In a year when people around the world have become overly familiar with “social distancing” — whether they wanted to or not — it feels like it could’ve been a great time to be a natural introvert. But life as an introvert is rarely easy, even when those around you are forced into a state of isolation. Being introverted or social-phobic is often bound up with feelings of loneliness and persistent anxiety.
To raise awareness and appreciation of introverts, psychologist Felicitas Heyne wrote a blog post in 2011 calling for a World Introvert Day on January 2:
“[It’s] exactly the day when the introverts of the world probably draw a deep breath, the day when the horror-holiday-marathon starting with Christmas and lasting until New Year lies behind them, when the annoying relatives have left and no one bothers them with the question: ‘What are your plans for New Year‘s?’ and then acts indignant when you respond ‘Nothing special, why do you ask?’ Could there possibly be a better date for it?”
If the scenario Heyne describes sounds like a nightmare, spare a thought for introverts in China, who having navigated a busy New Year period have to contend with the Lunar New Year being just around the corner. If many young people approach that holiday with a mixture of excitement and dread related to visiting relatives and being interrogated on their marital and economic status, for introverts it comes with added pressures.
Though China has little data on its introvert population, the number of studies on people identified with “social phobia,” a term that has been trending among young people across the country, is on the rise.
A survey published in November by Tinder-like social platform Tantan and China Youth Daily revealed that 40.2% of Chinese youngsters indicated they have issues socializing. According to another recent survey by Guangming Daily, 97% of the participants said they try to avoid or even get terrified by social activities.
A Chinese meme describing a narrowing social circle (Image: Douban)
“Every time I post something on social media, I hope people just give me likes without comments,” says Jancy Zheng, a 26-year-old social media executive. “I’m posting because I’m happy to do so, rather than trying to communicate with others. I don’t want unnecessary communication and attention.”
Starting from when she was at college, Zheng realized that she didn’t have to like and please everyone around her. She finds most interactions predictable and standardized, and generally feels that socializing is meaningless and awkward.
“I get continually, uncomfortably excited after socialization,” Zheng says. “All the details of the conversation including something I said wrong will linger forever in my head. It’s so tiring.”
Conversations around such anxieties remain rare, but recognition is slowly growing. The issue received some mainstream attention in 2020 when bestselling author Chen Zijin, whose novels have been adapted into successful TV dramas such as The Long Night and The Bad Kids, told media that he has a very strong “social fear.”
“Writing is the best and only career for me as I don’t have to interact with people except once a year when I have to deal with film and television companies,” Chen said, adding that since becoming famous he’s deleted every social media app he had except for messaging service WeChat.
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Yet this kind of “social phobia” is a spectrum, and some experts suggest that what many young people are feeling is more like a negative emotion of avoidance and resistance to social interaction than actual mental illness.
“These young people can chat frantically with people they like but stay away from those they don’t like while saying they have ‘social phobia,’” says Sun Ping, an assistant researcher at the Institute of Journalism and Communication of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. “Young people seem to be trapped in the current social system. Socializing has invaded all aspects of their life so they need a ‘shield’ to help them escape.”
Zheng echoes these thoughts, saying:
“As personalities get more diverse, the community similar to ourselves is getting smaller and smaller. So we’re more willing to retreat to our comfort zone that is full of self-affirmation and has no need to socialize.”
Such ideas may still be alien to some in China, but the country’s millennials are finding comfort overseas, discovering that they’re no less human than anyone else in the world simply because they don’t want to be surrounded by lots of noisy people all the time. This is reflected in the coining of the Chinese buzzword “jingfen” (精芬), or “spiritually Finnish,” courtesy of a comic from Finland called Finnish Nightmares.
Where would you sit? pic.twitter.com/UcyjdKSLAr— Finnish Nightmares (@Finn_Matti) February 6, 2016
Where would you sit? pic.twitter.com/UcyjdKSLAr
— Finnish Nightmares (@Finn_Matti) February 6, 2016
“[He is] a stereotypical Finn who appreciates peace, quiet and personal space,” says the cartoon’s creator Karoliina Korhonen, describing the main character. “Matti tries his best to do unto others as he wishes to be done unto him: to give space, be polite and not bother with unnecessary chit chat.”
That’s exactly what many Chinese youths feel deep inside, with increasing numbers preferring the use of social apps over in-person interactions. Even then, text messages are often more welcome than voice or video chats.
“As long as the issue can be addressed by texting, I’ll never make a call,” says Yuki Deng, a 30-year-old PR strategist at a tech company. “I try not to speak to my leader in person but just stay on the phone.”
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Deng thinks that an inferiority complex is what drives her away from socializing. She’s come up with millions of ways to avoid greetings: from bending down in advance and pretending to tie her shoelaces before meeting a teacher‘s eyes, to quickly turning back as if forgetting something when seeing her boss approaching. Even sharing snacks among colleagues feels like a lot to her.
“Should I share again when everyone’s done? Do I need to give one to the boss? How should I share snacks that are not easily dividable?” Deng recalls as some of her constant worries.
Such awkward workplace interactions and ideas of introversion are gradually nudging their way into China’s mainstream, however.
For example, comedian Wang Mian recently reached the finale of TV stand-up contest Rock & Roast courtesy of a musical, jokey look at uncomfortable social moments at work. His performance struck a chord, with the punchline from his “Song of Social Fear” — “When you run into your colleague in the elevator, you would instantly take out your phone even when there is no signal” — becoming one of the biggest memes among “corporate slaves” in 2020.
After Wang’s appearance, the hashtag #the moment you want to escape the most as a person with social phobia# became a trending topic on the Twitter-like Weibo platform, accumulating over 810 million views.
The topic “The Daily Life of People with Social Anxiety” has also been widely discussed on social media site Douban, which has at least six active groups supporting people identified with social phobia.
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It may seem counterintuitive, but bringing introverts — or rather the idea of introverts and social phobia — into the spotlight ought to be a positive move. If mainstream media can help normalize feelings of not wanting to be constantly social, hopefully the holiday season will be a little less stressful for China’s growing group of introverts.
Cover photo: Leon Li on Unsplash
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