Friday, September 06, 2013

Introverts (Prefer to Remain) Anonymous

Hello.  My name is Jason, and I am an introvert.

I won't wait for any applause or a "Hi, Jason," because I know that my fellow introverts are probably checking their phones and wondering when the meeting will be over.  Any extroverts will just give me an encouraging pity clap, and frankly, I don't need that.

I am standing here today to dispel a few myths about myself and others like me, in the hopes of improving extra-intro relations.

I am not your average introvert, or at least not what you expect one to look like.  I don't work in a darkened cubicle, avoiding eye contact with other human beings and animals and mumbling some unintelligible response when someone speaks to me.  I don't have any weird tics or strange habits that I'm aware of (and I'm sure my wife would tell me).  I manage a group of 50 people and spend most of every day talking to them.  I'm not afraid of public speaking, and have even sought out opportunities on occasion (see IgniteBoulder 7 and IgniteBoulder 11).  I acted in theatre in high school and college. I even have it on good authority that I can even be charming when I want to.

People see me and think: extrovert.  What they don't understand is that extroversion isn't about whether you can interact with people successfully.  It's about whether you prefer it.  Someone else put it this way: extroverts draw energy from their interactions with others.  Introverts spend energy in those same interactions.  It's about where you draw your power from.

This leads me to the first myth I want to discuss today: Introverts don't like people.

Because we don't always seek out personal interaction, other people (especially extroverts) think that we're misanthropes.  Allow me to speak on behalf of all my brothers and sisters and say: we don't dislike you; we just find you exhausting.  I like my coworkers, and I enjoy talking with them and laughing with them, but when I get home at the end of the day, all I want to do is go to a quiet place and recharge.  I am out of words.  My extroverted wife, on the other hand, has plenty of words.  A plethora.  A cornucopia of phrases and exclamations, all waiting to pour forth.  For her, talking is refreshing, a special way of bonding with another human being.  For me, it is work.  I can do it, I can even enjoy it, but I might need a little nap afterwards.

This is why I enjoy tools like Facebook and Twitter.  They offer bite-size interactions at just the right level for me to dip my toe in, see how things are going with my friends, and say hi.  But when I'm tired and can't take any more talking, I don't have to look.  Talk too much or spam me with your Farmville updates, and I can turn down the noise.  Perfect.  Think it's a coincidence that Mark Zuckerberg, the famously awkward billionaire, built Facebook?  I'd say he was building the perfect introvert's social network.

Which brings me to the second myth: Introverts don't make good friends.

Not to be inflammatory, but I have to lay this myth at the feet of the extrovert-industrial complex.  Just because we don't want to keep up with 50 friends at once, or because we have to be prompted to call home once in a while, doesn't mean we can't make friends.  In fact, I would argue that introverts tend to make deeper friendships than extroverts, because we are more careful about whom we expend our energy on.  When conversation is a precious resource, you spend it where it matters most.  In my life, I have tended to have 2 or 3 good friends and a many acquaintances, a pattern I've seen repeated with many other introverts.  The extroverts I've known have tended to have many "best friends" and a wide circle of buddies, acquaintances, and people they'd chatted up in elevators and on planes.  From an energy exchange perspective, this makes sense, too.  If you draw energy from conversation and interaction, you need a wide base from which to draw.  If it feels like I'm comparing extroverts to social vampires, I'm not.  Not really.  It's just physics, man.  Don't blame the math.

Well, that was a little awkward.  It also illustrates the next myth: introverts are socially inept.

I'll admit, if you put me in a room full of strangers I'll be the one over by the hummus, waiting to be excused.  I hate uncertain social situations and will go out of my way to avoid them (thank God for smartphones, by the way: now I can stand in the corner and check my email and people think I'm important instead of uncomfortable).  But put me in a situation where I know where things stand -- be it at work, hosting a party, or even speaking in front of a crowd -- and I'm fine.  I don't have to get through the awkwardness of introducing myself, searching for conversation topics, or trying to be funny.  I can just be me, and that's much easier.  Again, it's all about the expenditure.  Well, that and the shyness.  You have us there: we're shy, but we're perfectly friendly and approachable once you get to know us.  Look: you're the one who loves talking to people.  How about you make the first move?

Finally, I have one more misconception to review: introverts would rather just be left alone.

Actually, you've got us there.  Give us a choice between going out to a party and reading quietly at home, and we'll pick up the book almost every time.  You see, this is where we recharge: in the stillness and the silence.  After we've run our batteries down from a day of talking and socializing, all we need to charge back up is some quiet time.  We don't have to be immobile. In fact, some of the most refreshing times I have found in recent years have been spent hiking on steep trails with just my dog.  Those hikes were physically exhausting, but they were mentally and spiritually invigorating.  In the quiet, I can hear myself think.  In the stillness, I find inspiration that I can grasp before the clamoring voices drive it away.  In not talking, I rebuild the store of words that I will spend tomorrow.

So, my extroverted friends, the next time you see me out on the trails, feel free to stop and say hi.  I'm sure I'll be glad to see you.  Don't be offended if the conversation starts to lag; I may have just run out of words for the day.  And if you see me hanging out by the hummus at the next BDNT meetup, for heaven's sake come over and talk!  Maybe we can work together to improve understanding between our peoples.

Thank you for listening.  If you need me after the meeting, I'll be over by the coffee, checking my phone.





I owe a debt to Jonathan Rauch for his seminal article, "Caring for Your Introvert" which introduced me to the arena of Introvert Apologetics, and which I have shared with my extroverted friends many times in the hopes that they would understand.  If you haven't read it, you should.  Quietly.  To yourself.

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