Attending a conference recently, I felt embarrassed and insecure that nobody would talk to me.
I tried everything: Using the names Sharpied on their lapel stickers … asking where they’re from … carping about the agenda, boring speakers, conference food and arctic a/c. Nothing. People just looked at me blankly and walked away. I vowed, right then, never again to attend the International Association of Introverts’ annual convention.
This is not just a bad joke. Mocking introverts is now insensitive.
Today, we don’t tell shy people to get out of their shells. We recognize that introversion is not a choice or a selfish decision to be antisocial. Susan Cain’s book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking has taught us that shy people are normal, healthy, decent and even social and delightful (when they feel like it).
Introverts are not just acceptable; they’re better. They take in more and reflect deeper than ridiculously shallow reactive extroverts. The Big Band Theory-stereotype nerds have surmounted the insurmountable to live viable lives, find love and personal fulfillment, and make important contributions to humankind. Like introverts from Dickinson to Lincoln, Einstein and — surprise! — computer geeks Gates and Zuckerberg. (By the way, Hitler was an introvert, but never mind.)
On two consecutive days, Washington Post advice columnist Carolyn Hax — whom I read slavishly to find out what humans should do — responded to people struggling with their beloved introverts.
One writer’s husband didn’t want her parents visiting for more than a few days once a year. The other said her husband wished she would stay home instead of joining others for outside activities she loved. In both cases, Hax advised the extrovert to respect the introvert and meet him halfway.
Excellent advice. If we want to be left alone, or not speak up at work meetings, or not engage talkative neighbors, or avoid dinner with insufferable people, or just walk away from people who bore, now we can say, “Sorry. I’m an introvert.” Case closed. And if people shun introverts, win-win!
So what else is out there that can give us a free pass when we need it?
If there ever were a time for Munchausen Syndrome (“a psychological disorder characterized by the feigning of the symptoms of a disease or injury in order to undergo diagnostic tests, hospitalization, or medical or surgical treatment” — Merriam Webster), it’s now:
1. An avalanche of medical information is available via internet — real and fake — to self-diagnose every sore, ache or malady as possibly life-threatening.
2. Life-threatening medical mysteries often begin with a minor sore, ache or malady. A recent New York Times “Diagnosis” feature explored a man’s chronic hiccups. Turns out he had a deadly tumor behind his brain.
3. We’re in Oprah’s World, where even hypochondriacs are in some sort of real pain (e.g., hypochondria) we need to respect.
4. We’re safe from being challenged because, whatever our malady, real or imagined, nobody wants to take a chance they’re blaming the victim.
So if someone wants us to do something we’d rather not, here are some maladies that I found in a leading medical journal, Wikipedia, that offer excuses to avoid the hassle:
· Request: “Could you do the grocery shopping?” Malady: General, non-specific or non-identified food allergies. Excuse: “There’s a lot of food in the grocery store, and I don’t want to take a chance. You don’t want me to get sick, do you?”
· Request: “Could you help me clean the house?” Malady: Multiple chemical sensitivity or idiopathic environmental intolerances, with subjective and vague symptoms including fatigue, headaches, nausea, dizziness, inflammation of skin, joints, gastrointestinal tracts and airways. Excuse: “I can’t meet your corporatist standards for cleanliness by polluting my environment with any scented products, pesticides, plastics, synthetic fabrics, smoke, petroleum products or paint fumes.”
· Request: “Could you come to work today?” Malady: EHS, or electromagnetic hypersensitivity, leading to headache, fatigue, stress, loss of sleep, prickly skin, burning sensations, rashes and muscle pain and ache. Excuse: “Too many phones and computers at the office. I need to work from home.”
We can also point to oral galvanism from dental work with different metal fillings, which causes insomnia, vertigo, and memory loss. Or maybe we have Wilson’s Temperature Syndrome, a thyroid condition that causes PMS, hair loss, irritability, fluid retention, depression, decreased memory, low sex drive, unhealthy nails and easy weight gain. Which sounds normal for anyone over 55.
My mother, 77, has a real disease — AML leukemia. An immigrant from Eastern Europe as a child, she’s an ornery fighter with a snarky sense of humor, hanging in there, though the monthly chemo doses knock her out. I made her laugh by suggesting she has the ultimate excuse, with no comeback, for anything she doesn’t want to do: “I have cancer.”
She didn’t take my suggestion seriously at first. Then she tried and liked it.
Since then, I’ve called several times but keep getting her voice mail message: “Hi. I’m not in right now. But please leave a message and I’ll call you back. Or maybe not. Forgive me. I have cancer.”
Jeffrey Denny is a Washington writer