August 12, 2018

Social Hermit: A Personal Definition

The photos accompanying this post are of places and campsites that held particular appeal due to their solitude or the feeling of quiet contentment they evoked.  Enjoy!

In previous posts, I’ve mentioned the fact that I consider myself a “social hermit.”  While I won’t necessarily claim credit for coining the term, I have to admit that it’s not a phrase I’ve heard uttered by anyone other than myself or my husband, Alan.  (I’m pretty sure he’d be classified as a social hermit, too, but I’ll leave it to him to conduct his own psychological evaluation.)  Since I’m aware that those two words – social hermit – can conjure up an image in people’s minds of a guy of indeterminate age with a long, shaggy beard who lives by himself in a shack in the woods, bathes in a creek and has no contact with the outside world, I thought it might be a good idea to share with you my personal definition of social hermit in order to dispel that myth.  Because, really, I don’t look or live anything like that.  And, although we may not be consciously aware of it, an individual’s personality can have a major impact on his or her travel style, as well as the activities he or she enjoys. 

When I was a kid, children like me were called “shy.”  These days, “introverted” seems to be the term of choice.  It’s almost like society has a need to label people and fit individuals into neat little pigeon holes.  But personalities (like skin tones) are not simply black or white.  There are many different shades in between.  Sometimes society seems to forget that and, if you don’t fit into one of those little pigeon holes, it doesn’t know what to do with you.

Glacier National Park
My Mom was born into a large, close-knit, Italian family.  Her life revolved around family and food and, due to the fact that our home was centrally located, there were always friends or family members stopping by to visit.  When she wasn’t serving visitors coffee, home brewed iced tea and fresh from the oven baked goods, Mom was often simmering a pot of pasta sauce to share or planning a birthday or holiday dinner.  My friends were happy to get together at my house because my Mom always made them feel welcome and she enjoyed their company as much as I did.  As far as Mom was concerned, the more the merrier.  Until the day she died, my mother swore that I intentionally blew my high school grade point average so that I wouldn’t have to give a speech at graduation.  (Just for the record, I didn't.)  The valedictorian was required to speak; the salutatorian had the option, so I said no.  I don't think she ever forgave me - and we had a wonderful relationship!  She also could never quite comprehend how I could possibly develop a two day training program on hiring skills that I presented to groups of bank managers in three different divisions of the large federal savings bank for which I worked.  Even my Mom (who I considered one of my best friends for much of my life) had a hard time understanding me because our personalities, while similar in many ways, were different in key areas.

I believe my Dad and his family lived in difficult circumstances when he was young; he and his siblings wouldn't talk much about their home life or their background.  They didn’t share family stories like my Mom’s family did and there were never weekly BBQ’s or Sunday dinners on that side of the family, although my father often spent a few hours on Sunday afternoons visiting his sisters and my grandmother.  My Dad was a good host whenever Mom invited guests over - manning the grill, making sure guests had refreshments, never complaining about the clean up afterward – but when he’d had enough, you could find him sitting quietly in the basement, alone with his cigarette and a bottle of beer.  Although my Dad was happy to drive my mother and me wherever we needed to go, he was most often content to wait in the car while we ran our errands or picked up the groceries.  He was most comfortable at home with his family, didn’t go out with friends on a Friday night and didn’t like to travel.  He never said much, but rumor has it that he cried at our wedding.

North-South Lake - New York

Thanks to my mother, I developed a deep well of empathy for others, a solid sense of optimism and my love for family and friends.  These traits may have come to me through nurturing rather than through nature, and I know either is possible.  But it was from my father that I believe I inherited the essence of who I am – that social hermit who most people just can’t seem to pigeonhole. 

For those of you in my circle of friends and family who are more extroverted that I am, let me assure you that it’s not that I don’t like you (or love you) – I do.  But I like you best in small doses – as in let’s opt for salad and pizza for four rather than a 20 person family dinner – because it’s much easier for me to cope with fewer people and I truly do love get-togethers like that.  I’ve never attended a high school or college reunion (and don’t intend to), but I had a wonderful time when the guys and gals in my group of high school friends had a reunion of our own a couple of years ago.  It was absolutely delightful and I’d jump at the chance to attend another one in a heartbeat.  It’s difficult to explain, but being with a larger group of people (like a school function, a wedding reception or even grocery shopping on Friday afternoons when our town starts to busy-up for the weekend) stresses me both physically and mentally.  A phrase that’s quite well used between Alan and me when we’re at the end of our respective ropes in town is, “Time to head for the hills.”  Literally, the mountains are our sanctuary.

Watchman Campground - Zion National Park

Our son, Ryan, is a man of few words.  Very few words.  When presented with a one of my best landscape photos or a spiffy new tool of Alan’s, he will (invariably) respond, “Very nice.”  That’s it, just “very nice.”  If we said . . . “Hey, Ry, we just bought this brand new, incredibly gorgeous Corvette!  What do you think?” Ryan would say, “Very nice.”  [Perfect example:  about an hour after I wrote this paragraph, Ryan stopped by, and Alan and I showed him the proposed design for a new sign for our rental property.  Guess what Ryan said.  Yup.  “Very nice.”]  Conversely, our daughter, Kyra (who, remember, is adopted) wouldn’t be able to get her response to a new Corvette out quick enough.  I would expect to hear . . . “A Corvette?  Wow!  That’s great!  What color is it?  When are you taking it out?  Can I go?  Can I drive it?  What does the inside look like?”  The difference between the two of them is amazing and they were both raised in the same house by the same parents who love them both dearly.  Nature, for sure.

In addition to being a social hermit, I also have a slight tendency toward obsessive-compulsive traits.  (Here we are, back to labels.  Sigh.)  Neither of these issues has ever affected my happiness in life nor my success in the workforce.  In fact, I have been exceptionally happy in my personal life and was respected and appreciated by my former employers for the quality of my work and my diligent efforts.  When I began my career in banking, I started out in the accounting department.  It was a perfect fit because numbers don’t stress me out the way people do, no matter how many there are or how many zeros they have at the end.  At the time our small, local bank was acquired by the large federal savings bank I ended up working for, staff needed to be moved around to cover gaps in particular areas.  I switched over to Human Resources for the second part of my banking career and, believe it or not, it was a good fit.  Due to my Mom’s fine example, I excelled at interpersonal relationships.  But here’s the rub – it didn’t come naturally.  I had to work at it.  Getting along easily with people was not a personality trait I possessed; it was a skill I developed.  I developed it so well that, if I wasn’t explaining my true personality to you, you wouldn’t believe I was a social hermit.  As with any skill, the more you practice, the better you get and the more comfortable you become.  Over the years, I’ve successfully worked with the general public and genuinely enjoyed collaborating with my colleagues to achieve business objectives.  So, I don’t have a problem with me, and I hope you don’t either.

Great Sacandaga Lake - New York
The facts are that I enjoy my solitude, don’t like the crush of crowds and prefer the sounds of waves crashing along the shoreline to the music from a band playing at the local bar – and our travel lifestyle reflects those preferences.  While you might think that cruising on a large ship with 2,000 other passengers would send me over the edge, in fact, it does the opposite.  It’s much easier to find anonymity among thousands of people on a ship than to deal with the intimacy required for cruising on a small boat with a hundred passengers.  I can easily move along the buffet line of a large ship without making eye contact with anyone and choose a table away from the crowd that will seat just the family.  On a smaller ship, I might find myself seated with my neighbors from the next two cabins and be required to engage in small talk throughout dinner.  (Please, just shoot me now.)  Do you see the difference?  For an “extrovert” (Label alert!  Label alert!), there would, most likely, be delight in meeting someone new followed by an hour long conversation in which personal details were easily and relentlessly traded.  For a social hermit like me, that would be excruciating – like cutting the lawn with nail scissors - unless it was a meeting that I had arranged or that I had agreed upon and was looking forward to.

My preference in hotels is similar to that of cruise ships.  Give me the biggest one you can find, show me where the side doors are and tell me how early I can get in for the breakfast buffet.  I will never say “never” but, unless I’m in dire straits, you won’t find me in a Bed & Breakfast.  Share meals or – worse yet – living quarters with the hosts?  No way, not me.  Alan and I aren’t even comfortable staying with family or friends, no matter how close we are to them.  We need our space and our privacy, but we also are extremely conscious of not invading anyone else’s space and privacy.  It’s difficult for us, even if they welcome it.

Madison Campground - Yellowstone National Park

When it comes to flying or driving, it’s driving for us, hands down.  I’m not afraid to fly and Alan actually finds it fascinating, but traveling in a crush of passengers whether at the airport or on the plane, is just not our cup of tea.  If we have to fly, we will.  If we’re able to drive, well, that’s just so much better – the open road, music and books to share, conversations that can’t be overheard by the people around you – yes, yes!  Bring it on!

So, by now, I imagine it’s no surprise to you that traveling by RV is, for us, the best thing since sliced bread.  No, wait.  It’s the best thing since EZ-Pass and air-conditioning.  There, that should explain just how awesome it is.  To be able to visit friends and relatives anywhere in the country and then go “back home” at the end of the day is heavenly.  To have a campsite with a magnificent view and neighbors who are a good distance away and behind those trees over there, well, that’s just about perfect.  My husband beside me, my own bed, my own bathroom, the foods that I like, a place for my books and room for my kids and bonus kid to sleep, miles of asphalt, days full of adventures, nights full of peace, quiet and the smell of wood smoke . . . It’s a life that allows this social hermit to sigh with contentment.

Lake Michigan at Manistee Campground - Huron-Manistee National Forest - Michigan
When Alan and I are traveling, we don’t usually sign up for group tours, dine at restaurants that serve “family style” or choose public transportation options for getting around.  Our vehicles are like second and third homes to us.  They allow us the freedom to come and go as we choose, to linger over a meal after a tour bus would have already departed, to escape to our own quiet contemplations and avoid the steady undercurrent of others’ conversations.  We’ll paddle on a quiet lake, take to a bike trail early in the day or walk hand-in-hand at the edge of the ocean and enjoy these activities immensely.  Give us bacon and eggs on a bagel, a good cup of coffee and a bench in the park and we’re delighted.  We’ll opt for an off-peak meal in a family restaurant or a diner to avoid the crowds rather than a romantic dinner in an exclusive hot spot because there’s just too much attention that needs to be showered upon well-paying patrons.  But, you wonder, don’t we love sharing activities with friends and family members?  You bet we do, and those adventures can be anywhere – even someplace as jam-packed as Disneyworld – and it wouldn’t matter because our focus is on spending time and sharing a slice of life with those we keep close at heart.  Life is all about priorities.

Alan and I agree that we seem to march to the beat of a different drummer.  But we also agree we wouldn’t have it any other way.  We achieved our life’s goals:  remaining debt-free to the extent possible, retiring early, raising our children with the time and devotion needed to ensure they grew up safe, secure and with the knowledge that love never ends, and enjoying travel adventures and experiences throughout our lives that opened our eyes and those of our children to the incredible wonder and magnificent beauty of our grand and glorious country.  Ask any social hermit and he or she will tell you . . . Being alone does not mean being lonely; enjoying solitary pastimes does not make for a solitary life; and stepping off the crowded path does not mean you lost your way.  

Acadia National Park

“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life.
Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking.
Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice.
And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and your intuition.
They somehow already know what you want to become.
Everything else is secondary.”
                                        ~ Steve Jobs


  1. What a well-considered paean to the pleasures that can be gained from solitude and the introspection it affords. I, too, was terribly shy until my forays into business managerial roles forced me into leadership training and speaking before groups. But I fully understand and appreciate the fulfillment and winsomeness of an uncluttered life. On the other hand, we love the friendships we have cultivated (we're very picky), so I suppose it's all a matter of balance, isn't it? And who's to say where the fulcrum is to be placed? I think we've both got it about right! Nice piece, Mary.

    1. Thank you, Mike! I think you hit the nail on the head with your comment, "Who's to say where the fulcrum is to be placed?" Indeed and amen!

  2. Thank you so much for this wonderful post and sharing this information about yourself. You wrote about ME. The only difference between us is that my husband is an extrovert X2. Over the years, he has come to understand and indulge my need for solitude and quiet time, and in return he has the freedom to pursue social activities and people-time when I'm not up for it. So far, so good!

    1. Thanks for your comment, Leslie! It's so intriguing to me how social activities drain some of us and recharge others. The world would be a much nicer place if more people practiced the empathy and tolerance you and your husband share - good for you!

  3. Oh indeed, you and I do have a lot in common. I can so relate to just about everything you said here. My husband is the opposite though and definitely a social extrovert. I will admit, this RVing lifestyle has pulled me out of my shell and folks that have met me would never call be shy or introverted. But then again, it's always small groups or just another couple that we're meeting. The big RV rallies hold no appeal to me.

    1. Okay, so when our paths finally do cross, we're going to grab coffee at McDonald's, find a picnic table in the park and talk about our kids, right? I do find, too, that it's easier to make connections among fellow RVers simply because of the common ground. I'll bet we all enjoy talking about our rigs, our adventures and our favorite places, so it's not as difficult (for me, anyway) as trying to make small talk at a party.

    2. Agree - you're on �� Now to find that McDonald's that isn't 1,000 miles (or more) away!

  4. The title of your post caught my eye. I'm currently reading "The Stranger In The Woods: The Extraordinary Story Of The Last True Hermit" by Michael Finkel. When Christropher Knight was "discovered" in the woods, he had been essentially without human contact for ~25 years. The authorities attempted to label him. I'm finding it a very interesting read. Like you, I crave solitude. I've just returned from a week away with 6 others. I'm relishing my time alone at home now. It's not unusual for me to spend 5-6 days at home without having face-to-face contact with anyone. I don't feel lonely when I am alone.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Mona. It sounds like "The Stranger in the Woods" would be quite an intriguing read. I give you a LOT of credit - I don't think I would even attempt to spend a week away with 6 other travelers, and I can only imagine your sigh of relief when you arrived home to the peace and quiet. (I can tell you that, if it were me, I would have been breathing a HUGE sigh of relief!)

      Interestingly, when our son was in first grade, his teacher contacted us because he wasn't playing with other children at recess. I asked if he was working cooperatively with others when he was asked to and was told yes, that was no problem. So I followed that with a simple request, "Then please, just leave him alone." While I do agree that social connections are a necessary part of life for a variety of reasons, being content with our own company is actually something that I consider a blessing. Like you, I don't feel lonely when I'm alone - I guess we're just very good company for ourselves, aren't we?!


Comments are encouraged and appreciated, so please do join the conversation!