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.

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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 a proud Mommy & Mémé, professional geek, avid reader, fledgling coder, enthusiastic gamer (TTRPGs), occasional singer, and devoted stitcher.
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