Pulling your gaze from your shoes, making eye contact with an ugly bag of mostly water, and communicating via spoken word is a much more difficult undertaking for the introverted nerd than it is for a normal person. Extroverts feed off of social interactions and conversation; it energizes and inspires them. On the other hand, socializing taxes introverts to the point that when all's said and done, they're wrung dry.
This makes attending conferences--what with their all-day sessions, nighttime social events, and sharing a hotel room--a serious mental drain on the introverted nerd. Since I'm one of the many introverted nerds heading to the South by Southwest Interactive festival this weekend, I've got a few conference survival tactics to share.
First, let me say to my fellow introverts: conferences are the time to push your limits and get out of your shell. If you do that and it's a good conference, you won't regret it. Even though it can be uncomfortable at first, magic happens when the right humans connect face to face (no matter how good your internet skillz are).
Now that that's out of the way, here are a few things I do to make life at conferences a little easier on my inner introvert.
Room with the right person. The last thing an introvert wants to do is worry about awkwardness or lack of privacy back at the hotel room after a long day of forced extroversion. If you can't get a room for yourself, find a roommate you're close with, someone you trust, someone who understands your freaky-deaky-geeky introversion. I hit the jackpot in this department. My going-on-three-years-now SXSW roomie is a long-distance BFF who totally gets me, and it's made a world of difference in my conference experience.
Leave room in your schedule for brief escapes. Yes, mark down every session you're interested in attending, and plan to meet up with people you like, but leave your schedule as flexible as possible to reduce stress and allow yourself a break if you need it. If you commit to every meal, every party, every meetup, by day two you'll want to crawl under the covers back at your hotel room and cry. At almost every conference I attend, at some point I sneak back to the luxuriously empty hotel room to recharge my introverted batteries for an hour or two. Give yourself permission and the schedule flexibility to escape, take a nap, stare out the window, or get someplace alone to take notes, collect your thoughts, and steel yourself for the next socializing marathon.
Talk to everyone, BUT minimize time with the bores and maximize time with interesting people. Introverts are just as shy about getting out of conversations as they are about getting into them. While you'll meet all sorts of fabulous people you wish you could talk to for hours, there are just as many dolts who will chew your ear off endlessly and drain you of all patience for humankind. Don't waste your time on these vampires. Figure out a way to escape from conversations you're not enjoying and upgrade to better ones--stat.
Put your trusted conference buddy on speed dial. At some point during the conference you will find yourself wandering the hallways alone, totally overwhelmed, and not sure where to go next. This is when you grab your cell phone and call your conference buddy, your pal who will say "Meet me here, we're going to get lunch in 10" and break you out of your funk. Bonus points if this person is an extrovert, because she'll carry the conversation and give you a break for a bit.
This advice probably sounds extreme to the normal and extroverted folks out there, but seriously: being an introvert in a performative world is not easy. My introversion means that when I'm in a room with other people for more than a few hours, I will go to the restroom not because I have to go, but just to be alone for a few minutes. It means that a lunch date with an acquaintance doubles the energy I need to muster for the day. It means that any kind of public speaking takes several days to work up to, and 48 hours of recovery time afterward. Nuts, right? Still, we introverts are worth getting to know even if you have to do a little extra work along the way.
For more, check out this excellent Atlantic article on the care and feeding of your inner introvert (or your introverted loved one).
Then go forth and enjoy your conference. (But don't forget to give yourself a day or two to recuperate when you get home.)
Photo by ▌ÇP▐.