Caring For Your Introvert

Caring For Your Introvert

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.

I know. My name is Jonathan, and I am an introvert.

Oh, for years I denied it. After all, I have good social skills. I am not morose or mis­an­throp­ic. Usu­al­ly. I am far from shy. I love long con­ver­sa­tions that explore inti­mate thoughts or pas­sion­ate inter­ests. But at last I have self-iden­ti­fied and come out to my friends and col­leagues. In doing so, I have found myself lib­er­at­ed from any num­ber of dam­ag­ing mis­con­cep­tions and stereo­types. Now I am here to tell you what you need to know in order to respond sen­si­tive­ly and sup­por­t­ive­ly to your own intro­vert­ed fam­i­ly mem­bers, friends, and col­leagues. Remem­ber, some­one you know, respect, and inter­act with every day is an intro­vert, and you are prob­a­bly dri­ving this per­son nuts. It pays to learn the warn­ing signs.

What is intro­ver­sion? In its mod­ern sense, the con­cept goes back to the 1920s and the psy­chol­o­gist Carl Jung. Today it is a main­stay of per­son­al­i­ty tests, includ­ing the wide­ly used Myers-Brig­gs Type Indi­ca­tor. 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.

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. Our mot­to: “I’m okay, you’re okay—in small doses.”

How many peo­ple are intro­verts? I per­formed exhaus­tive research on this ques­tion, in the form of a quick Google search. The answer: About 25 per­cent. Or: Just under half. Or—my favorite—“a minor­i­ty in the reg­u­lar pop­u­la­tion but a major­i­ty in the gift­ed population.”

Are intro­verts mis­un­der­stood? Wild­ly. That, it appears, is our lot in life. “It is very dif­fi­cult for an extro­vert to under­stand an intro­vert,” write the edu­ca­tion experts Jill D. Bur­russ and Lisa Kaen­zig. (They are also the source of the quo­ta­tion in the pre­vi­ous para­graph.) Extro­verts are easy for intro­verts to under­stand, because extro­verts spend so much of their time work­ing out who they are in vol­u­ble, and fre­quent­ly inescapable, inter­ac­tion with oth­er peo­ple. They are as inscrutable as pup­py dogs. But the street does not run both ways. Extro­verts have lit­tle or no grasp of intro­ver­sion. They assume that com­pa­ny, espe­cial­ly their own, is always wel­come. They can­not imag­ine why some­one would need to be alone; indeed, they often take umbrage at the sug­ges­tion. As often as I have tried to explain the mat­ter to extro­verts, I have nev­er sensed that any of them real­ly under­stood. They lis­ten for a moment and then go back to bark­ing and yipping.

Are intro­verts oppressed? I would have to say so. 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.

Extro­verts there­fore dom­i­nate pub­lic life. This is a pity. 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.

Are intro­verts arro­gant? Hard­ly. I sup­pose this com­mon mis­con­cep­tion has to do with our being more intel­li­gent, more reflec­tive, more inde­pen­dent, more lev­el-head­ed, more refined, and more sen­si­tive than extro­verts. Also, it is prob­a­bly due to our lack of small talk, a lack that extro­verts often mis­take for dis­dain. We tend to think before talk­ing, where­as extro­verts tend to think by talk­ing, which is why their meet­ings nev­er last less than six hours. “Intro­verts,” writes a per­cep­tive fel­low named Thomas P. Crouser, in an online review of a recent book called Why Should Extro­verts Make All the Mon­ey? (I’m not mak­ing that up, either), “are dri­ven to dis­trac­tion by the semi-inter­nal dia­logue extro­verts tend to con­duct. Intro­verts don’t out­ward­ly com­plain, instead roll their eyes and silent­ly curse the dark­ness.” Just so.

Mag­a­zine Cov­er image
Explore the March 2003 Issue
Check out more from this issue and find your next sto­ry to read.

View More
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.”

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.

Jonathan Rauch is a con­tribut­ing writer at The Atlantic and a senior fel­low at the Brook­ings Insti­tu­tion. He is the author of The Con­sti­tu­tion of Knowl­edge: A Defense of Truth.

Cyn is Rick's wife, Katie's Mom, and Esther & Oliver's Mémé. She's also a professional geek, avid reader, fledgling coder, enthusiastic gamer (TTRPGs), occasional singer, and devoted stitcher.
Posts created 4259

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Related Posts

Begin typing your search term above and press enter to search. Press ESC to cancel.

Back To Top