In my mind, there are two basic kinds of people – those who will quite happily sit next to a total stranger on a train and happily engage in a conversation with them to pass the time on the journey, and there are those for whom sitting next to a stranger is a nightmare scenario – standing next to the toilet door for a couple of stops being a more attractive option to them than grabbing that last vacant seat.
I fall firmly into the latter category, so when a suggestion was made recently that my little group of inworld buddies should perhaps consider breaking our regular routine and try out some new venues to socialise, I found it somewhat difficult to get at all enthusiastic about it.
Put me in my own environment, with people I know well and familiar situations, and I’m just fine; dump me in an unfamiliar setting amongst a group of strangers, even if I’m there with other people that I also know well, and I’m less than happy. In normal circumstances, you’d have a job shutting me up; in this situation, you’d struggle to elicit much more than a friendly ‘hello’ from me.
Essentially, that’s no different from my temperament in RL – even in the least threatening social situations, amongst people with whom I’d normally feel entirely comfortable, I can struggle to come out of my shell; but the weird thing here is that my reticence in SL to forge new connections with others goes entirely against almost everything I’ve ever said about the enabling nature of SL.
You’ve seen it in print here numerous times: SL emboldens us – it’s anonymous, safe, and doesn’t necessarily demand an emotional investment in others; we can hide behind our avatar, build a fake persona, be someone we’re not, and nobody ever need know the reality. I still stand by all that, so what’s the deal here?
That’s a tricky one, but I think it’s all down to choice and control.
Choice is all about having the freedom to be who I want and to express myself as I wish – those of you who know me inworld will be able to identify very definite character traits if asked to describe me and, other than mentioning I’m short, you’ll find it much easier to describe my non physical attributes than how I look. Part of the defining characteristics that mean these people are my friends is that they understand how important that side of me is and that they tolerate and accept my quirky ways. Put me in an alien environment where I’m expected to be like everyone else, and you’re effectively depriving me of that freedom. As a result, I become nervous, fade into the background, and avoid any unnecessary contact with those around me.
Control – or rather lack of it – is about being in a situation that I can’t shape, following other people’s rules and conventions and where I have to work from the ground up to build relationships, establish rapport and assert myself before I can start to exert my own influence and have some sort of say in what’s going on. Maybe that’s a bit much to ask in a social setting, but without having at least some control over my situation, I find things terribly hard.
I don’t think this necessarily destroys my argument that SL is an enabler for those of a timid disposition, because the points made above are only relevant in specific circumstances: If I choose to take myself out of my comfort zone, at my own instigation and entirely within my own boundaries and constraints, then I’m taking a calculated risk. On these occasions, SL does indeed become an enabler and I have free rein to explore situations in a way that I’d never be comfortable with in the real world. Provided it’s on my terms, it’s my choice and I remain in control of what happens to me and how, everything is just fine. However, take away those two elements – choice and control – and I’m instantly floundering – this can happen in many different ways: An assertive IM from a stranger; being included in a group, when really I’d rather do my own thing; a crowd of new people arriving on the scene, where I’m otherwise usually pretty settled; taking part in something because I know I should, even if it’s not my thing; peer pressure and wanting to be part of the in-crowd. All of these can cause me to lose my nerve, and suddenly SL feels far too much like RL.
Silly, I know, but that’s just the way I am – and sometimes it can be damn inconvenient!
I’m in with the in crowd
I go where the in crowd goes
I’m in with the in crowd
And I know what the in crowd knows
Dobie Gray – The ‘in’ Crowd