When writer Jessica Pan hit a self-described low point in her early thirties, she opted for an unconventional remedy: prowling the London underground and asking strangers who the Queen of England was. For Pan, a shy introvert, the prospect of talking to strangers, looking stupid, and being laughed at was terrifying. But that was precisely the point. Psychotherapy researcher Stefan Hofmann, who Pan calls her mentor, encouraged it as a way to overcome social anxiety — to realize the worst-case scenarios breeding fear and avoidance are actually not that bad. It wasn’t just a personal experiment for Pan, who has a BA in Psychology and Literary Arts from Brown University and a Masters in Journalism from RMIT. It led to a witty first-person piece in The Guardian, which led to her second book, out May 28 in the US — a humorous collection called Sorry I’m Late, I Didn’t Want to Come (Andrews McMeel 2019). Over the course of a year, Pan lined up the mentors and misadventures — doing everything from improv to magic mushrooms to attempting more meaningful “deep talk” with people she met — in a bid to “extrovert,” but really, in a bid to be a bit happier. I sat down with Pan to talk about extroverting, vulnerability, and gender. But was it “deep talk”? You decide.
ALYSSA OURSLER: This is your second book. Your first book, Graduates in Wonderland (Avery 2014), you co-wrote with your friend Rachel Kapelke-Dale, who also appears in this one. Do you see the two as related?
JESSICA PAN: I think this is a sequel to Graduates in Wonderland. Graduates in Wonderland covered the time when I was 22 to 25 and I was living in Beijing and then Australia. I was dating and having my first job at a magazine and my friend Rachel was in New York, then in Paris, and was going through similar things. Sorry I’m Late, I Didn’t Want to Come begins when I’m 32, ten years after Graduates in Wonderland began. My life is completely different. Studies say when we’re 25 to 29 we have the most friends we’re ever going to have. And when you’re in the peak of that, you never imagine you’re not going to have those friends anymore. Then, all of a sudden you’re in your early thirties and realize all those things people told me were completely true.
So you’re going to write a book every ten years and then one day you’ll have a collection that looks like the Harry Potter series and say: this is my life.
I love that idea! I like writing about things that are happening in my life even just for myself, even in a journal. Because I think for everyone it really clarifies what you think and what you feel.
It’s like the Joan Didion quote. “We are well-advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, even if we don’t find them very good company.”
For me to even realize what I’m thinking, what I’m feeling, I need to write it down. Maybe the natural thing is another book in ten years, maybe not. But I know that I’ll keep journaling and taking notes. Maybe that’s a part of being an introvert? Because if I’m with people all the time, I don’t know what I’m feeling, I don’t know what I’m thinking, I don’t even understand who I am, so I have to be alone to process that and writing is the best way.
It seems like this balance between being an introvert and an extrovert parallels writing very strongly. On the one hand, writing is this inherently solitary, arguably lonely, endeavor. But then if you’re not doing anything, what are you going to write about?
Growing up I thought: Oh, I can be a writer and be a recluse, or be at home with my books and my dogs and a cozy house.
Which still sounds amazing.
It sounds amazing but I do think that your experiences would be limited. When I meet new people, whether I want to or not, they bring new ideas. They might inspire me. They might disgust me. But they bring a new viewpoint and it’s interesting.
Both your books have been memoirs and you’re teaching a memoir class at The Guardian. I feel like people sometimes have this sense that in order to write a memoir you have to have something outrageous or tragic happen. Like Cheryl Strayed and Wild. You seem more interested in everyday challenges. What informs that focus?
I have always found it fascinating to read both kinds of memoirs. Like Cheryl Strayed. I haven’t experienced that sort of grief yet in my life. I haven’t hiked the Pacific Coast Trail. It was fascinating to me. But I also love memoirs that show me how other people are a person in this world. Especially introverts, we can be in our own heads too much and it’s really nice to see how someone else actually lives their day-to-day. Even the mundane, I find fascinating. We all choose to do it differently. I’m really interested in relationships between people. Making more meaningful connections is not about introverts or extroverts. We’re all people. How are we going to interact with each other?
I loved Emma Gammon’s blurb about the importance of “saying yes in a world of self-care and nights in.” To what degree do you feel like this book was born of a cultural moment as much as this personal one?
I don’t think it was intentional but I think you’re right, it absolutely does feel like a book that could only be done now. And I don’t mean that to be a self-aggrandizing thing. I was 24 when I discovered what being an introvert is. I immediately knew I was an introvert and I felt so much better knowing a third to half of the population feels the same way. But then over the years I used that as a license to say no to all these things. I don’t give speeches. I don’t throw parties. I don’t talk to strangers, because that’s who I am. And I think that can fall under the umbrella of self-care. I just don’t want to confuse self-care and self-coddling.
Speaking of a cultural moment, let’s also talk about gender a bit. You mention loneliness is a greater health threat than heart disease for men.
It’s as unhealthy as smoking.
And there was recently that Harper’s Bazaar piece about middle-aged men not having friends, and Jared Sexton Yates published a book on toxic masculinity and tweeted that he’s been getting death threats from men because he’s talking about vulnerability. With men especially, loneliness is a really important topic. But, at the risk of reinforcing gender binaries and stereotypes, I feel like the book is probably marketed more towards women. You’re in the women’s magazine of The Telegraph, for example. How do you think we get more men into the conversation?
I don’t think this is a book for women. Everything I talk about is something that we all as humans live through. But I think inevitably it will be swept under the rug as a women’s memoir, which I think is incredibly disappointing. I wish I knew how to get more men to talk about it. I think what I did on a very grassroots one-to-one level is, when I met men and I felt like we had a little bit of rapport, I would try to go into “deep talk” with them.
I talk about this one guy who I met at improv. We were walking back afterwards and I asked him: “Could you tell me about when you’ve been lonely? Or, are you lonely now?” Because he had just moved back to London after living abroad for a few years. And he said, “I don’t want to answer that right now. Can I text you later?” And I said sure. And he had that sad response. He said: “I feel lonely all the time when I’m not at improv. I’m always lonely.”
I do think it is a very “human condition” thing. Everybody wants friends. It almost shouldn’t be gendered at all, but the world we live in is gendered, and loneliness disproportionately affects men because of that. Most of the women I know are very honest — at least my close friends are — about how hard it is to make friends at this stage in life. We’re watching the Brené Brown Netflix special and texting each other about it. And that’s great. Then you read the Harper’s Bazaar piece and I wish men were watching the Brené Brown special together and reading books like this and I get the sense that a lot aren’t.
I think what makes me sad about this being marketed as a women’s-only book is that I think men need it more. Like you said, women, research says, are better are making friends, at “deep talk,” at making connections. I wish more men — well, maybe they are. I wish marketing thought more men would be open to this. I think it’s slowly changing, in that, I was having ramen and this guy who looked [like a] traditionally masculine, cis, white male sat down and [he was reading] Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly. I couldn’t believe that but I loved it.
And then you tried to talk to him and he was like, “Uh, just trying to eat my ramen and read Brené Brown, get out of my face. This extrovert over here!”
Exactly! I harassed him but he was good. He didn’t need me. He was reading the book.
While we’re talking about gender, in the book, you’re married, you are in a happy relationship, and you admit that it’s not quite enough. So it very subtly undercuts this narrative that we tell women — that marriage, that someone else, will complete you. How much was that something you wanted to convey?
I just think it was a reality. You’re right, I am married. I am happily married. I’m super in love with my husband. But I think that it’s dangerous to tell women, or men, or whoever, that your partner should complete you because no one person can complete any other person. We need other people. It’s always important to keep discovering more about ourselves and testing our limits.
My best friend and I discuss this a lot. We are aware that your partner can’t or shouldn’t be your everything. But that idea is so subtly prevalent that we have both found ourselves being disappointed by the person we were seeing. I liked that in the book you were weren’t ever saying: well, it’s obviously his fault that I’m not fulfilled right now. You immediately look outside of that.
And it’s not a journey to look for romantic love, which I feel like is normally how women get pushed into memoir writing — make it more about dating and finding love and the bow at the end. Although, I do think if you are dating and looking for love, I empathize more with how hard it is to put yourself out there and how tiring it is. When I was going on the blind friend dates and I was meeting women that I didn’t have a connection with, I felt like something is wrong with me, or that there is no person for me out there.
Has it stuck? Do you still extrovert? Are you still happy?
I think the thing that really stuck with me was the “deep talk,” “surface talk” thing, which I think about in basically every conversation I have. The habit of thinking, I don’t want to go deep in this because this is my accountant, or, I’m trying to go deep because someone keeps talking about the weather or admin or things that are just mind-numbingly boring.
The other thing that’s changed is that I have a lot less social anxiety. I had a tendency, because I was saying no to things or staying in or it was winter — whatever reason I was telling myself — every event I got invited to, I would build it up in my head as this scary thing: I’m not going to like the people or they’re not going to like me or we’re going to have nothing in common and it got scarier and scarier. So I said no to more and more things and it became this self-fulfilling prophecy. But making myself do things that normally I would never want to do — perform standup comedy or talk to strangers on the tube and ask them dumb questions — I found people were nicer and kinder in every situation. I don’t have that social anxiety about talking to strangers anymore. Honestly, that is huge. For instance, in that [writing] class where we met: before the book, I wouldn’t have sat near the front. I would have said nothing. I wouldn’t have talked to you.
You slid into my DM’s after we met in this class and asked if I wanted to go to a networking event. After I read the book, I thought: None of that would have ever happened before this year!
Absolutely none of it would have happened! I think it’s interesting to see how much can change from meeting one person. The research says it’s your weak ties that you bring you the most opportunity.
I’ve thought about that a lot since I read it. It’s really interesting.
It is! Because if you only are talking to people you know really well, they all read the same things, they watch the same things, they know the same people. If they had an amazing opportunity, you’d already know about it.
But if you don’t want to go to a networking event, I say no to things all the time still…
Yeah, boundaries are good.
Boundaries are still important.
But when you do go, you never know if you’re going to meet someone who’s going to help you or might just be your friend or who you can help. You have no idea. I also don’t want people to think that what I’m saying is: introverts should become extroverts, or we need to change. I was an unhappy introvert, so I wanted to live as a different person for a year to see what would happen. Sometimes I get feedback, as with The Guardian piece, like: Just be yourself! And that’s fine, but I don’t really know what that means. Sometimes we don’t know what we want or like until we try it. I had no idea I would like improv.
I thought overall this idea that labels can be really useful to understand ourselves and others, but they can also put you in a box was really interesting. I like that idea: it’s good to label, it’s good to do your homework, but also to leave some openness to change.
And also: no one is completely introverted or extroverted. Just because we feel like we fit into one category, it doesn’t mean that we have to be tied to living the same life.
Do you still do improv?
I want to do it again! I need to do it again. It was so fun! And before I thought that would be the worst thing. Sometimes we’re very bad judges of what we’re going to like.
What are you working on now? A stand-up comedy routine?
I think I want to write a novel. But I don’t know how to do that and that scares me. I’ve also, like you said, written two memoirs and my parents read them and it is this agonizing experience and I’d just like to write fiction for once. Not that I wouldn’t do another memoir.
My parents have always said to me, “Why don’t you just write fiction?” I always reply, “This is too good to make up!” Do you not think the world is fascinating? Do you not know how weird we are?
I’ve thought that too. You’re totally right: truth is stranger than fiction. When I had to go on the Tube and ask people: “Excuse me, I forgot, is there a Queen of England and if so, what is her name?” When I asked that first guy and he told me the Queen of England is called Victoria — I could never have written that! That sounds made-up. But it’s absolutely not. Then it happened again! I didn’t see that coming, which was great. None of this stuff I saw coming.
Alyssa Oursler is a writer from Maryland. You can find her on Twitter @alyssaoursler.