Friday, September 26, 2008

I, Introvert

Do you consider the word "extravert" to be a compliment or an insult? My theory - and I believe I've expressed it here before - is that Canadians and Americans define this word differently. To Americans, an extravert is a popular, outgoing guy who is more likely than an introvert to show leadership skills, work well with others, and succeed in the workplace. To Canadians, an extravert is a shallow poser with no inner life.

Setting aside the cultural differences underlying these opposing definitions, I think they arise from conflicting ways of defining the introvert/extravert scale. The American definition assumes that people are drawn to what they like: extraverts like people; introverts (suspiciously) like to be alone. Canadians, on the other hand, focus on the flip side: introverts don't like people, but extraverts (even more suspiciously) can't stand to be alone.

The traditional wording of the Myers-Briggs personality quiz supports the American definition. "Where do you get your energy from?" it asks, the two possible answers being "other people" or "time alone." I'm always tempted to opt for the unstated third possibility: "food and sleep." For me the question is not so much where my energy comes from but rather where it goes. I am an introvert not so much because I treasure my alone time (though, admittedly, I do) but because I find social interactions draining.

Not all introverts are like this. I'm sure many of them are introverted because they enjoy solitary pursuits. But there is a subset of introverts, I believe, whose withdrawal from social situations arises not so much from misanthropy or poor social skills as from a hyper-awareness of social cues.

When I was dating my ex-husband I was often surprised by how little awareness he had of social cues that seemed glaringly obvious to me. We would stop to chat with some acquaintances and I would notice everything: the quick exchanged glance that suggested criticism or amusement; the body language suggesting a desire to end the conversation; the barely-suppressed raised eyebrow in response to a risque joke. Now, the ex was, in many ways, not a stellar example of extraversion, but he was far more comfortable in these exchanges than I was precisely because so much of the interaction went below his radar.

Shyness, I concluded, was not merely a matter of social awkwardness. It is also, surprisingly, the byproduct of too much social awareness. Shy people are more likely than extraverts to perceive (or imagine) snubs and slights, and they are more likely to perceive, and try to follow, social rules.

Take, for instance, the multiple and conflicting rules governing large-group social situations. In a one-on-one conversation, the rules are comparatively simple: give the other person a chance to talk; make sure the conversation includes both parties. Throw in a few extra participants, however, and the rules become much harder to follow. How do you determine whose turn it is to speak? At what point does it become necessary to use questions to draw in the quietest person at the table? If the group is larger than four or five people, at what point is it acceptable (and even required) to detach from one conversation and join another?

The shy person is aware, to a debilitating degree, of these dilemmas. Shy people not only notice these social undercurrents, but also care about them. Extraverts, I think, have stronger armour. They are more likely to jump into the conversation simply because it interests them, without keeping track of who has done the most talking or noticing the stifled yawns of those bored by the direction the conversation has taken. It's not so much that extraverts have better social skills as that they enjoy a kind of freedom from the information-overload introverts often experience in social situations.

The chain of cause-and-effect seems pretty clear here: I am hyper-aware of social cues and social rules, so I find social situations draining and need time alone. But then I look at my children. Neither of them is old enough to grasp the inner workings of the social world. Snubs, cliques, rules, and hierarchies are all still mercifully shrouded in the mists of the future. But their personalities are already evident.

I vividly remember my own shock as I discovered, at the age of four and five, that girls could be mean. Yet my shyness was ingrained long before I knew about the petty exclusions of the little-girl world. Pie is the same way: she looks at other people warily. She may not know yet what they're capable of, but she knows enough to be suspicious. Bub, on the other hand, is hail-fellow-well-met. He never met a plumber he didn't like. Grocery-store clerks are his new best friends. He is supremely confident that the people he meets will be passionately interested in the fact that he just watched the movie Madagascar. When his overtures meet with a lukewarm response, he is undaunted. Pie, meanwhile, watches from the wings. She doesn't know yet what to watch for, but she's learning. Her instinct for distrust will, in due time, teach her the signs of rejection, disapproval, and dislike that will keep her mutely at the edge of the high-school cafeteria. She will avoid certain pitfalls that others overlook, but she will never know the blithe freedom of those extraverted peers whose innate trust in the human race preserves them in blissful ignorance.

41 comments:

Recovering Sociopath said...

I think we need to differentiate between introverted and shy, though. My father still refuses to believe I'm an introvert because I'm not shy (actually, I wish I were a little higher monitor when it comes to social cues).

But I AM an introvert, and I do find social interactions incredibly draining.

My favorite treatment of the subject was by Jonathan Rauch in The Atlantic back in 2003: http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200303/rauch

My favorite excerpt:

How many people are introverts? I performed exhaustive research on this question, in the form of a quick Google search. The answer: About 25 percent. Or: Just under half. Or—my favorite—"a minority in the regular population but a majority in the gifted population."

trudymorgancole said...

I am always interested in your thoughts on extraverts versus introverts, probably because every time I've done any MBTI type test I come out almost evenly balanced between the two, so it's almost like being bilingual -- having, of course, the disadvantages as well as the advantages of both personality types.

You make a really good point about hyper-awareness of social cues. And it's certainly true that there are some introverts who are far from shy. I think of myself as painfully shy but covering it so well that almost no-one ever guesses.

metro mama said...

My strategy is to drown any over-sensitivity to social cues with liquor.

cinnamon gurl said...

My husband's introverted but also oblivious to social cues. I'm extraverted (barely) but painfully aware of social cues.

Swistle said...

YES. People roll their eyes at me for being "over-sensitive," but GEEZ, they're missing EVERYTHING. I mean, sure, I wouldn't be scared of that scorpion, either, if I didn't see it there. BUT I DO SEE IT. So who's wrong? Me, for reacting to it? Or the extrovert, for not seeing it and not believing me when I say I see it?

shannon said...

I am very much like this, too. I really like people and enjoy spending time with them. But I have come to accept that fact about myself and not beat myself up when I want or need some time alone or with the people I know really well and can relax around. You just explained it in a way that really makes sense.

Beck said...

I'm reasonably extroverted, but I'm also quite oversensitive. I don't know if obliviousness and being outgoing always go hand in hand.
My husband, on the other hand, is painfully shy but he's not as aware of social cues as I am. OR he's picking up social cues that I'm completely oblivious to. It's funny to think about.

Patois said...

My shy, shy son is far too aware of cues. It is painful to see. It is made even more painful by the fact that I was that child, too. He is my own Pie. His younger sister and younger brother? So very Bub-like. I'm thankful I don't have to decide which "camp" is the harder one to be in. I'd be hard-pressed to choose, knowing what the future could bring to both types.

Bea said...

RS - I'm not shy anymore either, though I was when I was younger. Part of it is that I've developed a persona I can whip out in most social situations, and part of it is that I've trained myself to ignore the rejection-cues I used to be paralyzed by.

Sin - Would you say that your husband is the "American-definition" style introvert - one who is drawn towards introversion because he enjoys solitary pursuits, not necessarily because he is pulling back from social situations?

Beck - So what do you think causes shyness when it's not that type of hyper-awareness? Do you suppose there's an optimal awareness level that supports extraversion? Too high, and you get overloaded; too low and you become uncomfortably aware that you're at a disadvantage.

Kyla said...

You have something here. I used to agonize over social interactions both while they were happening and once it was over. I somehow have learned to ignore that little voice and I enjoy things so much more. A lot of it, I find, was me imagining the thoughts or meanings of others due to my own insecurities, projecting if you will. I'm much more comfortable now that is for sure.

odat_kim said...

Personally I like the additional element of the intravert/extravert. Intraverts tend to process information internally then speak, so they need the time to respond. Extraverts tend towards processing information externally through speaking rather than quiet introspection. If you have ever watched a strong intravert and strong extravert working out a problem or negotiating it's fascinating.
Kim

Veronica MItchell said...

I don't agree on the American/Canadian distinction. One of my frustrations with the introvert/extravert discussion is how many of my (American) friends (both in real life and on blogs) insist on calling themselves introverts simply because the term has the cachet of intelligence and depth. Kinda bugs me.

Leslie said...

I'm wondering if memory has something to do with this as well. It is possible my extravert husband does notice cues at the time and just has no memory of them later, while I-the-introvert retain too many of the social cue details of a conversation and rehearse my own missteps endlessly. Thus paralyzing myself for the next interaction which in turn goes badly and leads to more rehearsing and so on and so on. . .

Mary-LUE said...

I guess I don't consider either an insult... They just are. Introvert or Extrovert. I think I enjoy the different aspects of personality so much that I would have a hard time seeing one as a liability.

I'm an extrovert who is pretty aware in social setting--but that doesn't prevent me from "forgetting myself" and plowing over people sometimes.

My husband is very much an introvert, but not shy at all. He's middling okay on the social cues. I think when he misses them it is because there is just something else going on in his head.

I do think that most people have an opinion of what they think is "best." I don't think it can be generalized as most Americans this or that, but I do wonder about areas of the country. The South where you say hello to everybody might be a place that sees extroversion as normal and the Northeast, famous for its stoic sensibility might find introversion the preferred way of being.

(At some point this rambling comment will stop... I promise.)

I do believe, as you indicate in Bub and Pie's responses that our preferences are born with us into this world.

Kathryn said...

To me it has to do with social settings. An extrovert is completely comfortable in all social settings, and speaks easily with others. An introvert is uncomfortable in large social settings (and this is where shyness may come in) and finds them difficult and stressful.

I always tell people that I am an introvert impersonating an extrovert. Everyone thinks I am very outgoing but striking up a conversation with a room full of strangers makes me sweat just thinking about it.

Bea said...

Veronica - That's been my experience as well. The most patently extraverted people I have ever met all insist that they are really introverts. But then there are books about the hidden strengths of introverts, all avowedly written in an attempt to debunk the widespread assumption that extraverts are better. So if it's not Americans who think this way, maybe it's just everybody outside our academic/bloggy circles?

Leslie - I think you're onto something. The instant-replay feature, where you review and cringe over everything you said, seems to be a patented introvert quality.

Omaha Mama said...

I had always considered myself an extrovert. It's only been in recent years that I realize it's not the case. As a full-grown adult-type person, I tend towards the introvert. I'm akward at times, drained by innane conversation, aware of peoples judgements. I'm not able to stop the constant awareness of social cues, just how you have described it here.

Intro or Extra - I am most impressed by people who are unapologetically who they are, without doubting themselves. That's what I desire for myself.

Mad said...

Yes. And this is why my book club nearly kills me on a month-to-month basis.

Bon said...

i'm Canadian but have always had the bias towards extraverts...not just personally but in terms of where my suspicions lie. but then, i've found a lot of extraverts more able to read and respond to social cues, whereas introverts can take a lot of WORK to engage in conversations.

i do need time alone to regenerate, but i also thrive with people...i need both. and shyness has never been a problem, but the reading of social cues made me easily intimidated for years.

Don Mills Diva said...

Your insghts are so thought-provoking. I truly think I have a bit of both in me and I'm grateful for that.

Jennifer (ponderosa) said...

I'm an introvert because I like to be alone, and also I'm fairly oblivious to social cues. Best of all worlds! I'm blithely unaware that other people exist!

Marian said...

To what extent does "hyper-awareness of social cues" meld with "intuition" ? Meyers-Briggs involves separate measures of intro/extraversion and intuitive/sensing gathering of knowledge...

Bea said...

Marian - Intuition is a good word for that kind of social awareness, but I'd hesitate to say that N's (in the Myers-Briggs sense) are more likely to experience it. NFs, for instance, are more likely to engage in narcissistic projection, which may actually function as a kind of shield against unwanted input from the real world. An introverted SP might not actually care that much about obeying social rules (or about what people think of him), but an ISXJ can, I think, be at least as paranoically hyper-aware as the average N.

nomotherearth said...

I am most definitely introverted, unless I meet someone who is more introverted than I am, and then I become almost aggressively extraverted. Is there a name for such a person?

I have great difficulty in group situations because I am an observer by nature. I am perfectly happy to sit and listen to others talk, then I feel pressure to say something - anything! - in order not to thought as the blank person in the corner.

Jodie said...

Wow.

I have never read anything so well written on the inner workings of the introvert vs. extrovert. Amazing.

I think I have a touch of both, and my girl sounds alot like your Bub!

Great post! Very well written!

NotSoSage said...

You're so brilliant. I am almost a 50/50 on the I/E thing but I almost always come down on the I side. I looooove people. I love spending time with people, throwing parties, sharing meals and coordinating get-togethers...but I die a little after each encounter, going over everything I could have possibly done (or not done) that left someone feeling hurt or out of place. I spoke too much, I got too political, I didn't engage this person often enough. Damn it's draining.

Reading over people's comments, I wonder whether a lot of bloggers fall into this category. We get to interact with people but we get to choose our words carefully. This doesn't necessarily mean that we never hurt or offend, but it gives us a mite more control than we would have if we were just blathering on.

Hmmm...

www.antiquemommy.com said...

After reading this, I have concluded that I am shy, introverted and Canadian.

Cole said...

I love these discussions you get going!

Hubby and I are both introverts. I'm naturally shy and hyperaware of social cues. I like people, but I like observing them so much more than interacting with them (Psychology was a great fit for me). That instant replay kills me every time and I'm always convinced people are only humouring me when they're kind.
Hubby is oblivious to social cues and not shy at all; he just really prefers to be alone. He was tested repeatedly for autism as a child and never quite met the criteria for diagnosis. I'm willing to bet that if he were retested now under the new spectrum criteria he'd land squarely on. He really doesn't like any sort of social situation and I have to drag him out of the house--but he does so much better than me once he's there. He's just himself, and he really doesn't care if he's accepted or not. Which, perversely, makes him easily accepted. He'll never be the life of the party, but he bumps along just fine.

We're both fruits (introverts), but we're definitely talking apples and oranges.

Mimi said...

This is genius, Bea -- I love the idea of the national split in defining the qualities of i's and e's. I also love the idea of introverts being too, too aware. That's me to a T, but I'm an extravert, despite a painfully shy and awkward childhood.

It is truly exhausting to read everyone's cues all the time ... and of course, as an ENTJ I feel personally responsible for managing any group situation. Then need three days of internet-only socializing to recover :-)

Gwen said...

I've also wondered, too, if introverts aren't more .... narcissistic. That's not the right word. I probably mean self-conscious instead. I have noticed in myself that same tendency to be aware of the social cues you describe. But that tendency goes one step further to interpret those social cues as being about me, me, me. It has been a great relief for me to discover in the last five or so years that few people are really all that interested in thinking about me, me, me, because mostly they're busy thinking about themselves.

Debbie said...

When I started reading the book "Introvert Advantage" a few years ago, I approached my husband (a clear introvert who has never met a party he enjoyed) and said, "Did you know that some people actually LOSE energy by being with other people?" He (as I expected) looked at me like I was crazy and said, "Uh, YEAH," and then after a pause, "Are you suggesting there's another option?!" I then explained what I was learning about extroverts to him.

I then approached a close friend of mine (a clear extrovert, who has parties and houseguests EVERY weekend and who had 600 friends at her wedding -- hubs and I had 45 people at ours) and said, "Did you know that there are people who GAIN energy from being with other people?" She (as I expected) looked at me like I was nuts and said, "Of course! ... Are you suggesting there's another option?!" I then described about introverts to her.

Introvert Advantage very much posits the ideas that (a) introverted and shy are different things; it suggests that extroverted shy people lead a very painful life of wanting to be in large groups but feeling afraid and anxious about doing so and (b) that the key definitional difference is whether you gain energy by yourself or in a small group of 2 or 3 (introvert) or in a large group of many people (extrovert).

It was fascinating to me (thus my underhanded question asking) that the two people I knew who were classic examples of their kind couldn't even IMAGINE that the other kind of energy-getting was possible. I have to admit that as a pretty big introvert myself, I do have trouble picturing exactly HOW people gain energy from being in a large group, although I can clearly see some people doing it. It's like magic!

Your theory about social cues is very interesting to me, as are the comments on it here, as it makes me think about the fact that my introverted husband expends HUGE effort trying to watch social cues in social settings, but, IMHO, is TERRIBLE at it, because he thinks 90% of the cues are subtly reflecting badly on him, when I personally don't think the world revolves around him (or anyone) in that way. I think he's misreading a lot of the cues in a way that adds a ton of social anxiety to his introversion.

As an American, I can't speak to the validity of the Canadian POV you posit, but I think the American POV is described accurately for the more urban areas. When I lived in Washington DC and Los Angeles, people felt terribly sorry for me when I said I wanted to spend my weekend or after-work time alone. It was impossible for them to believe that I WANTED to be alone. Now that I live in Montana, there's much more acceptance that wanting/needing to be alone is a normal thing.

Janet said...

I forget what my exact classification is on the Myers-Briggs scale but I'm definitely an introvert. It used to bother me immensely that I was so hyper-aware in social situations and needed so much down time. Now I'm used to it. I do wish, however, that clients would stop inviting me to brainstorming sessions: the anxiety is paralyzing. My brain likes to weather the storms on its own, thank you very much.

Bea said...

Debbie - I suppose that as an introvert, I default toward the assumption that introverts are correctly reading social cues that extraverts are missing. Of course, as Gwen points out (and as I admitted VERY briefly and parenthetically in my post), people aren't actually thinking about us introverts nearly as often as we imagine. From your point of view, it's the extraverts who are more realistic - they realize that not everybody is criticizing them. It's kind of like the optimist/pessimist distinction: each side thinks they're actually realists.

I definitely have a tendency to imagine rejection/criticism even where it does not exist, but I also think that extraverts benefit from their ability not to notice (or care about) all the subtle moments of judgment and criticism that DO take place in any given conversation. Because of course people constantly do think fleeting, inconsequential, unflattering thoughts about others - they notice the pimple on their nose, the mispronounced word, the embarrassing gaffe - and then they politely smother these observations in oblivion. The shy introvert sees you thinking those things and is overcome with embarrassment; the moderate introvert sees you thinking those things and knows enough to ignore them; and the lucky extravert blithely assumes you didn't notice.

Reluctant Housewife said...

I can so relate to this. And I think you're absolutely right about shy people and a hyper-awareness of social cues going hand in hand.

painted maypole said...

a fellow extravert recently pointed out to me that anothe one of the key Myers-Briggs indicators is how much we share of our personal information, and not just what gives us energy. i've been pondering that difference between my Introvert hubby and me for a while

Bea said...

PM - The thing is, most of the extraverts I know are far more guarded with their personal information than the introverts. Even the very private introverts have an inner circle to whom they'll reveal almost everything. In a way it makes sense - introverts prefer the kind of intimate conversations that lend themselves to self-disclosure, while extraverts thrive in larger settings where it's not entirely appropriate to reveal more private information.

Terri said...

I kind of totally agree with you. You nailed me on the head in your description of an introvert. I've never been extroverted and I do tend to pick up on subtle clues from others. I have, like you, developed a social persona that allows me to interact with others and not be so flustered by rejection cues. I still don't chit chat much with grocery store cashiers unlike my very extroverted friend who strikes up conversations with just about anyone anywhere.

Mary G said...

This is fascinating! I thought I was an extravert until I took the MB test and came out well into the introvert section. Huh? I talk to people in elevators. Apparently that's not the point; drawing strength from solitude is.
However that may be, reading your posts and comments is always a lift, especially this one.
Thanks!

Marie said...

fascinating post! I had no idea Canadians and Americans had different perspectives on introverts and extroverts, but I like the Canadian perception, since I'm an introvert. (= I, as an American, have always admired and wished I was an extrovert, all the while knowing in my heart that introverts really are quality people with some strengths extroverts don't have. I hadn't thought about awareness of social cues as an introvert ability, but I've seen it just in the difference between my husband and I...he's less cautious and less aware of others' reactions than I am. He's also better in social situations. (=
Anyway, thanks for the perspective...I probably never would have seen it.

PicaboMama said...

I came to your blog on a search for "introvert" and I think I just might stick around and keep reading...

Anonymous said...

Hi, i'm from London, England.

Just read your blog and it was kl.

It's true that shy/introverted people struggle with small details to the point where it feels like they're being strangled.

I'd be interested to read whether or not you think that it has anything to do with negative thoughts being reinforced and if people can do anything to change this. For e.g. I'm not saying anything because it's not my turn leading to why are you speaking when it might not be your turn leading to people are stupid leading to that persons an idiot they can't control their tongue leading to I don't understand the majority of people. This is the way I sometimes think.

There's also always a better way to say something. I think that's why so many introverted people may enjoy being online. Cutting things down or changing the words. Which makes me sort of wonder is it because I care what people think of me? If I write something online I don't write it for people to agree with me or like me. There's no real benefit apart from arranging my thoughts in my own head. Hang on a second though, why do I push the post button? Why wouldn't I just write and delete a diary on a word processor? Is it a fear of loneliness? If its a fear of lonliness??

No point going down this road, I've got to the point in my life where I have enough complex questions to do with the self which just leads to more pointless questions. Which can't be answered. So all I can do is try and stick with the basics and be less self aware even if it gets me in to trouble. It's like gambling. Doing a mini risk assesment in my head. If I talk about something now what have I got to lose. If shy people feel that they have more to lose, then they become more shy/introverted. Introverts are more introverted at work in my opinion.

Too many questions, not enough answers.

Anyway, thanks for the interesting blog and your baby looks adorable.