My tendency is to act like I’ve just been thrown in jail when I’m merging with a group of people I don’t know – whether it’s at the gym, in the grocery store, or in an airport.

Trevor Noah, in his memoir Born a Crime, describes the tactic he and other jail-mates adopted upon entering the communal cell (during his week-long stint there):  “Inside the holding cell nobody says anything. Nobody walks into a jail cell and says ‘Hi guys, I’m Brian’ because everyone is afraid and no one wants to appear vulnerable.”

As I’ve written before (HERE), my tendency to stay to myself – to behave like a new inmate – comes in part from a place of fear. Fear of rejection by a perfect stranger.

My first instinct when pleasantries begin with a stranger is to think:  “The sooner this stranger can not have to talk to me anymore the better. They don’t really want to talk to me. I’m an inconvenience right now.”

That’s what happened in the pool last Friday. I was sharing a lane with a woman whose laps started and ended at the opposite end of the pool from me. That’s the best way for an introvert like me to not have to talk to my lane mate – until my goggles started leaking and I was forced to stop on her end.

“Beautiful day for a swim, right?” she said to me.

“Sure is.” I smiled back.

Her name was Janine, she’d been competing in triathlons for almost 30 years, and she’d signed up for the same triathlon I’m signed up for in July.

“So great to meet you. I’ll look for you at the triathlon,” I said, getting ready to pull my goggles back into place.

“For sure. But I hope we can train together before that!”

She might as well have been a six-year-old, saying to six-year-old me, “Hi, my name’s Janine. Want to play?”

Those two courageous sentences – “Hi, my name’s Jenny. Want to play?” – were so much easier as an excruciatingly timid kindergartener than as the adult I now am.

There’s a great little video (BE MORE US) making its way around social media that demonstrates this so well. In a coffee shop in the UK, children approach solitary adults having their coffees. They approach the adults the same way they’d approach another child they want to make friends with. “My name’s Elizabeth. What’s your name? Where are your friends? Do you like coffee? How much money do you have?”  (Yes, they even dive into those topics they haven’t learned aren’t okay to ask about.)

I inherited much of my disposition from my mom, but she’s got a knack for making friends.  She hates going to the gym, “but I will say,” she admits, “I’ve made some dear, dear friends there. Very close relationships that have lasted through the years. Some of the most down-to-earth, most beautiful women I know. Some of toughest, hurricane- and breast cancer-surviving women. We can go forever without talking and then talk for hours and never skip a beat.”

As an adult, I’ve learned to embrace, not loathe, my introverted-ness. It’s okay to feel overwhelmed with too much socializing. It’s okay to enjoy zoning out in the pool, on my bike, in the produce aisle, or with a book on the couch. It’s okay to take care of me, even at the risk of being misinterpreted.

It’s not okay, though, to operate from a place of fear. Especially when new friends are still as much fun to play with as they were when I was six.


Jenny Pruitt Cleveland is a Content Creator in Nashville, Tenn. She swims, bikes, and runs a lot. In former lives she’s been a middle school teacher, magazine reporter and editor, cycling tour guide, and underwater photographer.