Sophia Dembling is the author of THE INTROVERT'S WAY: Living a Quiet Life in a Noisy World ($14, Perigree)
Chances are you only think you can pick the introvert out of the crowd.
You might think that because I am confident speaking in public, enjoy throwing parties, and can talk to just about anyone, I couldn't possibly be an introvert.
But I am.
A lot of people have the wrong idea about introversion and confuse it with shyness. But shyness and introversion are not the same. As described by one neuroscientist I spoke to, shyness is behavior: acting fearful in social situations. Introversion is motivation: low drive to participate in social situations. So while shy people might want to socialize but find it intimidating, introverts have the skills but can take or leave socializing.
Also, you can overcome shyness if you want. Introversion seems to be hardwired, and it doesn't need to be overcome. It's fine as it is.
You can be shy and introverted, but you also can be not shy and introverted. (Same with extroversion. Shy extroverts have a hard time of it.)And introversion-extroversion, like other traits, exists on a continuum; you can be very introverted (or extroverted) or just a little.
Jung defined introversion in terms of energy: Extroverts are energized by time with other people, introverts are drained by it and crave copious time alone. While this theory lacks any empirical backing (what is this "energy" and how do we measure it?), introverts know what it means. Science will just have to catch up.
Because I'm not shy and I do a fair amount of socializing, you might not guess I'm an introvert. But what you don't see is that after a weekend of socializing, I need several days of quiet solitude to recover.
Actually, so many people are confused about introversion, they don't even realize they themselves are introverts. I hear that all the time in comments on my blog, The Introvert's Corner. Wow! I thought I was just weird!
Don't know for sure if you're an introvert? Here are some clues that you might tip towards the introvert side of the scale.
Introverts are happiest one-on-one or in small groups. For us, “more” is less merry than it is overwhelming. We prefer conversation to chitchat, and that’s easier in small groups. The happiest socializing for us is lunch with a friend, or an intimate dinner party, or maybe a party of ten to 20 people, most of whom we know. I don’t go to parties to meet people as much as to hang out with people I already know and like, which is one reason I like giving parties. And I’m usually bummed when small-scale plans turn into big group plans because someone has decided “the more the merrier.” I tend to get a little overwhelmed and shut down in large groups. For me, it’s “the less the livelier.”
Introverts are perfectly happy home alone. If I’ve planned an evening at home (and I plan many more of those than evenings out), it takes one hell of an awesome invitation to get me to change course. Being alone is an activity to me—it’s time to let my brain relax, fall into its own grooves. I get stuff done, indulge in hobbies, sometimes I just daydream. After a period with lots of social interaction, quiet solitude is not just pleasant, but crucial. Solitude is a performance-enhancing exercise, in a category, I think, with sleep. If during alone time someone calls and says “whatcha doin’?” I might say, “nothing,” because people don’t understand. But to me, doing nothing is doing something.
Recent research using brain scans suggests that introverts have very busy brains, which is one reason why doing nothing feels like doing something. While we might look like we’re just staring into space, our brains are on overdrive. Add to that any sort of external stimulation, and our brains can feel very busy indeed. Lots of people talking at us, or a full day without a solitude break, or several consecutive days of interaction, can make us feel like our brains have been overfilled, pumped up like a bicycle tire, and liable to blow at any time if we don’t get a few minutes (hours, days) of quiet solitude. Avoiding the head-might-explode feeling is a big motivator for introverts. We’re always looking for that quiet spot to avert head-explosion.
Every introvert knows the exquisite joy of stepping away from a party or other social event and into the bathroom, where you can close the door and let your brain settle down. And you can go even when you don’t have to go. The bathroom is always available to us when we need a break from the action, when our heads are reaching explosion-level fullness, when we feel like we’ve chatted our last chit and haven’t a syllable left. At times I’ve worried people would think I have a bladder problem, so frequent were my trips to the loo. But I’m willing to risk that. A few moments in the bathroom is like a catnap for the brain. (Even a stall can do the trick, as long as a chattery friend isn’t in the stall next door.) Better yet, it’s a trick that works anywhere—parties, restaurants, even the office. Anywhere there’s a bathroom, there’s a quiet place for us.
Attending parties is among the social contracts we make with friends: Friends go to friends’ parties. Sometimes I even enjoy parties, especially small to midsize ones. Sometimes I enjoy them to the wee hours, even. But not usually. Usually, a little bit of party is plenty. And we’re not minglers. My party tactic involves spending long periods in one spot and letting the party come to me. I’m like an ocean sponge, soaking up any party fun that drifts my way. Although some introverts (especially college aged) have been convinced otherwise, nobody is compelled to stay at a party until the food is picked over and you’re reaching for the drink you’ll regret to help you through another hour of fun. Or “fun.” As in “not fun.” Introverts often get stuck at parties, longing to leave but unable to make a move. But knowing how to leave a party is crucial, because if you know you can leave when you’ve had enough, showing up in the first place is lots easier.
I rarely answer my telephone, often forget to check voicemail, and can take a shockingly long time to return phone calls. So sue me. The telephone is intrusive, especially for introverts, whose brains don’t switch gears all that quickly. When we’re deep in thought, a ringing telephone is like a shrieking alarm clock in the morning. And we often give bad phone—awkward, with pauses. We struggle without visual cues, and our tendency to ponder before we talk doesn’t play well on the telephone. Being stuck on a too-long call makes me want to chew off my own leg to escape. Sometimes, if I’m feeling devil-may-care, I’ll pick up calls from far-flung friends who want to catch-up, But I more often let them go to voicemail and then make a date (via email) for us to talk. My friends understand. Dislike of the phone is often presented as a moral failing. But honestly, it’s not the people on the phone we dislike, it’s the instrument of delivery.
While we are not averse to knowing a lot of people, we don’t believe a large circle of friends is proof of social success. Just as we prefer in-depth conversation to chitchat, we prefer a few intimate friendships to a bunch of fun but superficial ones. This is not because we don’t like people, but because we do—so much so that we want to really know those people we care about. We would rather know one person intimately than a dozen only slightly. Acquaintances are the chitchat of friendships: pleasant and necessary, but ultimately unfulfilling. Of course, any attrition in our friendships can be a problem because replacing an intimate is difficult. So I try to maintain a wide circle of acquaintances as well, to make sure that when I’m alone, it’s by choice.
You see them everywhere: in cars, at the grocery store, walking down the street. People will cell phones pressed to their ears, chattering and chattering and chattering. What on earth do they find to talk about? I’m incapable of stringing that many words together at one time. Sometimes, I can’t even finish my own sentences, losing interest halfway through and trailing off. (Much to my husband’s irritation.) I have a terrible time remaining focused on idle conversation and am just as happy to let other people do the talking if they think they have something to say. If you tap into an introvert’s deepest interests, you might release a stream of impassioned words. But in the day to day, we can be downright laconic and really do wonder what all those people are talking about. And why.
Little inspires terror in the heart of an introvert like seeing a performer scanning the audience for a volunteer. Or a show that ends with a cast-audience dance party. Or a singer who strolls out into the audience with the microphone, emoting at people. Even strolling mariachi is a little more audience participation than I’m comfortable with. While introverts are capable of being performers (Steve Martin, Julia Roberts), that’s something they do on their own terms. I even know of introverts who enjoy karaoke. True story. But being dragged into a show I am there just to watch is a nightmare. And that includes being dragged on the dance floor at a party. I have been known to dance, but in my own time and when I’m in the mood. I don’t need to join the fun. For me, watching is the fun.
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