When I was a little boy, I once lost my voice suddenly. Since I was a rather sickly child, my parents consulted all kinds of doctors until one told them, "He just talks too much for his age. His vocal chords can't handle it. Let him be quiet for a few days. He'll be fine."
That was exactly what happened.
But somewhere along the line, that extra-talkative boy became much quieter, shyer, ill-at-ease at large gatherings where he was expected to be social, bookish -- a classic introvert. Most people didn't really notice, however, because aunties and uncles just thought I was well-behaved in a children-are-seen-not-heard kind of way. I learned to mask it by taking part in the school debate teams and quizzes. It wasn't difficult because contrary to the introvert stereotype, I was not afraid of public speaking. Those weren't ways to force myself to be more extroverted, but they were ways to not come across as a loner to the world. Loner was confused much too easily with loser in the rough-and-tumble schoolyard.
I was popular, had a tight-knit group of friends, but was just as happy to hang out on my own making up word games in my head or building my model Asterix Gaulish village. My idea of horror was a random family friend visiting with their son, a kid who was a perfect stranger, and being forced to play with him while the parents chit-chatted.
I don't know why I grew up an introvert, but I knew for sure that wasn't a desirable thing to be. Just the adjectives used to describe introverts and extroverts made that crystal clear.
As Jonathan Rauch writes in a landmark essay for The Atlantic:
"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.
Now the tables are turning. The introvert is striking back. The Introverts Rights revolution Rauch talks about (half-jokingly?) might well be upon us.
There is a rush of books with titles like Quiet:The Power of the Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking. Or The Introvert's Way: Living a Quiet Life in a Noisy World. Susan Cain, the author of Quiet, gave a Ted talk that racked up a million views faster than any other Ted video.
It's almost as if after years of being in the closet, the introvert is coming out with a vengeance. And it's almost cool to be a little bit of an introvert. Once we were exhorted to win friends and influence people, now we are being told to celebrate Introvert Power: Why Your Inner Life is Your Hidden Strength.
There's no other way I can explain the latest hugely popular "23 Signs You're Secretly An Introvert" from Carolyn Gregoire on The Huffington Post. Within a day of being posted it racked up over 103,000 Facebook likes.
"Not sure if you are an innie or an outie? See if any of these 23 telltale signs of introversion apply to you," the article points out chirpily.
Well, you'd better hope they do, because while an extrovert was once a "people person," now they are the kind who "don't find small talk incredibly cumbersome." (Sign 1). And if "Networking (read: small talk with end goal of advancing your career ) can feel particularly disingenuous for introverts who crave authenticity in their interactions" (Sign 4), what does that say about extroverts?
Basically, an extrovert as defined by these 23 signs is as far as I can tell, a rather shallow person, who chit-chats without making any meaningful conversation, doesn't care about authenticity in interactions, prefers being a jack of all trades and a master of none, can neither see the big picture nor have an eye for details.
Even Bill Clinton wouldn't want to admit to being an extrovert after that.
Luckily for diehard extroverts, if all else fails, there's Sign 9.
When you get on the subway, you sit at the end of the bench -- not in the middle. "We're likely to sit in places where we can get away when we're ready to -- easily," says (Sophia) Dembling (author of The Introvert's Way). "When I go to the theater, I want the aisle seat or the back seat."
Phew! If you prefer an aisle seat or a window seat on an airplane, you've got a secret introvert in you, no matter if you fail all other 22 signs.
This explosion of introversion and its new-found "cool" is immensely puzzling and disorienting to me. Introverts are the last people I'd think of as wanting to invite a horde of strangers into their mindspace. However, Amy Gray has an intriguing explanation in The Sydney Morning Herald -- the Internet.
"The hissing engine that is the Internet runs on four fuels: sex, outrage, cats and introverts," she writes.
The first three are self-evident truths. But the last sounds counterintuitive. After all, the Internet and social media is like a Pride Parade of exhibitionistic extroversion. It's a veritable orgy of sharing-sharing-sharing.
But Gray writes that the Internet is also the introvert's natural environment because it's:
... where conversations can be staged, staggered and stopped at their discretion -- all from a distance. Thoughts can be edited to perfection, solitary hobbies and pursuits can be meticulously researched before being shared online, friendships maintained without the obligation to meet face to face ... plus it's never been easier to uncover other introverts and forge friendships without the inconvenience of meeting.
Social media, in fact proves that introverts aren't misanthropic. As Rauch writes they just might agree with Sartre that "Hell is other people at breakfast." But a status update while sipping your coffee and eating your toast can be just fine.
As the Internet has taken off, introverts have also thrived. And in the process we are discovering that many of us are actually not introverts at all but just shy. Shyness is often confused with introversion because they look similar on the outside. As Dembling explains:
The best distinction I've heard comes from a neuroscientist who studies shyness. He said, "Shyness is a behavior -- it's being fearful in a social situation. Whereas introversion is a motivation. It's how much you want and need to be in those interactions."
Bill Gates, for example, is an introvert but not shy. Whereas many of us who look like introverts are actually just shy extroverts.
It's wonderful that introversion is shedding its stigma. I just hope that finding your secret introvert does not turn into claiming a moral superiority because now you think you belong to some kind of elite club or as one introvert puts it "a minority in the regular population but a majority in the gifted population."
Introversion for me was not about wanting to be gifted. I just wanted to build my Asterix village in peace and not have to play with some random boy just because he was my age. That's all, and I don't need 23 signs to tell me that.
Another version of this blog first appeared on Firstpost.com.
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