A couple days ago, I came across this article in The Atlantic (read it here), titled “Caring for Your Introvert,” and subtitled “The habits and needs of a little-understood group.” An article about and written by an introvert. I’ve never really aggressively branded myself as an introvert (I avoid defining myself by more than the minimum labels required to fill out paperwork), but I suppose if asked, I would say that I am usually (almost always) more of an introvert than an extrovert.
“What is introversion? … Today it is a mainstay of personality tests, including the widely used Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. Introverts are not necessarily shy. Shy people are anxious or frightened or self-excoriating in social settings; introverts generally are not. Introverts are also not misanthropic, though some of us do go along with Sartre as far as to say “Hell is other people at breakfast.” Rather, introverts are people who find other people tiring … after an hour or two of being socially “on,” we introverts need to turn off and recharge. My own formula is roughly two hours alone for every hour of socializing. This isn’t antisocial. It isn’t a sign of depression. It does not call for medication. For introverts, to be alone with our thoughts is as restorative as sleeping, as nourishing as eating. Our motto: “I’m okay, you’re okay—in small doses.“”
I’ve been described many different ways. When I was young, my parents preferred to tell people that I was “shy.” I have also been described as “quiet,” “mysterious,” “distant,” “inscrutable,” “cold,” and once I was described (half-jokingly) by a high school teacher as appearing to have no feelings. One friend explained me by saying that I was a “socially normal” person, but that I just “took a while to warm up to people.”
“In our extrovertist society, being outgoing is considered normal and therefore desirable, a mark of happiness, confidence, leadership. Extroverts are seen as bighearted, vibrant, warm, empathic. “People person” is a compliment. Introverts are described with words like “guarded,” “loner,” “reserved,” “taciturn,” “self-contained,” “private”—narrow, ungenerous words, words that suggest emotional parsimony and smallness of personality. Female introverts, I suspect, must suffer especially. In certain circles, particularly in the Midwest, a man can still sometimes get away with being what they used to call a strong and silent type; introverted women, lacking that alternative, are even more likely than men to be perceived as timid, withdrawn, haughty.”
Let me tell you a story. Yesterday afternoon, walking down an empty hallway on the second floor of Baker lab, I noticed a stranger approaching from the opposite direction. Immediately, I began to mentally struggle with the decision of whether I should make eye contact, make eye contact and smile or nod, invent some imaginary distraction on my phone/watch/ipod, or whether I should just stare in another direction and entirely avoid acknowledging their presence. Ultimately I avoided having to make a decision when, still 5-6 feet away, the stranger turned and walked into the men’s room. I make this decision a couple times every day. And then the decision becomes infinitely more difficult if it’s someone I recognize but don’t know well (a friend of a friend, an old TA, one of those guys who works at Manndible…). Will they say hi? Try and make small talk? For some people, this process might seem quite silly, but for me each encounter can be a small, yet momentarily stressful decision.
Over the next two months, I will visit a number of universities to whose graduate programs I have been accepted. I’m incredibly excited to see new cities, tour labs, speak to faculty, and meet my peers (and future classmates?!?), but many of the things that excite me also make me nervous. I can foresee myself mutely smiling and nodding at dinners, and hovering on the edge of conversation circles at large receptions (in my opinion, the optimal group size is two to five people – any more and someone *me* is going to get excluded). It’ll be an extrovert’s paradise and an introvert’s worst nightmare. But even though I don’t expect to make the greatest first impressions, I know I’ll be ok. I always am. I may start out friendless, but I’m never really friendless for long.
And ultimately, that’s what’s important. Introverts don’t lack good personal relationships, they just form different kinds of relationships. For me, as much as I adore the friends who can supply endless stories and conversation, I also value those who place some value on every word, and with whom I can experience comfortable silences instead of awkward pauses.