October 07, 2009

Introverts, Unite!

Our wireless Internet connection still hasn't been set up in our house, and won't be ready before the 12th October. So I'm forced to write my blog posts from the library, using either my own laptop (and let it run on batteries) or one of the university terminals (which I am doing now). At the moment, the library is rather busy so I have people sitting all around me, including a very talkative group at the table right behind me. They are probably very nice people, and it's a non-quiet zone where people are allowed and encouraged to chat, but their incessant talking, as well as the other discussions going on in here, is slightly unnerving. I'm one of those people who find it very hard to concentrate when other things are going on around me, moving around and making sounds, and who would much rather work alone, in silence. This leads nicely into what I want to talk about this time, because these characteristics are typical of a certain group of individuals. Introverts.

Now, let's first agree on the vocabulary here. By introvert, I do not mean some eremit who spends his days in a dark room coding computer programs or planning world domination. Likewise, by extrovert, I do not mean someone who spends all of his/her time partying and socialising. With these two words, rather, I mean to split the population into two categories, so that any person can be said to be either one or the other, depending on how their brain works. An introvert, then, is essentially someone whose energy gets drained during social gatherings and large groups of people, and who needs some time on their own to recuperate. An extrovert, then, is the opposite: someone who feels a need to be with other people in order to relax and "re-energise". Usually, introverts tend to be distracted by background noise while extroverts feel more comfortable working with some kind of external stimulus -- like music -- although this is more an indicator than an actual identifier I suspect.

Some people will argue that some (if not all) people have an introverted side as well as an extroverted side, and thus cannot be classified as either. I don't believe that. There may be introverts who have been taught to act like extroverts or who force themselves to do so, and extroverts who are naturally shy (shyness and introversion being two seperate things), but the difference between the two above definitions is so fundamental that one cannot, in my opinion, be simultaneously one and the other. If you met me in real life, you would -- hopefully -- see a completely smiling, open, affable and completely normal person, but that does not change the fact that I am, by nature, an introvert.

My question is: Why should I have to hide this? Why is introversion generally perceived as a bad thing? Everywhere, especially in the job market, there seems to be a focus on skills such as team work, communication and multitasking, skills that are typical to extroverts. If you don't value these, you may well be seen as a bad element in a work group, regardless of your actual efficiency. On Friday nights, I am expected to be in town or at a friend's house or patying or socialising in one way or another (anywhere but home), but I don't take much pleasure in this so I why should I? I don't mind spending time with friends, but why does it have to be socially unacceptable to decline an invitation if I've had a long week and need to spendsome time on my own more than anything else? I'm not trying to be rude, offensive or antisocial, I just regularly require a few hours on my own, time to gather my thoughts, daydream, and be myself, before I'm ready for another dosis of social interactions. In short, all I have is another notion of what it means to "chill", so how come this natural orientation known as introversion, has acquired so many negative connotations like antisocial behaviour, shyness, misanthropy and lack of self-confidence?

The answer to these question has to do with the fact that the vast majority of people are extroverts (75-90% from what I've read), and so extrovert behaviour has become the norm. This leads to introversion being misunderstood and misinterpreted as a personality defect or a sign of hostility. In the same way that I cannot grasp how anyone can get "energised" by a massive party, extroverts fail to understand that we simply enjoy solitude more than social events. Also, it is again this majority that has lead the extrovert skills mentioned earlier (team work, multitasking etc.) to become more wanted qualities in a employee. But while it is true that an introvert may lack the qualities needed to work efficiently in a group, he or she will have other advantages which unfortunately seem to be neglected a lot of working environments. The ability to concentrate and work for a long time on a single task, for example, is common to most introverts, and ought to get more credit in any environment, be it school, university or work. And since when is it a bad thing to be able to complete something on your own?

I did a little research on the Net before writing this, to see if anyone else had been thinking about the same thing. And sure enough, I found an nice article titled "The Tyranny of the Extroverts", which discusses the topic of these "essential" skills further.
Even more ineresting was another article by a certain Jonathan Rauch, who started a whole Introversion vs. Extroversion debate with his innocent piece of writing. If you can't be bothered to read this blog post, then what I'll ask of you is, please, READ THIS. This is good stuff.
Finally, there's a lovely blog held by some Lee Ann Lambert, called Living Introverted. It covers a lot of questions extroverts might have about introverts.

For those at Warwick University: I'm trying to start up a new society, that would go by the name Warwick Introverts. Its aim is essentially to unite introverts and possibly do something about the bad reputation that introversion has received. However, I need 30 signatures, so if you would consider joining such a Society, please contact me and help me get this ball rolling. Also, introvert and extrovert, Warwick student or not, feel free to leave a comment. I'd love to hear about your agreements or disagreements. Thank you. 

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  1. Sue

    Fascinating. I’ll get back to you when I’ve collected my thoughts. They’re all over the place!

    07 Oct 2009, 19:01

  2. Vincent

    You are right. Just like it used to be wrong to write with the left hand and children were taught to write with their right hand, now – with the best of intentions – parents teach their children to be extrovert.

    07 Oct 2009, 20:59

  3. Sue

    I tend to be drawn more to people who are introverted because I find them more thoughtful and (ironically maybe) less self absorbed. I think there is a popular misconception that “quiet” people are more introverted and shy than people who have a lot to say for themselves but I know from personal experience that this isn’t the case.

    07 Oct 2009, 22:37

  4. @ Vincent: The left-hand analogy is very appropraite. I’ll remember that one. Thanks.

    @ Sue: Glad you seem to agree with me. The “less self-absorbed” thing may come from the fact that a lot of introverts don’t like to talk just for the sake of talking, but want the conversation to have some kind of purpose, to be “useful” somehow. Hence when you talk about, say, yourself, most introverts will be listening to you and taking in the information, rather than thinking about ways to keep the conversation going. Of course I’m generalising a lot here, but I believe there’s some truth behind this.

    08 Oct 2009, 16:43

  5. Anden15

    Hmm, would you reckon that I’m an introvert or an extrovert?

    It’s funny, because I can really understand what you mean by needing time alone to be yourself. But I can also get energised at social gatherings and I like meeting with friends and everything (and I really don’t feel like I’m forcing myself to do this). But I also mostly like to work alone, and not in groups. I do sometimes worry about what to say in a conversation to keep it going, but I also often simply just listen to what the other person is saying and absorbing the information. I find that sometimes I work best with music on and sometimes I need quiet; it changes depending on the mood I’m in. It’s really annoying sometimes too, because if I’m alone too long I start wanting to be with other people, but if I’m with people too much, I can’t wait to get home again and be alone (I guess that’s normal though :P). I’ve been termed as “too serious”, “quiet”, “talks a lot”, “a bit shy”, “overly confident”, “open”, etc., and those things really don’t agree with each other xD..

    Are you really sure there can’t be exceptions to being only introvert or only extrovert?
    You know me quite well, so what do you say?

    08 Oct 2009, 18:42

  6. I’m one of those people who think that people have an introvert and an extrovert side to them. I’d argue that it’s continuous not discrete (you’ll agree with me if I sound mathematical, right?), I suspect the majority of people are near the ends but we all have a bit of each. I would be classed as an introvert if anything, other people would say that without question, I fit by your definition as I required time alone and I often “zone out” even when not alone eg when walking between lectures. During my second year I spent around 12 hours out of the house each day and really suffered for the lack of time alone in my room, just thinking. I also need the company of others, I go crazy in the holidays as there is nothing going on and no-one to see. I am energised by spending time with people, time with my friends is needed to balance my work. I’ve made an effort to increase my friendship groups since last year and feel a lot better for it. New people are refreshing and give me new ideas and perspectives. I’m going to be a (secondary school) teacher as I did some voluntary work in 2nd term last year and found it much more energising than sitting in lectures. But after a while it all gets too much and I neglect everyone and be alone whenever possible for weeks at a time.

    PS I don’t think your Introverts society is a bad idea, there are societies for basically everything these days, but since introverts by definition don’t want the social interaction why would they join?

    08 Oct 2009, 20:13

  7. @ Anden15: After reading the article by Jonathan Rauch, I couldn’t help trying to categorise people I knew. You were one of the difficult ones… You’re always the best judge of you’re own type, but I’d say you’re an introvert. You’ve described some of the reasons yourself, and I think most extroverts would rather stick to small talk than the conversations we’ve had. From your own blog it’s also clear that you have a rich inner life and do a lot of introspection. However, you seem to go out often and act in a very extroverted way. This is only speculation, but I suspect you may be doing it not as much because you feel energised by it, but because you like the recognition you get from other people, and also because you enjoy proving that you’re a completely normal person and that there’s nothing wrong with you. So you act. If I have been at a party for three hours, I’ll still be smiling and welcoming, but like a lot of introverts, I’ll be acting, pretendiing that I still really enjoy being there, when I fact I just want to leave. Maybe you’re doing the same, and maybe that’s the reason for the contradictory adjectives you listed. Of course, I may also be completely wrong in my analysis.

    @ Elizabeth: I’m not saying you’re wrong, I just have a different opinion. I don’t have enough evidence pointing either way to say for sure, though. I’ll change my mind if I turn out to be wrong. I found this article , which discusses how “psychological and neuroscientific studies have discovered three main differences between introverted and extroverted brains”, a fact that seems compatible with the theory that one is either one or the other. Still, I agree with you up to the point that you can be introverted to various degrees, and extroverted to various degrees. Like you I also enjoy teaching, but to me, giving a talk about something that interests me to some kind of audience, is completely different from having to do small talk with a group of people.
    Your question about the society is a good one and I probably should have expanded on that in the post. Socials probably wouldn’t be frequent, but there could be discussion groups about introversion in general, or the society could function as an introvert network of sorts. I enjoy spending time with other introverts (because they value silence and because they also need time on their own), but finding them is hard, precisely because they don’t often go out. The society could make that easier. Also the socials could be made “nicer” for people like us: find a quiet place, come and go when you feel like it without getting strange looks, Bring Your Own Book, etc. I’m sure something could be worked out.
    Do you feel like helping me by signing the 30-signature paper? :)

    And to both of you: Let me just make it clear that I don’t feel like I’m forcing myself every time I see friends. Everyone needs friends, I just prefer a small but close group of friends to a large but superficial one. I’m always happy to see them, I just don’t feel the need to see them 7 days a week.

    09 Oct 2009, 14:57

  8. “On Friday nights, I am expected to be in town or at a friend’s house or patying or socialising in one way or another (anywhere but home), but I don’t take much pleasure in this so I why should I?”

    That’s not being an extrovert; that’s just being stupid. Society tells us that those who stay at home on Friday nights are sad losers who obviously didn’t get any invites, but it has nothing to do with being an extrovert. Being physically present in a room won’t turn an introvert into an extrovert, and spending yet another night in a bar screaming to be heard over the horror of bad music and worse karaoke whilst wanting to be anywhere but is plain idiotic.

    So perhaps your society could spend its time on alternative Friday nights for those who don’t want to fight over seats in the Grad rather than trying to attract the introverts who daren’t say a word in class lest they be branded as some sort of boffin; life never changes, eh.

    10 Oct 2009, 20:25

  9. Nice stuff man. I’m a introvert too..
    But when you say about staring a society then it sounds to me like.. Atheists starting a religion.

    11 Oct 2009, 00:51

  10. Sue

    I stayed in last night too. Firstly because hubbylicious is away but also because I was feeling a bit under the weather. The only other person I live with at the moment was out painting the town red. Because one of my work colleagues was sent home last week with the dreaded lurgey (I almost don’t like to mention swine flu) I decided as I had a few suspicious symptoms to look at the NHS Swine Flu website and found myself going through a list of questions which were there to try and help me diagnose myself. At least I thought it was self-diagnosis until it said “Is the person having a fit at the moment?” and then, even more alarmingly “Is the person concsious?” I decided to call it a day at this stage and went to bed but those words were ringing in my ears for a while. I feel much better today.

    I’ve been racking my brains trying to decide whether I’m an introvert or not and I can’t decide though I’m sure most people would think I am. Having said that I remember being shocked recently when we were talking about people being “bubbly” and one of my friends said that I was more bubbly than my sister and to my amazement my husband agreed. The thing is that I thought she was about the most bubbly person in the world. I’m not sure if “bubbly” is the same as extrovert, though. I would also rather be an introvert and very much like the idea of a club with lots of introverted people. I know they say that variety is the spice of life but sometimes I find it quite tiresome the way extroverted people feel the need to give a complete running commentary on every little miniscule detail of life. I know I said before that “quietness” and shyness and introversion aren’t the same thing but I don’t think I explained myself very well. What I meant was that these things don’t always go together. I know someone who is sometimes very quiet but she is one of the least shy people I know, she may be slightly introverted, I’m not completely sure. She tends to only say things if she thinks they are completely relevant and it would serve some kind of purpose to say them at that particular time. So if she says to me “Phone me when you’ve got something to say” I know she’s not being rude, in fact, I admire and love her for it. I’m writing this with a smile on my face because it is the essence of the girl.

    11 Oct 2009, 16:50

  11. Sue

    I’ve realised that this may make her sound a bit harsh and she isn’t at all. She only said those words after me pushing her on what she thought was a reasonable gap between phone calls and then it was only said in a joking way although I am aware of the saying “Many a true word is said in jest!” She’s actually quite a sensitive soul although she doesn’t wear her heart on her sleeve.

    11 Oct 2009, 17:30

  12. Sue

    I think you make a very interesting point Damian, peoples expectations of us can become something which makes us feel pressurised into doing things we don’t want to do. This is another area where this girl has a mind of her own and one I very much admire. I recall several instances of people so keen to have her in particular groups that they wrote begging letters which she completely ignored if she didn’t want to join them or be a part of them any more. I’d say “Oh, they really want you in that group, they value what you can contribute.” and she’d say “I don’t care, I don’t want to be in it!” I remember feeling slightly frustrated that she wouldn’t do what they so badly wanted her to but my overriding feeling was that of being racked with admiration for her steadfastness. Recently my husband has been trying to stress the fact that if I don’t want to go on some social outing not only do I not have to go but I don’t have to give a reason for not going. This last thing I’ve noticed nearly everyone feels compelled to do sometimes to the extent of ridiculousness ie “I can’t come to the gym because of the dog”. So when recently I didn’t feel like going to the gym for the first time in ages, I told them “I’m not going tonight” “WHY!” came the communal reply “Because I don’t feel like it” I said. It was wonderful, I felt on top of the world. Then, a few days later it was time to pay for the Christmas do at work and I said “I’m not going this year” “WHY!” “because I’m giving it a miss” (I wasn’t so brave with that one). I am beginning to slightly regret it too but only slightly. I find it quite difficult when some people always say it’s too expensive and then I go year after year it makes me feel a bit awkward being able to afford it (that’s the real reason) but they’re going to a comedy club so I may have made the wrong decision.

    11 Oct 2009, 17:53

  13. Alexander, I meant to check back on this sooner as I was interested in what you’d say but I forgot until just now. I’m more inclining to change my mind, I think I could class lots of people I know as one or the other and the ones I’d struggle with I could do if I knew them a bit better. I have some extrovert tendancies but at my core I am introvert. This has come about as someone from school set up a facebook message about a reunion this christmas. Lots of people are saying how great it would be and how much they have missed all of us sooooo much. I really couldn’t want to see them less. I can’t help but notice we in general live in the same area, can contact each other via facebook and could have met up at any time had we actually missed each other that much and I thought it’s probably because extrovert people (and people who try to be extrovert because it seems the right way to be) want to feel they have loads of friends and loads of people who want to see them. The great thing about uni, or at least Maths at Warwick, is the way the usual pretences and expectations aren’t necessary.

    I would say your definition (based on a need for social interaction) is pretty good, I am tempted to add “needing to be liked” or “needing other people” althought that’s not quite right, I think I could come up with something slightly better.

    11 Oct 2009, 18:52

  14. Sue

    I couldn’t agree with you more. The same thing has happened to me, or pretty similar anyway. I think the difference is that I actually do like socialising with these people but it is expensive and I don’t like the way this seems to exclude a few people (usually the same ones) every year. Of course, what people can afford is all relative, I suppose it’s what you make a priority. I think some people would struggle with the expense just before Christmas although for some it may also be a bit of an excuse. I know one person has declined on religious grounds as she thinks some of the jokes may be a bit risque.

    11 Oct 2009, 20:39

  15. Becs

    Thanks for this main post, i was just getting to the point where i thought something might be wrong with me after declining another night out socialising, most weeks i work, look after my daughter, spend time with my partner (also an introvert, hes the only one who understands me!) When it gets to the weekend i just need to chill and recouperate, alot of my friends and family are extroverts and i love to be part of their lives but their constant demands on me are wearing me down, at least now i know that theres nothing wrong with me, its just how to make them see that! Thanks again :)

    17 Oct 2009, 19:17

  16. Hi Becs!

    No problem, glad I can be of help to someone :). If anyone was having trouble understanding my personal introvert needs, I’d send them a link to the article by Jonathan Rauch. I had the same feeling of “there’s nothiing wrong with me!” when I read it.

    18 Oct 2009, 18:49

  17. George Riches

    The extrovert version of networking is all about chatting to everyone, the introverted version is about reading things from many different sources.
    The extrovert version of teamwork is meetings, the introverted version is an interchange of emails or perhaps participation on an web fora.

    24 Oct 2009, 20:42

  18. That may be over-simplifying things a little… Also I think the “introvert version of teamwork”, if there ever was such a thing, would be more like a message saying “You do this, I do that” and then working independently on the project.

    25 Oct 2009, 22:43

  19. George Riches

    It may be a simplification, but if the work gets done it’s effective team working. Endless meetings which lead nowhere is not effective teamworking.

    Typically, after a “You do this, I do that” session, the collaborators work independently and then after a while report back on their results. In very many cases they will have to revise the boundaries of their work, but then return to a period of independent work.

    Academic research provides an example. The academic works on his/her own until they have something to say. He /she then report their findings to a conference or perhaps sends a document to collaborators. In the latter case the each collaborator reads the document, alone, and then replies with comments. There are periods of interaction interspersed with periods of solitary work.

    28 Oct 2009, 18:18

  20. Ah, true. That is precisely the kind of “teamwork” that introverts would tend to prefer, although I doubt that is what usually comes to people’s minds when they hear the word. If only both versions of “teamwork” and “networking” were equally emphasised…

    I wasn’t sure at first if your first comment was just a superficial statement that sounded nice thanks to symmetry, but I see now that you did actually put some thought behind it. I apologise.

    28 Oct 2009, 18:57

  21. Krystakia

    Sounds like a good idea to me. I agree with it being difficult to find true introverts, you may end up with a backwards effect where extroverts act as introverts to join the society. Also as a generalized categorizing system, gaining energy or losing it is a pretty fair definition of the difference between the two groups of people. In one light at least it doesn’t force one side or the other to be more intelligent, more angry, more calm or less active. I personally think that one reason people have a hard time defining themselves as one or the other is actually because of common greed. People would like to see themselves as that rare, unbelievably impossible both as opposed to one or the other of two standard human categories.

    It’s kind of like having one gender or the other, you can’t have both when you’re born. (Just try and argue with me on that. Bwahaha!)

    Anyway… my real point being that the society of introverts could be a great group, I think I’ll leave it at that.

    13 Jan 2010, 16:26

  22. I’m glad you think so! So far I’ve mostly met people who found the idea silly or contradictory. Some introverts have been calling it ‘a good idea’ without being willing to join. It’s tough.

    01 Feb 2010, 23:18

  23. Krystakia

    It’s difficult to find introverts anyway, especially since a lot of them don’t want to join a society of any sort or simply wouldn’t know about a good group like that. (I Googled it, one doesn’t currently exist as far as I can tell.) I actually wrote a post about introverts/extroverts in my private blog (though I added a few bits of random stuff) one of my main points was that it is easier to find an extrovert when you are an extrovert looking for an extrovert than when you are an introvert looking for another introvert. Because even though you would “know where to look” often, they either don’t want to be found (and if you truly are an introvert then you know how easy it is to hide from the general public in a crowd, like in a bookstore, or something of the sort.) or they don’t know you well enough to actually trust a group like that. Not all introverts are secretive and overly-cautious, I’m sure, but I’ve never met one that isn’t.

    Just to repeat myself XD I would definitely be interested in the Society, and I would join. If you can get enough introverts you could end up with a lot of seriously intellectual conversation. Though…you could also end up with a lot of really stupid political crap… Heh, t’would be fun! And at the very least, I shall say that most anything is worth trying, and anything worth trying is worth trying again. I think this is one of those things. :)

    02 Feb 2010, 01:28

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