It’s a ubiquitous sight now: people standing at bus stops, in line at the grocery store, wherever, heads slung down, staring into their electronic devices. They don’t look up.
Are these people executives of their own vast social networks? Or are they buried in their screens to avoid social contact? Who knows why each one is so screen-absorbed.
Our culture encourages consensus and conformity and rewards people who are seen as outgoing, gregarious, busy and verbose. That woman who’s slightly drunk and telling a loud, vulgar story? She’s called the “life of the party,” and she’ll probably be invited back. What about that young guy who has retreated to the host’s back bedroom, to pet the cat? He’s labelled “socially awkward” and a “loner.”
In Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, author Susan Cain traces the shift in our society from what she calls a Culture of Character to a Culture of Personality. Before the industrial era, most people lived near and worked with small numbers of people they’d known all their lives. Then, within a few decades, most Americans began living in cities and working and interacting with large numbers of strangers. That’s fine for the half or more of the population that are called extroverts: people who thrive on a lot of social stimulation.
Introverts, who make up about a third or more of our culture, are exhausted by too much social activity. Cain traces how introverts, who are often the more serious, introspective, sensitive, and even creative people – you can tell my bias as I’m an extreme introvert — have become somewhat second class citizens in a society that favors those perceived as more friendly and fun.
There’s a range of personality types along the extrovert-introvert spectrum, and neither is good or bad despite our culture’s bias toward talkers and glad-handers.
What’s important is to know oneself and honor one’s introversion or extroversion and that of others.
Over the winter holidays, I noticed that one of my Facebook acquaintances was on vacation. I couldn’t help but notice because she posted photos of herself and dozens of other people three, four, five times a day. Here they are in front of a museum. Next hour, they’re crammed together at a restaurant, then they’re walking to Times Square, then a Broadway show, then a dinner party. On and on, day after day. I found it draining just to read about it, and I wondered why someone would waste a good vacation week running around like a chicken with her head cut off. Oh, yeah, that’s right. She’s an extrovert – she must actually find this enjoyable.
When I was three years old, my parents invited a bunch of kids and their parents to my birthday party. The noise and commotion were all so much that by the time they all sang happy birthday, I burst into tears. I remember how I felt and I still often feel that way: get me out of here.
I prefer one-on-one interactions. And that’s if I like someone. If I don’t, I greatly prefer solitude. I like my own energy and feel enlivened by being alone.
When I have an enjoyable time with someone I like, or when I occasionally have to be with a large group, I must afterwards retreat to my own space to recover. If it was an unpleasant encounter, it may take days for me to recoup my energy.
With some introverts, such as myself, there’s a built-in tension because we are drawn to some pursuits that are intrinsically very social.
I am currently studying the works of several spiritual teachers regarding how to understand and navigate our own natal energies. In a recent webinar on this subject, a wise teacher was analyzing the personality of a well-known woman artist and revolutionary of the early 20th century. About Frida Kahlo, he said, “she was an introvert being asked to live the life of an extrovert.” She wanted to be alone and yet she was drawn to and caught up in the social movements of her time. She was both attracted to and repelled by large group activity.
I found this a good description of my own history with groups and political movements. I am drawn to the ideals and the agenda, and I also cannot bear the social dynamics. I was, for many years, an activist and frequent public speaker, often bombarded — and it felt like a bombardment – with constant requests and approaches by the general public. I felt utterly drained by this.
It took me years to admit to the fact that I just don’t like being in groups. I can send a check or write a letter, but don’t try to make me attend another meeting. I won’t.
In my current line of work, I deal with the general public. I often enjoy meetings with individual clients and couples. Many of them are very smart and interesting and I like working with them. Even with clients I like, I find that a lot of interaction is exhausting.
For the sake of my own well-being and happiness, I have worked on ways to honor my introversion and still deal with the public. It’s a work-in-progress.
Fortunately, I work alone, and in between client meetings, I can close the office door and relax. I have a receptionist service to answer all phone calls and send me an email summary of what the call is about. Because many people these days do not answer their cell phones, we ask clients to send me an email to avoid phone tag. I pack my client meetings into mostly the morning hours, so that I can have late afternoons to work alone and in silence on their matters, without interruptions. I schedule blocks of time when I am available for interaction and blocks of time when I am unavailable. I need to do this to get my work done and to remain energetic, and happy.
It’s now a non-negotiable part of my health program to live as I am, innately an introvert. It doesn’t mean I don’t want to talk to you and laugh with you. But if you invite me to a large, loud party, I’ll probably say: no, thanks.