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. Science has learned a good deal in recent years about the habits and requirements of introverts. It has even learned, by means of brain scans, that introverts process information differently from other people (I am not making this up). If you are behind the curve on this important matter, be reassured that you are not alone. Introverts may be common, but they are also among the most misunderstood and aggrieved groups in America, possibly the world.
It’s true. I was recently called ‘backwards’ for not enjoying parties full of strangers, preferring instead to stay at home with a book and a cup of coffee. I was told I needed to ‘break out of my shell;’ that I’d regret all my alone time when friends and family died. (And apparently strangers, too, because I didn’t go to that party, so I never got the chance to engage in awkward small talk about the weather. And now they’re dead. With whom will I discuss traffic patterns now? — Not to be callous. I’m sure they are lovely people.)
…If we introverts ran the world, it would no doubt be a calmer, saner, more peaceful sort of place. As Coolidge is supposed to have said, “Don’t you know that four fifths of all our troubles in this life would disappear if we would just sit down and keep still?” (He is also supposed to have said, “If you don’t say anything, you won’t be called on to repeat it.” The only thing a true introvert dislikes more than talking about himself is repeating himself.)
With their endless appetite for talk and attention, extroverts also dominate social life, so they tend to set expectations. 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.
That is clearly the perception.
Introverts aren’t going around telling extroverts to ‘retreat into their shell’ or to spend much more time alone than they’re comfortable with. We just ask for the same respect in return. Difference does not equal inferiority of deficiency. I’m tired of being told I need to change in some way.
…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.”
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.