Last month, I went on a great big blogger meetup, in a city far, far away. On top of some amazing experiences with some awesome people, this allowed for one big thing: lots of alone time waiting in airports. I’m usually the sort of person to get bored rather easily – usually demonstrated in any attempt at physical exercise – so my first stop was to the newsagent’s, to stock up on magazines. Secretly, I kind of enjoyed being dressed up in ruffles, rosettes and accessories for once (first impressions, people!) and purchasing a pile of science, technology and psychology magazines, and I spent the remainder of my solitude reading them cover to cover. That’s the great thing about these sorts of magazines – the popular ones are half filled with ads for products you don’t care about, gossip about celebrities you don’t care about, and recycled articles on the same old beauty techniques, weight loss, and sex tips used in every issue of archives past, tweaked for wording and wrapped in a different package to give the impression of fresh material. Okay for flicking through for ten minutes in a waiting room, perhaps, but not for four hours sans company or entertainment.
These magazines are great for really reading fully, cover to cover, full of interesting facts and insights. I learned about holograms, peak moments in life, technological advances, and even forgiveness after death, but the most interesting thing to catch my attention was an article entitled Revenge of the Introverts. It was the cover story: a picture of a brunette girl, hiding behind her hair, with my eternal inner monologue pasted over her face. How to Thrive in an Extraverted World. Doesn’t this just encapsulate everything I’ve tried to do this year?? This seemed to be a story written for me to read, so of course I had to pick it up.
It was a long article, but it was absolutely fascinating. Written by a therapist, it opened with a confession: the author loved the study of psychology, but hated dealing with people all day long. “I was perpetually overstimulated, busy decoding everything I took in. Plus, I wondered why I couldn’t tolerate the large caseloads my colleagues took on willingly.” This is so true for me – I love education, as well as the idea of helping to educate others – but being continually around or in front of people is exhausting and anxiety-inducing, rather than stimulating. At the end of the day I love nothing more than shutting my office door and putting my favourite radio station on – retreating into my own little world. I’m normal! my brain rejoiced, as it continued to digest the story.
There are plenty of introverts around. It’s just that perceptual biases lead us all to overestimate the number of extraverts among us (they are noisier and hog the spotlight). Often confused with shyness, introversion does not imply social reticence or discomfort. Rather than being averse to social engagement, introverts become overwhelmed by too much of it, which explains why the introvert is ready to leave a party after an hour and the extravert gains steam as the night goes on.
This doesn’t mean us introverts are shy. This means that unlike extraverts, we get our energy from alone time, and too much exposure to people is actually draining. Introverts are collectors of thought. Extraverts are collectors of socialisation. What surprised me, was that according to a national US study, introverts make up 50% of the population. So why does it seem we’re vastly outnumbered by extraverts? The answer could be cultural. “Like individuals,” the article stated, “cultures have different styles. America is a noisy culture, unlike, say, Finland, which values silence. Individualism, dominant in the U.S., promotes the direct, fast-paced style of communication associated with extraversion. Collectivistic societies, such as those in East Asia, value privacy and restraint, qualities more characteristic of introverts.” But if every other person is an introvert, why doesn’t our cultural tone seem to reflect that?
It’s not just that we overestimate the numbers of extraverts in our midst because they’re more salient. The bias of individuals is reinforced in the media, which emphasize the visual, the talkative, and the sound bite— immediacy over reflection. “In verbal cultures, remaining silent presents a problem,” reports a study of communication styles in the U.S. and Finland. Perceptions of competence tend to be based on verbal behaviour. An introvert who is silent in a group may actually be quite engaged—taking in what is said, thinking about it, waiting for a turn to speak—but will be seen in the U.S. as a poor communicator.
Is this why I’ve struggled to much with public speaking? Is this why it remains one of the highest ranked fears across the nation – because we’re conditioned to believe that extraversion equals competence and, subsequently, success? Is this why, for years, I believed I wasn’t really worthy of deep relationships and meaningful friendships, because I wasn’t a big speaker, not really good at improvisation or making jokes, or even thinking on the spot to answer simple questions like “how are you?”
Conversation between an introvert and an extravert can involve a series of misunderstandings. As the introvert struggles to follow multiple conversational threads and sort out his own thoughts, he remains quiet and appears to be just listening. The extravert reads that as engagement, a cue to keep talking. The introvert struggles with the continuing flow of input and soon starts to shut out the extravert, while nodding or smiling, or even trying to stop the exchange. Rather than simply answering the question, an internal dialogue begins, in which the introvert “hears” themself talking internally as the other person speaks.
Even if the introvert responds, “I’m good,” they’re probably still internally reflecting on how they really are. They may evaluate their thoughts and judgment about the day, and even the question itself, wondering why we revert to “good” just because that’s the question, or if the other person even really wants to know. The cognitive load becomes increasingly difficult to manage, as the internal talk competes with the external conversation. Moreover, while trying to keep the conversation going, introverts may miss social cues, which can make them appear socially inept. The conversation is also anxiety-provoking, because the introvert feels they have too little time to share a complete thought. They hunger to pull away and give time to the thoughts their brain has generated.
How fascinating is this? A scientifically researched argument for all my years of self-questioning actually being normal enough to constitute half the population. One thing I love about the blogging world is that, contrary perhaps to day-to-day existence, there seem to be a copious amount of introverts. According to the Myers-Briggs personality test (of which I’m a massive fan), my type is supposed to be the rarest of them all. Yet in discussions with other bloggers, I’ve found a good number of people whose type is just like my own. Perhaps, as collectors of thought and lovers of solitude, it provides a safe sense of community where we’re free to take all the time we need to construct our ideas and responses, from the safety of our own isolation. In the blogosphere, we can be successful social communicators and contributors, unaffected by the interruptions, fast pace and expectations of external society. And perhaps this realisation is just what we need in order to give ourselves a bit of a break once in a while, and embrace who we are in our own skin. It seems we’re not such aliens in our own world after all.