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Angel’s Bits: Crowds Send Me Screaming or Introvert Conference-going

Scott and I just returned from Rainbow Con in Tampa this week, which was a fabulous time, but we just did a podcast on the Con with the 3M/Musketeers. Instead, I thought I’d talk about cons in general. Many of you are probably veteran con-goers and will be able to add advice from your own experiences for those QSF’ers (like Scott) who aren’t so familiar with cons.

brony2Crowds Send Me Screaming or Introvert Conference-going

Conference season! It’s really a year-round thing these days but most of the important events for LGBT authors seem to happen throughout the summer and fall. And those two words? Guaranteed to inspire terror in the hearts of introverts everywhere.

Here’s the thing – you’ll find a hundred articles on what introverts are, but the truth is that we come in all varieties. Some of us are light-switch introverts who have developed a knack for turning “on” in social settings. Some of us are simply reserved people who will never be “on” if the population of the room is greater than three. Some of us suffer from severe social anxiety, which can physically cripple us. We are male and female, professionally successful, just starting out, old, young, of all body types and skin tones, all education levels and nationalities. We are legion. But the thing we all have in common is that other people drain us, even if we enjoy their company. If the drain becomes severe enough, we will shut down, withdraw, even become snappish and irritable, or panicky.

It can hit at any time. At a recent convention I attended, I thought I was doing quite well. Talking to people. Reaching out to people. Engaging in conversation and not panicking during the public appearance parts. Hanging out with friends. But there came a moment in a crowded counter-service restaurant at lunchtime. It was an unfamiliar place for me. I didn’t know ordering rules or where it would be safe to stand without being in the way. It was loud. Some of the customers were less than patient. The walls were closing in. I couldn’t think. When my order came up, I fled to the car, leaving my friends inside. They may have thought I was annoyed about something, (they were too polite to say) but the truth was I was five seconds shy of a meltdown, which in my case would have been bursting into tears for reasons unapparent to those outside my head.

I had to retreat and recharge. Desperately. This is what it means to be an introvert. But this doesn’t mean that conferences have to be traumatic experiences. I really do enjoy them, have managed to adapt to them over the years. We’re all different and our reactions vary wildly, but here are some things for introverts that really can help:

  • Know your limits. Understand when your body is starting to give you signals. Are you having trouble tracking conversations? Making sense of emotional cues? Is that tight feeling in your stomach more than just tight? Have you started to flinch when people brush past you? Understand what your own cues are and when it’s time to go.
  • Have an escape plan. To an extrovert, this might sound silly, but for an introvert, it’s only sense. If you become overwhelmed, you need a place to de-whelm for a bit. Come to the conference a day early and reconnoiter. See where the quiet corners might be. Have a safe spot you can use as a point of retreat so you can recharge.
  • Plan for recharge time. Yes. You need it. Don’t try to be everything to everyone and attend every moment of the convention. Take some time in between. Skip going to a panel if you need to (not the ones where you’re a panel member or moderator, but you know what I mean.) Deserted exercise room? Out of the way sofa for some reading? Walk the grounds? Retreat to your room? Whatever makes you comfortable, centered, and ready to brave the social wilds once again.
  • This can be a tough one. Most of us can’t afford to room alone at these things. Rooming with a friend, one friend who understands your need for quiet time is ideal, but not always possible. We can minimize the issues for an introvert when you don’t have that trusty friend along, though. First, don’t try to room with too many people. If you room with four or five (or more) convention goers, chances are you’re not going to find time to yourself when you need it. Second, if you do have to room with someone you don’t know well, make certain that you’re talking beforehand, getting to understand each other before you have to share space.
  • The posse. Sometimes it’s not interacting with other humans, it’s interacting with other humans we don’t know. If you’re walking into a new convention situation with all new players, take someone who has your back. Friend, spouse, lover, family member, frenemy, I don’t care who it is. And if it’s a convention you attend regularly, make arrangements to meet up with your comfort people. Sometimes we just need people who get us and don’t expect us to be witty and charming all the time. Clinging and hiding behind someone will probably annoy them, true, but we all need someone to retreat to occasionally.
  • Take care of yourself. Eat good food. Don’t drink too much. Get some sleep. Take your damn meds. The more you stress your body out, the worse the social panic gets. Conventions are not supposed to be marathons.
  • Plan ahead. The level of planning will vary from person to person, but don’t put yourself in a situation where lack of planning will pour on extra anxiety. Get lost easily? Look at floor plans before you arrive. Do your reconnaissance when you get there. Hate eating alone? Schedule dinner with someone. Always think you’re forgetting things? Make lists. If there is any part of the process you feel uncomfortable with, whether it’s how to get to the hotel from the airport or where to send your boxes of books and swag, start asking questions well ahead of time. The more you have things in place, the more stress you avoid.
  • Don’t think you have to be on all the time. Really. Don’t. It’s all right to be with other people and not be actively engaged every second of the day. Let the conversation flow around you for a moment. Knit. Read. Answer emails. Take a second. Breathe. Jump back in when you’re ready.
  • If you have a diagnosed social anxiety disorder or you suspect you might, talk to your doctor. Both meds and non-pharmaceutical interventions are available and vital when you need some extra help.

When it’s all said and done, the best piece of advice I can give fellow introverts is be yourself. Don’t try to be what you think people want you to be. Just be the quirky, maybe twitchy, sometimes oddball you that you are. Conventions would be boring if we were all the same and I think you’ll find that people enjoy your company as you are. Me? I’ll just be out in the car a minute. Be right back.

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