Tuesday, March 23, 2010

An Introvert's Delight

Robyn, Henry, and Erica
A Backyard Introvert Party

My friend Erica and I (introverts have friends! good ones too) have always laughed at how many people's first word choice to describe themselves is "outgoing." It makes her so mad, she put it in her blog profile, which ends with the hilarious line "I just choose to use better adjectives." Besides the stupid fact that whenever someone says this word it's usually with some dialect of Valley Girl up-speak (i'm, like soooo out-go-iiiiing?), we think the way people use the word is also really stupid.

There are some problems here. Outgoing does not necessarily mean extroverted. An introverted person can be "outgoing." How else would they ever get anything published? Or patented? Second, extroversion (the personality type that is always associated with outgoingness, the personality type exhibited by most Americans) is not essentially superior to introversion. In fact, for the sake of science, technology, literature, art, etc, introversion could be said to be the superior personality trait. To judge us by the modern standard of "productivity," we do quite well with our ingoingness. To judge us by a more classical standard of a well-rounded outer life and a healthy inner life, we might still pull ahead of the social butterflies. 60% of the gifted are introverts. Only 25% of the American population are introverts.

So the misunderstood definition problems lead to real life problems when all the extroverts assume that introversion is negative because A) we are not outgoing (an egregious assumption!) and B) we are a minority population, so our actions and behaviors should be judged against the majority's. Instead of two socially acceptable personality types (which is a generalization anyway -- of course there's a spectrum there), we end up with the good personality and the bad personality. And I might add that C) since so many of us are gifted and quiet, we come off as jerks. So now we're really the bad guys.

I've been stuck on Lisa Simpson lately, so I'll use her as my example of an introvert. Plus I think both introverts and extroverts can appreciate the example. Lisa may not have many friends, but that's not only because the writers like to make fun of nerds. They are equal opportunity with most of their approaches to two-sided funny situations, and they are also poking fun at the rest of the Springfield (American?) population for not accepting a Lisa, and for being generally stupid. Lisa is gifted. Lisa is disliked. Lisa spends time in her room alone. Lisa doesn't have constant companionship or a sidekick like Bart does (although he is pretty independent for an extrovert). Lisa worries about her lack of a schoolday social life, but revels in the very opportunities and advancements that set her apart from her peers. Despite her seeming lack of outgoingness, Lisa has fun with her family. She approaches people she admires to ask advice. She talks to grownups and intimidating people. She does get sad sometimes. But she is probably the most balanced character on the show. Despite her freakish intellect (she's supposed to be 8?) I think she is a very realistic portrayal of an introvert at work at life. It is work for us, but we like work.

While doing some sloppy internet research on people's perceptions of introversion, I came across an About.com article by a child psychologist who works with gifted children and their proud yet traumatized parents. She said many of the same things I'm saying here, nothing earth shattering. But a really fun thing she added to the definition was a comment box with a prompt -- "If introverts ran the world..." I was afraid to click on it, thinking lots of extroverts had probably snuck in to tell the introverts what jerks they are! But then I realized they wouldn't take the time to do something like that unless About.com accepts text messaging posts. They wouldn't be looking up information on their personality type in the first place. Anyhow, the responses, mostly by kids, were amazing. The poor things (I shouldn't pity them, but in high school introversion can be as bad for your image as being poor or something. Weee, I got to live with both!). They talked about how they can't get through study hall because everyone is texting and making noise while they write, how "friends" would walk in the door to their homes and call them "antisocial" even after being invited over... and everyone mentioned popularity contests coming to an end if introverts ran the world. And the quiet. They wanted some quiet.

While most of these symptoms clear up or become masked by adulthood, college does provide a second dose of unsolicited bad medicine. Group projects continue. "Greek life" is all the rage (I could never for the Greek life of me figure out what the hell sororities are for and why a university would endorse them). People still dress a certain way and look at you funny if you don't. I was lucky enough to finish undergrad as something closer to a 'grown-up,' so while I was pissed sometimes, I didn't feel too much pressure from anyone. But even in my last semester I felt the extroversion push -- I was embarrassed by the professor in front of a full class. She had offered us the choice of working together or finishing a problem on our own. So naturally I just sat there and started working, like I had in astronomy class a couple years back. I can't do math with other people. Only two of us opted out, and she called us out in turn. She asked me why I wasn't in a group. "I thought it was an option. I can do this faster alone." The stares were awful. They were already mad at me for knowing what a Fibonacci sequence is (jesus, isn't that from fourth grade?). Now I'd really done it.

Now that I've graduated and am trying to get into grad school (I don't know where else I'll fit in...I guess I am still worried about it, even at almost 30), I'm excited by the prospect of meeting more introverts with whom I can socialize. How about that? I would love to go out for drinks (or bowling, or hiking, or shopping -- we do things too) with a small group of people and talk to them in public. Introverts like each other, and some of us yearn for a social life. Certainly we yearn to have some close friends to share our ideas with. And sometimes we even like extroverts, because they're different. But they can be draining. That's one big problem I have with the definition of introvert. It always says we are "drained by being around other people." I think we're drained by being around people who talk a lot without saying anything, who get easily distracted from us and our ideas, and who expect us to hold up our own end of some small-talk and gossip dance. I think we introverts are very often energized by each other, even if we still need our alone time.

Next week I'm going to New York (The Bronx -- I love places that start with "The") to visit Erica, my fellow introverted thought-recorder. We have a time together. We talk to strangers together. We wander neighborhoods, make fun of people, eat out, visit libraries, write things together. We're smartypants together, but we laugh too often to look like a pair of nerds. She is probably a little closer to the middle of the spectrum than I. She initiates the stranger-danger conversations, gets people to buy drinks for her, etc. It's an adventure to do those things while all your thoughts are internally focused. Kind of like watching yourself. So even when we live out, we're still sort of living in.

Here's what happened last time I visited Erica, when we turned down an invite out to sit home and co-write a language gripe.

I'd thought of titling this post "Against Extroversion" but that's mean and polemical. Besides, if not for them, we wouldn't have as many people to poke fun at, we wouldn't be exceptional, and we would have lots more people trying to be friends with us (because they'd be like us), which would just be a pain in the ass. Yeah I said it.

Finally, I know there are introverts who give "living in your head" a bad name. I bet most crazy people were introverts before they snapped. I'll have to look that one up. But like I said about Lisa Simpson, being an introvert is work if you want to live a well balanced life, outside the asylum. (My friends and I are also guilty of making fun of fellow introverts who don't do the work.)

So we work. I never do things I don't want to do, like adopt a stupid fashion or talk to someone I loathe. (Frank Sinatra sarcastically said it best, "She never bothers with people she hates/That's why the lady is a tramp.") But I do push myself to have some kind of social life, to not neglect my friends even if they might be appearing to neglect me (not out of lack of care, but out of being caught up in their own heads like I am, not knowing what to say or not say, or being intermittently swamped with recording and working with the fruits of their thinking), and never allow myself to be labeled as shy or use my sometime quietness as an excuse not to speak up for my own interests. This is all work, but it makes life rich. It makes friendships meaningful. It makes creativity amount to something. And to borrow a word from extrovert vocabulary, in many ways this work leads to our own special kind of success.

immediate UPDATE:
I'm getting pretty excited about my trip now, and I just thought of another reason we intro nerds like to be around each other. Some of us are funny, and the only people who will laugh at some of the things we say are the other Lisa Simpsons. For instance, E and I joke that the way to get a guy to stop listening to you (if for some reason he's already listening) is to say "In the Renaissance..." We also enjoy linguistics and philosophy jokes, which are the best. Humor seems to be a very social thing. I realize now it might be the most social thing about some of us. Well, except the whole "writing things for other people to look at" thing. But that's just introversion pumped through a converter of sorts. There you have it.


  1. I had never read your post about our list we made last time you visited. It made me laugh, especially the part about "course". I like this post too, and I can't wait to see you. Imagine the lists we can make this time!

  2. Course!!! Of course! I could not remember what the word was when I read the old post. I just knew it was funny and it meant "to masterbate." That's a good'n.

  3. HA and I still don't know how to spell "masturbate." Some words you just try not to look at.

  4. Great post. I think that introverts can be quite extraverted if they are with like minded people. i can seem to be the poster child for extraversion when conversing on issues that I find interesting and compelling.

    But please no small talk or gossip. That is so draining! Actually there was some research done recently (read about it in the London Times) which said that a big contributor to happiness and well being is having deep, meaningful conversations on a regular basis. And that small talk had the opposite effect.

    How interesting is that? But I gathered that years ago!

    I wonder though if introverted men have an easier time of it than women. Women are meant to be the social connectors and personally I think that a woman is more likely to be seen as aloof and cold if she is intraverted.

  5. Hey.. I know this is like two years later, but I thought in case you haven't already, have a look at Jung's psychological types. I mean it's a huge book but have a look at a couple of chapters that deal specifically with the introvert/extravert thing. The stuff on early gnosticism in relation to all that is also really interesting but you seem v busy.. but yeah I think you'd enjoy it. Cleared up a lot of stuff for me.

    By the way, I think your blog is fantastic, I discovered it a few days ago and love it. I also want to be a Miltonist one day.

    Sincerely, Anna


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