On being an introvert

The other day my friend Andy emailed me a link to Jonathan Rauch’s immensely popular story “Caring for Your Introvert” that The Atlantic published in March 2003. I’d first read it a couple of years ago but I’d forgotten many of the salient points, which bear repeating. As an introvert myself, I always find it a relief to get some validation of my need for alone time and my sense that there wasn’t something just plain wrong with me for finding parties draining.

  • “Extroverts are energized by people, and wilt or fade when alone. They often seem bored by themselves, in both senses of the expression. Leave an extrovert alone for two minutes and he will reach for his cell phone. In contrast, after an hour or two of being socially ‘on,’ we introverts need to turn off and recharge. My own formula is roughly two hours alone for every hour of socializing. This isn’t antisocial. It isn’t a sign of depression. It does not call for medication. For introverts, to be alone with our thoughts is as restorative as sleeping, as nourishing as eating.”
  • “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.” I don’t necessarily agree that being reserved is a narrow, ungenerous characterization, but certainly it takes more time for me to feel comfortable enough to relax and let my full personality shine.

The original story got an excess of 116K “recommends” to Facebook. I take that to mean that all the introverts out there who were keeping to themselves and kind of choking on it finally found a voice with which they could identify, and ran to tell all the puzzled, extroverted people in their lives about it.

Rauch goes on to reveal other insights in the follow-up interview, “Introverts of the World, Unite!” that The Atlantic published in February 2006.

  • Once an introvert gets on a subject that they know about or care about or that intrigues them intellectually…they get passionately engaged and turned on by the conversation. But it’s not socializing that’s going on there. It’s learning or teaching or analyzing, which involves, I’m convinced, a whole different part of the brain from the socializing part.” This would handily explain why I tend to keep pretty quiet unless someone asks me questions about myself and seems to show genuine interest in what I have to say!
  • “[The overwhelming reaction to the piece] suggests that a lot of people have the same experiences you and I do, and that they haven’t had a name for it or a way of understanding it. Having that is very valuable. It tells you how to understand yourself and—maybe even more importantly—it tells you that you’re fine and that, in fact, a lot of the problem is with the rest of the world.” Unlike Rauch, however, who goes on to state that he never actually wished to be an extrovert, I used to wring my heart over wishing I could just be like everyone else—that is, all the extroverts in the world who command parties and hold court in a group setting.
  • “Part of the thrill of this article is that it seems to be helping introverts discover each other. It never occurred to me when I wrote it that there would be so many other people out there with whom this would resonate so strongly. But one of the main points I see over and over again in the mail I’ve been getting is, ‘I’m not alone! There are others like me.’ This sense of empowerment because of not being alone is very important to people. That in itself, to the extent that that takes hold, would be a very important part of correcting the introvert/extrovert imbalance.”
  • “The Internet is the perfect medium for introverts. You could almost call it the Intronet. You know the old New Yorker cartoon with a dog sitting at a computer saying to another dog, ‘On the Internet, no one knows you’re a dog.’ Well, on the Internet, no one knows you’re an introvert. So it’s kind of a natural that when The Atlantic put this piece online, introverts beat a path to it; it’s the ideal distribution mechanism by which introverts can reach other introverts and spread the word.” On the Internet, we introverts can be as chatty as we like; what makes writing such a good medium for us is the time we have to craft what we want to say.
  • “We love people—we’re not misanthropic for the most part. We just can’t socialize with them all the time. We want to hold their hand or hug them or just sit quietly and read a book with them.

You may also be interested in reading Susain Cain’s interview “The Power of Introverts: A Manifesto for Quiet Brilliance” that appeared in Scientific American.

(Introvert/extrovert comic via Pleated Jeans on A Cup of JoThe New Yorker Cartoons dogs comic by Peter Steiner)


5 thoughts on “On being an introvert

  1. Can you be in the middle? When I’m alone, I’m happy for a while, but then I’m desperate for people. When I’m at a party or with a big group, I’m loving it for a while and then feel drained and want to be alone.

    In-Extrovert? haha

    1. I guess it depends on whatever your balance is. Maybe it’s not really one or the other, necessarily, but degrees of? Actually, Leigh, you sort of remind me of Anne Shirley: loves to be alone and dreaming sometimes, but also enjoys happy times with folks. But then, I mean, I do too…much as I enjoy my alone time to recharge, I also go stir-crazy after too much of it, and need my “kindred spirits.” ;)

      I think the big key with articles like this is just in how it recognizes introversion as a quality that’s perfectly okay and just needs to be understood for what it is: Just a different type of trait and not something “wrong.”

  2. I can totally imagine that because, well, I’ve done it! :) Sometimes it can still be a struggle to speak up and have a voice amid the talkers of the world, but I guess for me this blog is a way of asserting that.

  3. I completely understand. I remember at parties in high school and college I would after a couple hours inevitably gravitate to a lonely corner of the house just to sit with myself or if I found one, read a book! Can you imagine? I (and most other people) thought there was something wrong with me but yes, I am one too. The perfect day for me is to sip tea and go through a stack of books and I get irritable if the phone rings and interrupts my perfect day!

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