However lame it brands me to say so, I don’t like going out. It is, to put it simply, a lot of work. It’s physical work — the walking to, the dancing at. Constantly adjusting my bad posture. It’s mental work — the middling conversation, if it could be called conversation, the scheming involved in getting a drink, or cutting the bathroom line.
Needless to say, ‘going out’ is not a game I’m good at playing. The dusty, blue-vinyl book I checked out from the library titled “Studies in Game Theory” suggests that the type of game played at a place like Scorekeepers — affectionately referred to as “Skeeps”— can be “non-cooperative” (a competitive social interaction, each player aiming toward their own goals) or “cooperative” (non-competitive, with unknown payoffs).
But if Skeeps is indeed a game, who are the players, their ranks? What defines a win, and what defines a loss?
I don’t have social anxiety, I always begin with as some sort of disclaimer — my mental and physical faculties, though strained by socialization, typically remain intact. But I am easily worn down by long stretches of talking, navigating large groups and maintaining an approachable attitude. I have to force my mouth out of its slack, draw back my shoulders and, well, act.
Breaking my introverted habits by going out to Skeeps, then, required some planning — not just the outfit I should wear, but the personality, too. What kind of things should I say? What kind of tendencies should I adopt? How high should my eyebrows arch, how wide should my smile stretch? There was a long list of choices for the kind of player I could be, each with their own taxing responsibilities. I had no idea what the payoff of playing would be, though I imagined it would resemble something like enjoying myself.
The night arrived. Briefing a trusted band of close friends with my plan to adopt extroversion for the night, I downed a shot and fumbled to lace my shoes. It’s so much easier when I drink, I whisper to my roommate, to say whatever’s on my mind. She eyes me and laughs. Our other friend across the room laughs too, her vocal chords animating her silver pendant inscribed with the word fuckoff.
We arrive downtown at the fashionable hour of 11, taking our place in line. As we wait, I cannot stop thinking about the French word for stranger — l’étranger, phonetically lay-tchron-jay — that stifled gargle so specific to its pronunciation. I play with the word’s letters on my lips and in the back of my throat. How else am I supposed to entertain myself? I stand, fiddling with my rings, asking my friends in random intervals how much longer they think we’ll have to wait under the oppressive, but welcome, overhead heating system. Rain fell.
Once admitted inside, I marvel at the vaulted ceilings as my wrist is pulled towards the coat check table. I shed my jacket, revealing my bare shoulders and a borrowed top. There is no “right way” to be a woman, but it is in these sorts of spaces that I begin to feel as if my shapeless sweater, albeit low-cut, isn’t exactly following dress code. Leather pants swish past me. Tight, animal-print tops populate the dance floor. I eye them all with hardly any subtlety, each returned look an appraisal of my own appearance.
Refreshing ourselves at a countertop, the bartender smiles at my roommate. Was that attraction or charity? I smile at my roommate. “Remember your notes!” She turns to remark, her long hair skimming the top of her drink.
Draining another cup of rum and coke, I find myself declaring loudly, with a few misplaced verbs, about how the word fish is an overgeneralization — we say many animals are fish when they are in fact not fish: jellyfish, crayfish, starfish, cuttlefish, despite their names, are not fish. Which me is saying this completely unessential fact? My mortgaged personality is worn out already. In the refuge of a text conversation, I slink toward the nearest wall. My phone buzzes again: “No wallflowering,” my roommate nags, lovingly.
Might my introversion be a genetic facet of myself that, no matter how much I pretend, I cannot reverse? Research into temperament and personality as innate traits suggests that I could be right. Jerome Kagan, one of the great developmental psychologists of the 21st century, conducted a longitudinal study in which he exposed 4-month-olds to an array of new stimuli: balloons popping, colorful mobiles, foreign scents on cotton swabs. The babies, based on their reactions, were then divided into two groups: high-reactive and low-reactive. Kagan held that the high-reactive group would grow up to be classically introverted, and the low-reactive group classically extroverted. Kagan was determined to follow these children well into development, testing his theory on temperament as an innate reaction to stimuli.
In the throes of their adolescence, the no-longer-babies were brought in for interviews. Did they prefer a few close friends or a large band of them? Were they eager to introduce themselves to people they didn’t know or would they wait for an introduction to happen? Amazingly, Kagan had predicted the temperaments they would develop with incredible accuracy: the low-reactive babies who displayed little concern with the new stimuli were more likely to become calm, assured extroverts, while the high-reactive babies who cried and pumped their tiny limbs at the stimuli were more likely to become reserved, cerebral introverts.
It seems counterintuitive for Kagan to predict a quiet baby to become gregarious and a reactive baby to become reserved. But, what we learn from Kagan’s study is that introversion and extroversion can be genetic preferences for certain levels of stimulation. It’s no wonder, then, if you’re an introvert who might’ve, as a baby, been sensitive to new and unpredictable stimuli, you would feel unnerved by places like Skeeps: neon lights burning blue, overlapping shouts, music you can feel pumping alongside your pulse. The only way I could handle it was with a few drinks in me, and I doubt that I’m alone in using this technique.
The next morning finds us drooling on our pillows, nursing nausea, dread. We recover at Amer’s, auditing the night: “When was that? Where was I?” My friends and I have done it right, I think to myself. This headache is evidence.
The essence of game theory’s application is to determine, or to pin down, various strategies of socialization, or decision making. Strategies like: sidling up to someone waiting to order a drink. Offering to buy someone’s drink. Decisions like: when to leave, when to stay, who to go home with, who to not.
But there are obvious inconsistencies in the application of theories like this in social situations: for one, game theory assumes that every player is rational and aware of the payoffs or consequences of any given situation. Game theory also assumes that everyone will always act in their own self-interest, and not, for example, forfeit their own opportunity to have fun in order to assist a friend who, despite their protesting otherwise, “isn’t doing so well”.
I suppose a loss, then, if I persisted in trying to pin one down, could be any number of missteps, or fumbles in strategy: embarrassing yourself by saying too much, having worn the wrong top, the one that requires a constant readjusting of the strap, tapping the wrong person on the shoulder. Oh God. That’s not that person I thought I recognized from freshman year.
Maybe, I think, and hope, a win requires the plain act of not caring. But not caring is entirely different than pretending — a technique that will require yet another night to test out.
Statement Deputy Editor Taylor Schott can be reached at email@example.com.