Introverted 18 y/o seeks advice.
March 7, 2012 7:00 PM   Subscribe

I'm an intensely introverted 18 year old living in somewhat of a social vacuum. I need some advice.

I'm an 18 year old guy in a major rut. On paper my life is going exactly as I've wanted it to for the past 4 years (ever since I started seriously thinking about the future).

Wall of text ahead, but I'd really appreciate your advice.

A little background: When I was 14 I began to be interested in learning languages and took up a new one, Icelandic. I began to start exchanging messages with native speakers online and decided that Iceland was a place I definitely wanted to live in the future. For 3 years I worked tirelessly, often ignoring all kinds of social and societal obligations (including just about the entirety of high school) to improve my language skills. I found the university program I wanted to apply to and was intent on getting there as quickly as possible, high school wasn't quite where I wanted to be. I finished high school a year early, was accepted into the program and moved here last September. At the time I was still 17, and this is my first time taking care of myself or having any real responsibilities.

Personality-wise, I've always been quite an introvert. I used to have quite severe social anxiety (as a kid I would break into tears at the thought of using the phone or saying hi to a cashier at the grocery store). I was diagnosed with autism as a 6 year old, a diagnosis which later became Aspergers. I've spent a lot of time reading about social skills and observing people. Through this systematic learning I think I come across as slightly aloof, but by no means socially incapable. I have a lot of social quirks that are mostly a result of my really poor motor skills and balance. I doubt I'll ever be able to ride a bike or drive a car; my posture almost always looks strange/awkward; I will without question fall on most slippery surfaces; It takes me perhaps twice as long as most people to tie my shoes; I get persistently lost in places I've been to dozens of times and I have very little sense of time.

I moved into the only dorm-like building here, primarily composed of foreign students. I made friends pretty quickly both within the building and outside of it. I'm pretty good at becoming friendly with people and exchanging eye contact or small-talk here and there. I'm not that shy about going out and meeting new people. The nature of Icelandic society is such that social groups are extremely small and within a couple weeks you'll know enough people that no matter where you go out on the weekends, you'll see someone. It doesn't hurt that I've been in the media here a number of times as a result of my language skills and constantly have people coming up to talk to me.

On the weekends I'm almost always downtown, bouncing from place to place, finding people I know and hanging out for a short while. At the end of it I'll end up at an after-party at someone's place which is always a great time to meet more people.

The thing is, I never have anyone to go out with. I'm constantly ignored and I don't know why - in 6 months, I have maybe been asked five or six times by someone to come spend any time with them. I make a lot of effort to ask people to hang out, go downtown with me, etc. And usually people come with. I really despise asking, though. I feel incredibly worthless when everyone around me is building relationships with each other and I'm consistently ignored. I have a constant longing for people to pay any kind of attention to me and it's driving me crazy. I know, I know, I have people coming up to me all the time telling me how awesome I am. But they usually just say it and leave, even though I would more often than not love to continue the conversation with them.

Then there's the matter of developing friendships once I start to spend a lot of time with someone. Whether it be by chance (always running into each other, floormates, etc.) or intentional (say, girls I'm interested in). As I mentioned earlier, the social circles here are incredibly small. Among Icelanders, most people have known their friends since first grade or something like that. Whenever I spend time with Icelandic social groups I feel like such an outsider, and I know it's not due to the language. On the other hand there are the foreign students, 90% of them are exchange students here for a year or just a semester. They're having the time of their lives doing whatever they please knowing that they have no obligations here. I'm planning on being here for another 2-3 years. I want to build real friendships and relationships. Reputation and gossip is a big thing here. Everyone really does know everyone. Speaking Icelandic puts me in a slightly different position, too.

I feel like I'm putting in an incredible amount of effort to build friendships with people but it never seems to work. I have a lot of shallow friendships and I seem to be well-liked, but perhaps people think I just want to be left alone, despite all my efforts. Once upon a time I would motonously monolog for hours on end, now I'm very aware of body language and rarely talk about myself if at all. Before I came to this country I was doing well socially and satisfied with the relationships I'd built. Now I feel beyond clueless. It's not loneliness, really. I'm around people all the time, usually having a good time. There's just no depth to it. And above all, I feel like much more of an observer than a participant to the fun. I don't usually have much to say, anyway - I wish I did. Maybe it just takes time? It's been half a year, my patience is weaning.

I hope this makes some semblance of sense.
posted by csjc to Human Relations (18 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
In my experience, the type of friends you're talking about aren't made in 6 months or less. My little corner of Ohio sounded exactly the same way. Tight knit groups who cling together and it seems impossible to get "in". I hate to say it like this but you kind of have to put in the time. I've made tons of the shallow friends you're talking about but the good meaningful friends are few and far between. You have to be around someone for a long time for them to truly gain your trust and feel comfortable around them like you've known them all your life (there are exceptions to this rule but they're few and far between). You sound like your'e a great person and just have to give it some time for those relationships to transform. Just try to keep hanging out with a group that you relate to particularly well or are interested in and it'll happen eventually.
posted by no bueno at 7:14 PM on March 7, 2012 [3 favorites]

"And above all, I feel like much more of an observer than a participant to the fun. I don't usually have much to say, anyway - I wish I did. Maybe it just takes time? It's been half a year, my patience is weaning. "

I don't know anything about Icelandic norms specifically, but it is not unusual for people who move to a brand-new place as adults to take around three YEARS to build good close friendships -- there are dozens of AskMe questions on the topic, and 2-3 years seems to be about average. And those 2-3 years are frustrating, lonely, and upsetting for an awful lot of people. In other words, welcome to trying to make friends and build community as an adult. Kinda sucks.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:15 PM on March 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

It takes a long time to get situated in a new place. Six months, in my experience, is nothing. As said above, I think about 2 years is the minimum before you can really start to see a social life come together. Have you looked into social events in the local area, outside of school? Hanging out with people settled in the local community might help you feel more rooted.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 7:19 PM on March 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

When I moved overseas (Germany) to live for a while (ended up being about 4 years), I felt similarly. Germans didn't really interact much with foreign students, because they kind of expected them to be there on short term exchanges and then gone, so didn't want to invest a lot of time in building friendships. Foreign students hung out together and spoke English, and I didn't want to be like that.

I feel like I was JUST starting to get integrated and build up a network of German friends in the final year I was there. And mostly that was through sharing a house with Germans and getting involved in stuff the housemates were doing and meeting their friends.

I recommend you move out of your student accommodation and try to share with Icelanders, if possible. And give it time.
posted by lollusc at 7:19 PM on March 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

(oh, and I was fluent in German before I moved there, like you with Icelandic, so it's not about a language barrier.)
posted by lollusc at 7:20 PM on March 7, 2012

College is, by its very nature, impermanent. If you want to feel more a part of any area, it can help to join the more permanent types of groups, be they church, or charities, or government institutions (volunteering at the library, for instance), etc.
posted by xingcat at 7:35 PM on March 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

It may be, along the lines of what lollusc said, that Icelanders make friends differently than Americans and you're getting thrown off because they're following a different set of rules. Certainly this happened to one of my friends in Germany. She's normally very socially adept and months after she thought that some of the Germans she knew had written her off as a potential friend, they started inviting her to do things left and right--she'd been oblivious to the earlier stages of the friend-making process because it wasn't going as she was used to.

Beyond that, I don't have any advice--I'm basically like you socially.
posted by hoyland at 8:04 PM on March 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

No idea why my answer assumed you were American. Perhaps the reference to Ohio in the first answer.
posted by hoyland at 8:05 PM on March 7, 2012

IME this takes time, often years. The pressure cooker of highschool is off and people are doing deeper friendships on their own schedules.
posted by ead at 8:06 PM on March 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm Canadian. It could very well be that Icelanders operate a little differently on this front. As I mentioned earlier, people here have for the most part known each other since childhood - breaking into those kinds of social circles might definitely just be a matter of time. In fact, the Icelanders who I'm the closest friends with are those same people who I started exchanging messages with online 4 years ago.

It's also worth mentioning that most people in uni here are early-to-mid 20s, due to the school system. I'm the youngest in the entire university.

As for participating in community groups - I try and do what I can. I'd love to get a job here but the lack of work permit doesn't make that easy.
posted by csjc at 8:12 PM on March 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

I moved to America from Australia, so no language barrier and less cultural barrier. I've been here three years and I feel like I'm just past the stage you're in now. Making real new friends is hard. I don't have any tips except more time, sorry.
posted by jacalata at 8:32 PM on March 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

Give it time with the shallow friends. There are some people you know will probably never be close, but there are probably some you see more potential with -- you have the same interest, aspects of your personality are the same, or what have you. My best friend and I are similar as far as our hobbies and interests, but on vastly different social spectrums (she is extremely social, I like to be alone). This seemed like a huge difference to me when we first met and we were shallow friends for about two years. Now, we get together once a week. All thanks to more gradual exposure to each other and learning new things each time.

Also, you say you don't talk about yourself much. Maybe you haven't given them enough of yourself for them to feel close to you? I mean, I'm sure that they appreciate that you let them talk and are interested in what they have to say -- this is definitely part of making a close friend -- but they may also feel distant from you because they don't know you. Don't forget that relating to people is also part of becoming close. There is a person I know who never, never talks about himself and is always interested in knowing what's going on in everyone's life. Some people in my circle think he's sketchy, always looking for information and keeping his own life a secret. Just something to consider.
posted by houndsoflove at 3:39 AM on March 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Cheer up chap, it's okay. As has been said here, these friendships take time to form. I've moved lives three times and it takes a lot long than expected to build strong bonds. It's very easy to build weak ties -- social connections that fall apart with the most gentle of pressure.

Perhaps think of this as an iterative process and change your expectation. Allow the friendships you want to exist in the future, and for now, be happy with what you have and enjoy the superficial connections. When you meet someone you get along with, give it a few phone calls, nights out, or whatever. Your goal in that process should be to have fun with that person, and get another person out of it.

Maybe you are chatting with Jack about the weather and Tom comes up and talkes about music. You and Tom like the same band, so you see if Tom wants to go to a show. You and Tom go to the show, and he brings along Dave. Dave invites you to a small party at his house, where you meet Annie. You and Annie hit it off and become good friends. Perhaps you never see Tom or Dave again, but that's cool because you have a new friend named Annie.

It's not disingenuous, the social process is a constant trial-and-error engagement. Over time, a few people will stick. It will happen in time, the only thing you have to do is be totally happy with where you are right now.

And I know that sounds hard, but first you have to get your past out of your present. I take on-board your limitations and restrictions, and know that they do not define who you are as a person. Everyone has difficulties, it's just a matter of making peace with them.

The first order of business is let's seperate what's part of you from what's outside. Scandanavian countries (and Iceland I imagine) are notorious for being xenophobic. They have small populations, and as you mention, they've all known each other since they were like 5. It's funny because it's both a strength of those socities and a weakness. Strength as they have super-strong social bonds. A weakness in they're terrible at integrating new people. This will be compounded by your North American heritage, which is de facto more open and engaging.

So let that be out there, and stop internalising it so much. You're conflating your previous social anxiety and using it to explain your current situation. By what you say, it sounds like you have been successful at mastering your social issues. Here's the test. If you were in Canada, would you have friends? It sounds like the answer would be de facto yes. Thus, you are not in Canada, therefore you do not have friends. That problem seems far more external than internal.

So how to move forward? Get happy with where you are. Keep in mind the kind of friends you want to have, and allow them to find you in time. In the meantime relish the opportunity to have heaps and heaps of brief friendships. Think of it like trying on clothes. They're not all going to fit, but it's worth seeing how they look on you.

A final note about real friendships and depth. It's a different mentality outside of North America. In Europe, it's very hard to become real friends with people. I've been in the UK for five years and I have two English friends. The converse to that is that once you have those friends, they are very solid relationships. In North America, it was very easy to make friends initially, however there's not the same level of committment.

Point being, you're not doing anything wrong and you need to believe that. I would suggest that you stop trying so hard, and literally enjoy your life. The more you can enjoy your life, the more people will be attracted to that.

A good exercise is a gratitude journal. For 21 days, write down three things you are grateful for each day. Train your mind to start seeing what is working, rather than constantly looking at what is not. And free yourself from who you used to be, for you are not that person anymore.
posted by nickrussell at 4:11 AM on March 8, 2012 [4 favorites]

Iceland has an entire population of 317,000 people. The whole country. If it seems that everyone knows who you are, they do. Media coverage there is an introduction to the entire populace, all at once.

I imagine that they are torn between making you feel welcome and overwhelming you with too much celebrity attention all at once. They know that you are there for a reason, and they are probably honoring your mission.

While you are trying to establish friendships, they don't want to be seen as monopolizing your time, which is valued by everyone at large.

On this island, we try to treat celebrities like our parents. We're gracious and happy to welcome them here. But they are on vacation from their normal lives, and we treat them that way. Just for a little while, they get to be "non-celebrities" and just get to be people. We all know who they are; it's our job to be the anti-paparazzi, and be nice. That's it. We wait for them to ask.

Ask one of your better acquaintances if they have parents in the wilds, and see if they will escort you out to one of the distant villages for a weekend. Meet a very small village on their terms. Word will get around that you are a regular fellow quickly, I promise. You may soon be invited to other students homes to meet their villages. That is how to get to know a country, and let them get to know you.

I hope you'll write a book about your adventure. I like your single-minded determination, and I bet it would inspire other young people.
posted by halfbuckaroo at 4:50 AM on March 8, 2012 [10 favorites]

@halfbuckaroo – that is one of the best comments I have read on MeFi.
posted by nickrussell at 5:02 AM on March 8, 2012

On the other hand there are the foreign students, 90% of them are exchange students here for a year or just a semester. They're having the time of their lives doing whatever they please knowing that they have no obligations here. I'm planning on being here for another 2-3 years.

Nthing that it takes time, but given this, I would imagine that things will improve with time, not only because friendships do that, but also because after the other foreign students in your cohort leave, you'll start to stand out from the next lot of foreign students by your longevity.

It sounds like you're doing really well - I've done this kind of thing a couple of times, and it's not easy for anyone. Hope you enjoy the adventure!
posted by penguin pie at 5:22 AM on March 8, 2012

Making deep, lasting friendships do take a while. In the meantime, are there organizations or clubs at your university in which you can get involved?

Is there an international student group on or around campus? Such affiliations often host events throughout the year to help students like you acclimate in a totally new culture. If not, what resources are available? Can an adviser connect you to other American students or alum? Hearing their perspectives would be helpful.

Lastly, please find a way to re-connect with an old friend or two, or start writing a blog to share your experiences with other. I am sure there are former classmates or workers who would love to hear about Iceland. This will also give you something to look forward to each day.
posted by nikayla_luv at 5:44 AM on March 8, 2012

I have moved to a foreign country twice in my life. I moved to Ireland and Spain for extended stays of 2+ years in each place.

The 6month point is the hardest point. That is the point when you feel most detached from home, and are still not really attached to your new country.

At the 1yr mark - it will feel totally different. I promise. Give it time.
posted by Flood at 5:47 AM on March 8, 2012 [4 favorites]

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