In an interesting article I read today at ScientificAmerican.com, Susan Cain, promoting her new book “The Power of Introverts: A Manifesto for Quiet Brilliance”, responds to questions about introversion. I’m looking forward to reading the book itself, since as in an introvert, I’ve always found the topic compelling, especially in the past couple of years. I’ve read several books about the difference between introverts and extroverts, but it wasn’t until reading “Introvert Power” by Dr. Laurie Helgoe last year that I finally embraced introversion as a significant part of who I am, and even understood that it can actually be a strength.
As discussed in both the Q&A with Cain, and in Helgoe’s book, introversion is a personality trait, but it is not the same thing as shyness – a common misconception. One can be both introverted and shy, or extroverted and shy, or introverted and not shy. Cain touches on it in the article, but Helgoe goes into detail on how the brain chemistry is actually different in introverts and extroverts. Introverts are naturally more stimulated and therefore tend to prefer solitude to recharge; whereas extroverts are naturally under stimulated and so to make up the difference, they tend to like lots of social interactions, busy settings. Introverts think before they speak; extroverts think as they speak.
This was a Eureka! moment for me. Learning that my brain chemistry is actually different than my hyper extroverted friend made so much sense. I wasn’t defective. I was exactly who I was supposed to be.
The misconception is that introverts are antisocial. For years, I used this stereotype as a shield of self-deprecation. I would openly say “I’m antisocial” to people when the last thing I wanted to do was go out for happy hour after work. I started to buy into it myself. But it’s not true. I love people. One of my favorite things to do in the world is sit with a couple of close friends for hours and talk about life, debate religion or politics, dish about a favorite book or TV show – the good stuff.
I’ve always hated small talk at parties. I find it mind numbingly boring. Who cares about the weather when you can talk about the things that actually enrich our lives? It doesn’t always have to be serious subject matter. I could have a pretty intense conversation about zombies or Smurfs, but that’s no chit chat. Those conversations involve creativity and problem-solving. Juicy “what-if” scenarios. I love talking about that stuff with people I care about. I just don’t like doing it 100% of the time. I need time to think about what my friends tell me on my own. I need a chance to ponder the meaning of life in peaceful bliss – at home, a cozy coffee shop, by the lake on a beautiful summer day. I like to soak in my surroundings. Absorb. Regenerate my thoughts so I can devote attention to another friend on another day.
After reading Helgoe’s book, I realized calling myself anti-social was a disservice to myself. I misled my extroverted friends, and made it harder for my introverted friends to be themselves. After that revelation, I vowed to stop. I began being more open about what I actually wanted to do, and why.
“Are you coming to happy hour tonight?”
“No thank you. I feel like throwing on my jammies, opening the book I’m halfway through, and snuggling with my cat.”
Occasionally, this honesty causes a few off guard dazed blinks. I just say “have fun” and be on my way. It’s so much easier than making up some socially acceptable excuse. People don’t believe them anyway, and I feel disgusting having used a line.
There are still times when I have to appear more extroverted than I would prefer too. As Cain points out, we live in an extroverted culture (at least if you live in the US). There are even times when I embrace a little extroversion and feel perfectly happy in doing so. But more often than not, I’d rather stay home and get lost in a solitary endeavor, like writing, reading, playing guitar, video games, or taking a long walk in the park. I refuse to let people make me feel guilty for wanting this time to myself. If you’re one of the 50% of the total population that is introverted, I hope you’ll make an effort to do the same. If you’re one of the other 50%, I promise to come to your parties as much as I can cope with it as long as you respect that I’m making the effort because I care about you. And I expect a quiet cup of hot chocolate and a long conversation in return.