I’m alright on my own. Trust me.
When you think you might need to be more social, ask yourself who you’re doing it for.
I like my dog more than I like most people. I like being at home more than I like being most places. I like watching baseball and lifting little neon weights in my living room while my dog watches through half-closed eyes more than I like doing most other things.
I’m not a textbook introvert, nor am I lazy. I’m not boring, and I don’t have social anxiety. In fact, I can be downright gregarious, and I love to get out of the house. I thoroughly enjoy new experiences, and — if we’re being real here — I’m probably doing my poor greyhound a favor when I give him a break from my smiling, doting face once in a while.
Then again, I’d be more worried about myself for doing things I didn’t want to do just to appear to have the kind of social life that is — well — socially acceptable.
If I’m being completely honest with myself, this grew out of a need to protect myself when I was younger. I didn’t grow up around a lot of kids I could relate to, so I learned to create valuable experiences on my own or with family members. I’m lucky that my family members are all pretty interesting people and not at all difficult to be around, but perhaps even that comes from years of conditioning. When it comes to being social, I look for the company of the people and things — and dogs — that require the least amount of performance and self-presentation from me.
Even so, I worry.
Well, my mom worries.
I (we) worry that I’ve been living in this amazing city for almost two years and still have a miles-long list of things to do. I (we) worry that one day, I’ll tire of being alone and it will be more difficult to find people to share life with than when I was younger.
Then again, I’d be more worried about myself for doing things I didn’t want to do just to appear to have the kind of social life that is — well — socially acceptable. My Instagram, for instance, is 77% dog photos, 21% baseball photos, and the rest some combination of pointless things that prove I go outside sometimes (I did the math). That’s not exciting, right? While I quite often get somewhat lost in my upscale Northwest DC neighborhood with my dog by my side and Better Than Ezra in my ear, that does not make for interesting social media content. I also do a lot of things by myself; some of my favorite “better alone” activities are seeing movies at weird times of day, spending too much time in the Hirshhorn, or walking along the National Mall just to remind myself where I live. I adore a long, quiet train ride with a book I neglect any other time. I also live on Rock Creek Park, which gives me easy access to a number of great trails. There’s nothing more peaceful than leashing the Italian greyhound and heading into the woods. I’m never really alone when I hike, either. It’s busy most of the time, and my animal is a bit of a show piece. I get all the social interaction I need some days just by chatting with strangers about my dog.
I do have people in my life, though. I make relationships, but I make them with people who don’t need my time and attention all that much. My best friends are my sister, my mom, and my brother (in no particular order), and they live in Boston and Pensacola, Florida, respectively. I pack a bunch of things into our schedule when they visit, and that gives me sufficient opportunity to get some of the things on my list checked off. My favorite person who isn’t related to me lives several hours away, but he and I make a point to see each other when we can make the trip. I really look forward to and value our time together because it’s never an obligation or an expectation, and we go long enough between visits to really miss one another. Locally, I have friends. I go on dates from time to time, but Instagramming a date is — uh — just a big no. My best local friend and I are on a mission to try out different restaurants, bars, and breweries around town. I do Instagram those — just not on my personal page because hamburgers, chicken wings, and beers all look pretty much the same. Not great social media content.
Why do I feel so obligated to justify how I spend my free time?
Erving Goffman argued that we attempt to control other people’s perception of who we are and what we’re about through a series of adjustments to our appearance, behavior, words, or setting. His dramaturgical analysis uses theatre as a metaphor to explain that we do these things to avoid social missteps or losing social capital. In other words, we do a lot of things to avoid looking like an ass in front of other people.
In a similar — but perhaps more menacing — manner, Michel Foucault used Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon to explain that we also behave and appear in certain manners under certain conditions because we can never be sure if what we’re doing is being judged or surveyed by “guards” or, more generally, the power structure. Since the panopticon of this metaphor is a prison, the fear is being punished by that power structure for doing something that isn’t what that power structure wants or needs you to do to maintain its power. If we begin to believe it’s likely we’re always under surveillance by judging eyes, we’ll start to police our own actions in line with social expectations so we aren’t punished — socially, of course.
We do these things, you see, because we’re conditioned by society that some things are normal and other things are not. What is and is not normal is constructed not by guards in towers like the panopticon but by us, if you choose to believe Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann. They wrote that our knowledge of reality is built and maintained through our social interactions. Social constructionism suggests that what becomes “normal” behavior or what is socially accepted is only that way because we have reinforced it so much that we believe it now to be reality. “Institutionalized” is the word they use.
I do have people in my life, though. I make relationships, but I make them with people who don’t need my time and attention all that much.
If you combine the ideas of Goffman, Foucault, and Berger and Luckmann, you can see, then, where being a social human might be tiring. In the same moment you’re trying to decide what to wear, what to say, where to go to present the version of yourself you want to present, you are also considering both what you know from previous interactions to be true and wondering if you might be breaking with those accepted realities in some way. Then what happens if we do break with them? Carefully choosing our social media content to convey that we’re interesting, adventurous, and likeable certainly falls in line with the ideas these guys posited. Once again, I don’t contend that any of this is a new idea, but looking at my own life this way allows me to worry less and convince my mom I’m okay without having to tell her exactly what I did the other night and with whom. She’s still my mom; the social construct of mom-daughter relationships tells me she would not want to know.
Maybe I’m just extra picky about what I post because I work in social media 40 hours a week and teach social media another 20. A post for me isn’t as much fun as it is another bit of work I have to do. Maybe that’s just what I tell myself to avoid admitting I don’t think I’m very interesting by other people’s standards. I thought I’d outgrown that. I thought I was now old enough to firmly position myself in the “you like me or you don’t” camp.
Or maybe I just prefer the company of my sweet, sweet little doggy and the freedom of going braless. Maybe I just enjoy talking back to the anchors and their guests on CNN or rewatching Parks & Recreation an inappropriate number of times while I clean the apartment.
My dog doesn’t care. My living room doesn’t care. In fact, I don’t even care until the next time I scroll through my Instagram feed and momentarily forget that everyone else is curating their lives the very same way.