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It's Okay if You Don't Want to Hang Out
Notes from a neurodivergent.
You start a conversation, you can’t even finish it. You’re talking a lot, but you’re not saying anything… When I have nothing to say, my lips are sealed.
Say something once, why say it again?
It was my last social event before the pandemic. My boss was hosting a Christmas party at his second three-story house. As he liked to remind us, he did this job (teaching) for fun. I remember that night well.
“Where’s your husband?” someone asked. It was the first thing they said to me. I guess that counted as a greeting. “Where’s the baby?”
“Yeah, why didn’t you bring them?”
Ah, yes. Of course.
It was the perfect verb. It didn’t matter if my baby was home sleeping. It didn’t matter if my husband didn’t like going to these things. It didn’t matter if he was tired and wanted to stay home. I was supposed to bring them. I was supposed to provide them for amusement and entertainment. People gave me weird looks because I didn’t bring anything else, except a liter of diet coke.
Everything felt awkward.
It’s taken me three years to understand what went wrong. Of course, it was explained very clearly to me the second I walked into that party. I just didn’t get it. My presence wasn’t enough. By neglecting to bring my family, and forgetting to bring a special treat for everyone, I had already failed at launch. There was nothing I could say or do to redeem myself. Everything I did after that just made things worse. I didn’t drink anything, not even a sip of wine to lubricate the conversation. After about half an hour of stilted small talk, I tried to leave.
“Hey, where are you going?” someone else said. “You just got here.”
“Home I said. “We’re watching The Mandalorian tonight.”
Oh, I shouldn’t have said that.
You could see the judgment curl across several faces, the fact that I would deprive them of my company for… a TV show. Little did I know, I’d stumbled into one of the greatest social traps of all time. Even if nobody wants you there, they’ll get angry if you have somewhere else to be. You’re supposed to stay there and pine for their approval, not ditch them for something else.
That makes them feel unimportant.
None of them had the slightest idea what The Mandalorian was, and they weren’t interested. The second I tried to explain anything about the show, their eyes glazed. It was a familiar sight for the neurodivergent.
I was boring them.
So I stopped talking. I listened to a couple of stories and then prepared my exit. On my way out, I committed yet another social crime.
I didn’t spend twenty minutes saying goodbye.
I said goodbye once.
Then I left.
That was the story of my life. Maybe it’s the story of yours. You’re the one who doesn’t talk much. That’s what everyone says, as if they want you to open up. They don’t. Everything you really want to say just makes things weird. It’s inappropriate. It’s rude. Someone judges you. So you become a good listener. And while it’s tempting to believe that’s the secret to winning friends and influencing people, in your case it only makes you tolerable to be around. You can reflect what others want to see in themselves. It helps if you’re halfway attractive.
Then the pandemic happened. For a brief moment, maybe a few weeks, people seemed to dispense with all of their normal social garbage. Nobody had time for small talk. They said what they were thinking and feeling. They actually seemed to care about each other. It might sound weird, but some of the best conversations I ever had happened over phone or Zoom back in the spring of 2020, when everyone was scared to death and making out their wills.
Now look, everyone’s an asshole again.
I mean, almost everyone.
They’re fine spending all afternoon in pointless meetings where nothing gets done. They don’t want to talk about real things. They hide their feelings. They make you guess what they’re thinking. At the same time, they talk just to hear themselves, but it’s always about the most pointless stuff.
They desperately want you to come hang out with them and trade germs. Why no, they’re not going to actually listen to you. They’re not going to set up air purifiers, either. They’re not going to wear a mask for your sake or anyone else’s. They’re not going to take a test. They’re not even going to tell you if they’re feeling a little sick. They’re just going to expose you to whatever they happen to be carrying. Once again, they’re back to expecting the neurodivergent, the disabled, the immunocompromised to put their own needs aside. On top of that, we get to listen to them talk about how open-minded they are, all day long.
Isn’t that something?
A lot of people seem to think they’re great at socializing, but they sure do need a lot of help. There has to be a new restaurant or a drink to try. There has to be loud music in the background. There has to be a bunch of girls dancing in front of them, or a giant television somewhere nearby, or dudes fighting over a ball, or an endless supply of hot wings. If nothing else, there has to be snacks. Other people just happen to be there. Most of what they call socializing comes down to individuals seeking their own individual gratification in close proximity. Even at church, they’re all there in order to ensure their own personal salvation from hell.
There’s nothing social about it. In fact, a lot of what passes for “social interaction” is just a bunch of veiled narcissism.
Here’s what I’m saying:
If you don’t like going out, there’s nothing wrong with you. Of course you don’t like going out. Does anyone, really? Everyone has an ulterior motive. They want to see Taylor Swift, or they just want to get laid.
Call me a conspiracy theorist, but I think it’s finally dawned on me what’s really behind most of what we call social interaction.
It’s a thin excuse to… wait for it…
Consume fossil fuels.
Drive the economy.
If anything, society seems to have it all backwards. Introverts and neurodivergents are the ones who actually enjoy social interaction.
We like real conversation.
We’re good at it.
Once someone actually invests time talking to you, instead of just using you as a prop for their own amusement, they find out that you’re interesting. They like that you actually listen to them. You actually take time to process what they’re saying and formulate an original response. They also see that spending time with you is a lot cheaper and less exhausting than “going out.”
It’s actually hard to have a real conversation with more than four or five people. It’s more natural to talk in smaller groups. Even at parties, people almost always branch off into their own little nooks.
Have you noticed?
There’s a reason why we’ve been labeled weird and different. There’s a reason why there’s so much pressure to get together in bigger groups. The genuine kind of social interaction we prefer doesn’t generate revenue.
You can socialize over coffee. You can share an entire bottle of nice bourbon for under fifty bucks and have a great time.
I’ve done it.
There’s just one problem with that.
It doesn’t generate enough revenue. It’s not good for the endless growth economy. The billionaires need everyone to believe that coffee dates are cop-outs, and that social interaction requires money.
A few times a year, there’s a flurry of articles about the health benefits of socializing. Apparently if you like spending time alone, you’re going to die young of cancer or heart disease. Only social butterflies get to live long and prosper. You know, I’m starting to wonder if that’s just a bunch of propaganda designed to make us feel awful about ourselves. Maybe being social isn’t wonderful for your health, any more than doing things by yourself that you enjoy.
It’s just wonderful for profits.
Society often tells us things like, “Be yourself.” The average person, liberal or not, talks about how accepting they are. They talk about human rights or social justice. They talk about kindness. They talk about Wednesday Addams. They won’t do any of that if it feels inconvenient. Instead, they’ll come up with excuses. They’ll even get angry if you try to hold them accountable, or remind them what they said once upon a time about celebrating difference and diversity.
Many of us have tried being ourselves. I’ve even tried telling people I’m autistic, only to be told I’m not, by people who aren’t, because I didn’t spend five hundred bucks on a test to tell me what I’ve known my entire life.
Even when people like us do get official confirmation of our difference, the “normal ones” don’t follow through on their promises. They don’t accomodate us. All they do is teach us how to accommodate them.
And they act so proud about it.
So, what’s next?
Here’s the biggest thing I’ve learned: You’re not weird, not in a bad way. Society is weird. Society is filled with contradictory, self-destructive beliefs. Sometimes you have to pretend. You have to accommodate. That doesn’t mean you have to believe it all. There’s nothing wrong with you if you don’t get anything out of the forms of social interaction that society has approved. You can come up with different ones. You don’t have to put up with the judgment and scorn. You don’t have to keep seeking approval from groups that only want you around as a prop.
You don’t have to do things you don’t enjoy or find meaningful, just because a commercial or a meme said you should.
You can leave it all behind.
I’m going to steal another line from David Byrne. He once said, “However we are, we don’t know how to be another way. That’s the way we are.” We can adjust. We can find workarounds. We can perform. We can mask.
In the end, we have to accept.
Same as it ever was.