Opinion Covid flipped the introvert-extrovert script. And I hate it.

(Joseph Rogers for The Washington Post)

Rebecca Makkai is the author of five books of fiction, including the novels “The Great Believers” and, most recently, “I Have Some Questions for You.”

Like many people, I became aware only in recent years of the true definitions of introversion and extroversion. This was thanks in part to the memes introverts began sharing, which made clear to me not only what an introvert was but also that I was definitely not one.

I learned that introverts aren’t necessarily shy or awkward — they just get drained from interaction. (Though I do have social anxiety, I get energy from other people.) They don’t always enjoy collaboration at school or work. (I work poorly alone in a room, better in a crowded cafe, best when bouncing ideas off someone else.) And before 2020, many introverts continually felt the strain of living in a world that didn’t fit the shape of their souls.

I’m afraid I rolled my eyes, back then, at the deluge of memes: “If you aren’t happy going out,” I thought, “then stay home and stop whining and drawing attention to how little attention you want!”

But as we emerge from our most restrictive covid precautions, the tables have turned: I find myself in a world in which many have become more introverted. And I hate it.

It’s not just you. We’re all socially awkward now.

I’m of course not talking about the cautions taken by those with compromised immunity or about our necessary care when infection rates spike. I’m talking about people’s waning interest in socializing — indoors, outdoors, in small groups, in large groups, masked or unmasked, even at the Zoom cocktail parties we enjoyed early in the pandemic. I’m talking about people choosing to be alone because they find the prospect of seeing strangers or even friends too overwhelming; people no-showing for ticketed events; people choosing Netflix over supporting a friend’s art show or concert or garage sale.

After an initial wave of glad-to-be-back parties, many in my circle seem to have retreated into their new, or increased, introversion. Now, I’m the one who feels mismatched to the world’s expectations.

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We spent two to three years building private, interior covid worlds. Now, with the exterior world reopening, Post Opinions asked fiction and nonfiction writers, essayists and poets to reflect on what it’s like to be getting outside — if they are — and how the pandemic changed them.
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Something I don’t often share: In high school, I was a cheerleader. This wasn’t only because I was required to do a sport and don’t manage well with projectiles; it was also because I’ve always felt the urge to give and get energy — to draw people into the party, to make sure everyone’s happy and having fun. (In adult life, I do this with much less shouting.)

I got through lockdown by finding alternative ways to socialize — distanced outdoor dinners, a backyard music festival. And I’ll admit there were upsides to forced isolation, even for extroverts: We gardened, we learned languages, we baked a lot of great bread. I’m more comfortable now with a day at home, alone.

But as we reemerge, with precautions, and carry some of those isolationist tendencies with us, I dearly hope the introverts will rejoin the parts of the social world they feel comfortable with.

This past fall, I reconnected with a large group of friends at an outdoor restaurant. I was thrilled to see these folks; things felt almost back to normal. For a couple of those present, this was their first group gathering in over two years. At the end of dinner, both announced that although they’d had a wonderful time, they wouldn’t make it to another planned gathering three weeks later; they needed at least a month to recover.

A month?

Or consider my acquaintance who planned a stop on his first book tour in a city where he had many friends. Most of the 32 RSVPs to the bookstore were people he knew well. But the day of the reading, his phone buzzed with messages: Someone was too exhausted, someone else was so sorry to miss it, someone else felt guilty leaving her husband alone. Not a single person showed up.

Before the pandemic, it seemed an accepted truth that there’s inherent benefit to human connection and gatherings. Psychological and sociological studies continue to agree on this point. The conundrum of my recent months has been how much to exhort people to step outside (safely) and how much I should accept that I now live in a world in which there are fewer parties, fewer shows, fewer summer festivals and dinners and trivia nights and cocktail hours.

One thing the introvert memes taught me was how irritating it is when extroverts attempt to draw introverts out. I’m loath to be that person. But the prospect of widespread societal introversion troubles me, when we’re in the midst of what Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy calls an “epidemic of loneliness and isolation.”

Meet the introverts who are dreading a return to normal

Some might call voluntary isolation “self-care.” But multiplied throughout our society, could it end up looking more like an unhealthy descent into solitary confinement?

As the parent of teenagers, I worry about the clubs that will have no members, the plays no one will audition for, the dorm-floor conversations that will instead be DMs. Is this the new normal, forever? Am I selfish for worrying about it?

Studies including one from 2013 subtitled “Trait introverts underpredict the hedonic benefits of acting extraverted” suggest that once you put yourself out there, you’ll have more fun than you imagined. Just as many extroverts found some value in mandatory isolation during the pandemic, I do believe introverts will find joy in a return to (some) obligatory public interactions.

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And if it’s true that introverts are, on the whole, more thoughtful and sensitive people, then we desperately need those people at the party. It’s okay if they just sit on the sofa arm eating chips.

Maybe the world will continue along this more introverted path, and I’ll have to adapt to a society that expects different things of me than I expect of it. In that case, my fellow extroverts and I will start preparing memes about how misunderstood we are. We’re going to be so loud about it.