Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Introversion Isn't an Illness

I’m an introvert.

Chances are, at least a quarter of you are too.

Several generations ago, I probably wouldn’t have needed to point this out. Back then, introversion was a well-understood, and even well-respected, phenomenon. Extroverts used to refer to us as “deep, sensitive souls” or “strong, silent types.” Now, however, we just get called things like “weird” or “anti-social.” So, maybe, it’s time to clear a few things up.

Introversion isn’t an illness, a handicap, or a social problem. It’s a trait that about a quarter to a third of the population has been — always has been, and always will be — born with. It doesn’t make us hate or fear other people. It doesn’t make us want to never speak or want to always be alone. Introverts are just predisposed to noticing and thinking about things. Simply put, introverts pay attention to the rest of world and then think before we speak, while extroverts pay attention to each other while thinking aloud.

Of course, this means introverts speak differently from extroverts. We’re quieter. We’re not bothered by lapses in conversations. We also don’t tend to get enthusiastic about things like sports, or movies, or gossip, or even ourselves, because these topics usually provide us with very little to think about.

And introverts don’t just speak differently than extroverts, we also behave differently. We have very little interest in, and are often annoyed at, the political games extroverts tend to play with each other. We’re neither followers nor leaders, and we can’t grok why extroverts expect us to behave like one or the other. Instead, we tend to be independent, and will react very poorly to coercion or even attempts at “consensus building.” Because we think a lot, we know life is just a little more elaborate than any one idea or or one set of rules can handle, so when we see a large group of people all looking, acting, and saying the same stuff, we tend to head for the door rather than try to fit in. We’re just not interested in being anyone other than ourselves.

This doesn’t mean that we “don’t play well with others,” it just means we play differently with others. We expect people to be different from one another. We even like that. Disagreements don’t bother us in the least bit, but insults, dismissals, and peer pressure do. So, yes, you’ll find us in groups, but they won’t be the large, loud, homogeneous ones, they’ll be the small, quiet, diverse ones. And, yes, you’ll also find us hanging out by ourselves. But that’s not because we don’t like other people; it’s because we aren’t afraid to be on our own.

And introversion isn’t the same thing as shyness either. Introversion is thoughtfulness. Shyness is anxiety. If you think you’ve noticed a lot of introverts who are also shy, that’s because many of us are. But there’s a reason for that, and it’s not what you might expect. At some point, a few generations ago, people apparently decided that there was something wrong with introverts. We just didn’t seem to fit in and, therefore, needed to be “cured” of introversion and “socialized” to act like extroverts. And so, now, it’s become commonplace for people to hassle, harangue, ignore, or ostracize introverts, thinking that that’ll “teach us” to be more extroverted. But what it actually does is demonstrate that other people will be hostile to introverts. Hostility causes anxiety, and social anxiety is shyness. So, when you see people giving an introvert a hard time, by gossiping about him or ostracizing him, you’re not seeing people helping someone with shyness, you’re seeing people making someone shy. And this isn’t just true of introverts. Hassle or ignore an extrovert long enough, and he’ll end up shy too. After all, that’s what shyness is: social anxiety caused by a hostile environment. It’s not inherently related to introversion.

However, like shy people, introverts don’t tend to know as many people as extroverts, and we don’t meet people as frequently as extroverts either. But unless we’re also shy, it’s not for the reasons extroverts might think. The truth is, introverts don’t need to know as many people as extroverts. We actually do like to spend some time alone, and we know other people do too. So, we’re not going to bother you if you look busy or uninterested. We’re not being aloof or wary, we’re just taking things as they seem. We don’t like to be interrupted when we’re occupied, and we won’t assume that anyone else would either. That’s just how we see the world and each other. For us, this really isn’t a choice; it’s how our brains function.

Biologists have confirmed that introverts and extroverts have, quite literally, different minds from each other. You can’t change an introvert into an extrovert anymore than you could change an extrovert into an introvert. We’re “wired together” differently, and researchers believe there’s a good reason for that. Introverts and extroverts provide balance for each other. Societies need people who think about things as well as people who are happy to just go ahead and see what happens. We need people who are paying attention to what’s going on as well as people who believe that everything will turn out okay, regardless. We need people who are actually listening and thinking about what people are saying as well as people who will just say anything until something happens. We need people who won’t just go with the flow as well as people who just want to fit in and get along. And, we need people who are thoughtful and sensitive as well as people who are impulsive and brash.

So, if you’re an introvert, don’t pay attention to anyone who wants to make you feel bad about it, and if you’re an extrovert, don’t try to punish introverts for not being like you. We understand, and can accept, extroverts, and we think it’s about time that extroverts tried to understand, and accept, us too.


Felipe said...

More than a decade ago The Atlantic Magazine ran an article titled How to Care for Your Introvert or something like that. It is still available on their website, and has become one of the most-read articles in the magazine´s long history.

Apparently, it struck quite a chord with many people, smart people, of course.

I recall reading it at the time it first appeared and marveling at how it described me perfectly.

Being an introvert is a good thing. If more people were in the club, we´d have less conflict in the world. And it would be a quieter world too, another good thing.

NotPhil said...

"Being an introvert is a good thing. If more people were in the club, we´d have less conflict in the world."

The article you mention agrees with you. It quotes Calvin Coolidge as saying, "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?"

Alexandre FABBRI said...

You imply that someone being introvert is like belonging to a group like 'happies' or 'sads'. This simply smacks of reductionist thinking, common in the western hemisphere. Human beings are dynamic in nature and can show examples of extrovert behaviour one moment followed by introvert behaviour hours later. To drop people into groups is like placing all animals with four legs into one group and saying that they are basically similar. This always leads to difficulties of definition - Which person is the more extravert - the one who speaks the most words per hour in one brief outburst or the person who speaks many less words per hour but makes frequent comments of a few words? When does red in a a rainbow cease being red and is actually orange or purple? Why is it that the only way people in the west can comprehend anything is by chopping it into categories, labels and boxes? People cannot be divided in that manner. A viewing of Krzysztof Kieslowski's films of the 'Decalogue' should be enough to help someone who is not yet convinced about the absurdity of dividing people up.

NotPhil said...

Alexandre, I can see why you might think the essay wants to lump people into two distinct groups, but, really, it makes more sense to read the essay as saying that introversion and extroversion are complementary traits that people possess to differing degrees.

I wanted to use this post to explain what one of those traits was because it's frequently derided and misunderstood, at least in the States. This may not be the case where you come from, so you might not understand why someone would wish to defend that particular trait.

You are correct, though. There's no on or off switch that makes you completely one or the other, and introversion and extroversion do not determine every other trait that a person may or may not possess.

Felipe said...

NotPhil: Nicely put.