Thursday, September 13, 2012

Explaining introverts

This is a nice introduction to us introverts for those of you who are extroverts and don't quite understand us, or to fellow introverts that could help explain your own behavior and why you shouldn't feel awkward.

Do you know someone who needs hours alone every day? Who loves quiet conversations about feelings or ideas, and can give a dynamite presentation to a big audience, but seems awkward in groups and maladroit at small talk? Who has to be dragged to parties and then needs the rest of the day to recuperate? Who growls or scowls or grunts or winces when accosted with pleasantries by people who are just trying to be nice?

If so, do you tell this person he is "too serious," or ask if he is okay? Regard him as aloof, arrogant, rude? Redouble your efforts to draw him out?

If you answered yes to these questions, chances are that you have an introvert on your hands—and that you aren't caring for him properly.

I certainly do and have been accused of doing those things. I'll talk your head off if I know you and we are alone. But if I'm in a group of people I'll barely get a word in.

Introverts are not necessarily shy. Shy people are anxious or frightened or self-excoriating in social settings; introverts generally are not. Introverts are also not misanthropic, though some of us do go along with Sartre as far as to say "Hell is other people at breakfast." Rather, introverts are people who find other people tiring.

I can find anyone tiring given enough time with them. As crazy as it sounds, I'd probably get tired of Joss Whedon, Kristin Kreuk, James Madison, and Sarah Michelle Gellar after a while. Granted, I have a really short fuse with people I don't like or don't know. But I need time away from even people I love.

For one thing, extroverts are overrepresented in politics, a profession in which only the garrulous are really comfortable. Look at George W. Bush. Look at Bill Clinton. They seem to come fully to life only around other people. To think of the few introverts who did rise to the top in politics—Calvin Coolidge, Richard Nixon—is merely to drive home the point. With the possible exception of Ronald Reagan, whose fabled aloofness and privateness were probably signs of a deep introverted streak (many actors, I've read, are introverts, and many introverts, when socializing, feel like actors), introverts are not considered "naturals" in politics.

I'm often asked if I want to run for office someday. And I often respond with the fact that I don't think I have the personality to do it. But as I read this article and learn that Obama is an introvert, I'm beginning to warm to the idea, or at least that it would be possible. We certainly seem to need more introverts in politics and in positions of power across society.

In our extrovertist society, being outgoing is considered normal and therefore desirable, a mark of happiness, confidence, leadership. Extroverts are seen as bighearted, vibrant, warm, empathic. "People person" is a compliment. Introverts are described with words like "guarded," "loner," "reserved," "taciturn," "self-contained," "private"—narrow, ungenerous words, words that suggest emotional parsimony and smallness of personality. Female introverts, I suspect, must suffer especially. In certain circles, particularly in the Midwest, a man can still sometimes get away with being what they used to call a strong and silent type; introverted women, lacking that alternative, are even more likely than men to be perceived as timid, withdrawn, haughty.

I am those things, at least some of the time. And while I understand how they can be perceived as bad things, they shouldn't be, at least not all the time and in all circumstances. It might go against what introverts are wired to do. But at least some of us should speak out more about our differences and explain that those differences don't have to be bad things.

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