In 2003, Atlantic writer Jonathan Rauch penned an essay entitled “Caring For Your Introvert: the habits and needs of a little-understood group.”
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.
So begins a semi-tongue-in-cheek but heartfelt exposé of a put-upon group, besieged daily by garrulous, chattery people whose idea of a good time is sapping the energy of unwilling conversational partners and who can’t (or refuse to) empathize with the introvert’s condition.
The worst of it is that extroverts have no idea of the torment they put us through. Sometimes, as we gasp for air amid the fog of their 98-percent-content-free talk, we wonder if extroverts even bother to listen to themselves. Still, we endure stoically, because the etiquette books—written, no doubt, by extroverts—regard declining to banter as rude and gaps in conversation as awkward. We can only dream that someday, when our condition is more widely understood, when perhaps an Introverts’ Rights movement has blossomed and borne fruit, it will not be impolite to say “I’m an introvert. You are a wonderful person and I like you. But now please shush.”
So what’s this really all about? Put most simply, introverts lose energy as a result of interacting with people – in particular new people, and in particular small-talk interactions that aren’t moving toward a specific goal – while extroverts gain energy by contact with social packs. (As we’ll get to, shyness and introversion are distinct phenomena.)
Another key factor Rauch touches on is that of extroverts thinking by talking and introverts thinking before talking – which means that a mixed discussion or idea exchange is going to contain a lot more talking than an introvert is comfortable with to come to a fully-formed idea, while the extrovert will be hamstrung by an introvert’s aloofness as ideas are incubated.
COMING OUT OF THE INTROVERSION CLOSET
I had been exposed to the concept of intrinsic introversion before that story came out, and immediately recognized it in myself. Finally it explained why I couldn’t go more than an hour at a party without feeling the need to hide out in the bathroom for five minutes! It was liberating to discover the mechanism of my social exhaustion, and to understand that I didn’t have some bizarre social disease, it was just the way I was built and there were thousands more like me.
Building on that realization, two interesting things came out of my taking the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator questionnaire a few years ago. The first was that I was typed as strongly introverted, confirming my hunch (since confirmed twice more). The second was that nobody I knew believed it.
The combination of two factors:
- My ability to go on at length about subjects of interest and passion
- My keeping a small group of close friends who share my interests
means that most people close to me have spent hours hearing me talk their ears off about one thing or another. So they are flummoxed and probably a bit offended when I tell them what a bother it is to be pinned in conversation.
I’ve come to explain my condition to some of those around me, and have left more than one social event by simply saying, “my E is empty, I’m going home to recharge it.”
(The closet metaphor is not an accident…in an enlightening follow-up interview, Rauch hints at his homosexuality; without a doubt the process of coming to terms with a world not built for your style resonated with him in more ways than one.)
SHYNESS AND BETATUDE
When I first entered high school, I became very shy. I still don’t really understand why – maybe I was afraid of making a bad impression, or sensed people wouldn’t like me for the guy I was, I was a lot more intellectual than most of my classmates at the time (and more than many of them ever got) and I suppose I sensed that it wouldn’t go over well. I had good friends who were alphas of the class – and would have been glad to pull me up – but for whatever reason I never believed I could stand alongside them. Now I know that I could have, and still stay congruent to my personality, but that’s many years of hindsight talking.
In any event, I worked on it, because I wanted things from life I needed to be assertive to get, and I refer to myself as a recovering shy person. (My learning game has only been the most recent step in a decade-long multi-phase social improvement project.)
Shyness is not introversion, a depletion of social energy – it’s an anxiety that you’re not good enough, and that people won’t want to hear what you have to say. Shyness brings with it an emotional sensitivity, a pervasive fear of negative judgment, and runs the gamut in intensity from discomfort to panic. Of course it’s a vicious cycle; when you have that mindset, anything you do say is laced with trepidation and low confidence anyway.
Shyness can also be the result of a fear of agency. My sister went through a shy phase where she offloaded matters of authority on other people, including having me ask waiters to send wrongly-prepared food back to the kitchen because she didn’t want the bother and discomfort.
Likewise, introversion and betatude are not the same thing. The essence of beta (in the Roissy sense and not the Vox Day sense) is secondary social status, manifested in supplication and a resigned conviction of one’s lot in life. There can be extroverted betas, loqacious and energized in their race to the bottom of the social ladder. And introversion doesn’t preclude a high-status personality profile as not all alphas are life-of-the-party types. In fact, one of the alpha stereotypes, that of the brooding, strong silent type, is textbook introversion, and an introverted mindset can allow for the development of mastery in mental pursuits that is part of the alpha persona.
Shyness, however, will fairly readily produce a betatized social status as the person in question can’t adequately assert himself in his social environment. Shy extroverts must the most tortured of all – with a natural need for personal contact, but paralyzed by fear from getting it.
The Smiths’ singer Morrissey made shyness and its associated anxiety a key feature of many of his songs’ tortured characters.
There can also be a sort of “reverse shyness,” a compulsion to constantly interact with people. I dated a woman who exhibited this behavior, she got very anxious if she wasn’t milling in groups on a regular basis; it combined with my natural predilection away from large groups to create many impasses for us.
YOU NEVER CAN TELL
Like my friends couldn’t believe my introverted status, it’s funny how people can be different than you might expect. My boss and mentor at a previous job was a classic mentor/counselor personality – a skilled listener, a polished reader of people, calmly intelligent and committed to his work, and always one to understand the other side before making his case. He blew my mind when he told me he scored extroverted every time. He had taken on behaviors in accordance with his character and ideals, but that didn’t change his fundamental type preference (a preference he filled in his spare time by being on stage as a musician, dancer and public speaker, and leveraged for career success by getting to know everybody in the building).
INTROVERTS, EXTROVERTS AND DATING
The Atlantic solicited reader feedback on introversion and extroversion in relationships. There’s no code to making it work, no prescribed success formula for the I-E balance in a relationship, but the readers’ thoughts were fascinating. Some readers noted that the social expectation of the “extroverted woman, introverted man” stereotype was damaging to couples who didn’t fit that profile; in particular introverted women felt put upon by those assumptions.
ACCEPTING YOUR INTROVERT
Rauch ends with this:
How can I let the introvert in my life know that I support him and respect his choice? First, recognize that it’s not a choice. It’s not a lifestyle. It’s an orientation.
Second, when you see an introvert lost in thought, don’t say “What’s the matter?” or “Are you all right?”
Third, don’t say anything else, either.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to get away from people for a few minutes.