one of the first things that made me feel like I belonged with him. And even though we are both awkward, we are awkward in different ways, and our awkwardness cancels each other out because we both want to bring out the best in each other. We protect each other from being victims of our own weaknesses, of which awkwardness is one.

Of course, protecting each other from awkwardness is a fine line because another sacred duty of intimate relationships is making fun of your partner when they do stupid things. So you have to learn to quickly distinguish between awkwardness and stupidity. You have to know when calling attention to your partner’s blunders would cause them shame and embarrassment, and when it would bring great mutual enjoyment.

This intimate navigation of the sea of awkwardness has made me more aware of awkwardness in a wider sphere. I’ve taken it as my duty to protect other awkward people from their own awkwardness, especially other INTP’s, because we are the most awkward people of all. When I recognize someone making an awkward blunder, I try to absorb the awkwardness so they don’t have to be doubly punished for it. If the faux pas occurs in a group setting, I try to intercede so the conversation doesn’t linger over the reflection of their awkwardness in the stagnant looks and comments from others in the group. I resist the urge to say the words that would come the easiest, those that would magnify their embarrassment, and it feels like a sacrifice to give up the witty remarks that for me are so hard to come by.

It’s hard for us INTP’s to belong. It’s hard for us to make witty conversation, to feel a part of a group, and often the easiest way to do it is to seize on another person’s awkwardness and allow them to pay the price of discomfort in exchange for our momentary feeling of belonging. I’ve never found a true place of belonging apart from being with my husband, but when I try to protect someone else from feeling the shame of their own awkwardness, it feels like we are part of the same tribe.