Real Introversion versus Hollywood Introversion--Part I: What IS Introversion?

Part 1 because not everyone agrees, and there are many, many different definitions.

I happen to straddle the fence which I think gives me some insight on this topic. People in my family tend to be reserved ("This is MY space") which I think is a facet of introversion. However, people in my family also range from "I enjoy social activities and meeting people and making new friends" to "Email was invented for a reason, folks." I fall, as I stated earlier, directly in the center of this range. (Keep in mind, I am a woman, and women by training are more likely to exert themselves socially whatever they may feel like inside. And, yes, it is still expected that women will do this although that may change as the 21st century adapts to the power/nature of the introvert.)

However, being an introvert isn't just or only a desire to avoid crowds and/or strangers. In fact, many introverts, especially women introverts, like to be in crowds. I have heard introversion described as the obligation a person feels ("I think I should talk to others, ergo, I must be an extrovert."). However, your average woman has been trained (like the introverted Darcy in Pride & Prejudice and children of the 1940's/50's) to accept certain social obligations. My father, a decided introvert, will practice said obligations in certain situations (and can be quite charming when he does so).

In his novel Path of Dreams, my brother, Eugene astutely pinpoints that what introverts like, when it comes to social obligations, is a ROLE. I am a teacher. This may not seem surprising since I straddle the fence, but actually teaching often frightens me deeply. What keeps me going is that teaching is a ROLE. Roles can give a person a lot of freedom (my father did a lot of acting in church plays when he was younger). However, when the ROLE conflates with non-role expectations, the ROLE stops being fun (that is, when my students stop acting like students and start acting either like friends or enemies, I become either uncomfortable or miserable).

Even within a role, introvert behavior can be surprisingly difficult to pin down. From my straddling position, I think I can define what introversion is by explaining what annoys me about introversion and what annoys me about extroversion.

What annoys me about contemporary introversion is the absence of social noblesse oblige.

I have a very 19th century/Jane Austen view of social obligations. The world does depend on a smooth-running society ("smooth-running" to me means people give me correct change at the register and don't crush my donuts). The people with hearts can't always take care of the people with heads. I need to be functional.

And it annoys me when I don't get any help fulfilling those functions. For example, like most people in my family, I can talk away like nobody's business; consequently, I once got invited on a blind date with the expectation that I was going to chatter away and entertain everyone, including THE GUY. But I didn't know THE GUY, and I can't carry a conversation all by myself. I need some feedback. It was an excruciating day. Hint to introverts: NEVER go on a whole-day trip for a first date.

The expectation in this experience was that as an perceived extrovert, I should want to do all the talking. And there are some extroverts like that, but even many extroverts don't like the burden of communication to be placed entirely on their shoulders. It is wearisome.

On the other hand . . .

What annoys me about extroversion is the expectation that "EVERYBODY LOVES A GOOD PARTY!"

My idea of hell is a non-ending cocktail party where people stand around with little cheez things and sweating glasses of punch, talking about their cars and raises in answer to tedious questions regarding "how things have been going for them lately?"

I suspect:
  • That a real introvert never expects to be asked tedious questions (although, again, things are different for women; strong, silent men get away with A LOT).
  • And I suspect that people who like huge groups really do have fun.
In all honesty, I didn't believe the second bullet for the longest time. I thought that everyone was just enduring the group/dance/convention like me and that I needed to do my social part to keep the group/dance/convention going.

And then one day, I realized that there ARE people who actually do this stuff ON PURPOSE. They would rather go to a party than stay home. They would rather be in a group of 25 than in a luncheon date of me & you. They would rather see how many friends they can meet as quickly as possible. This was a huge relief, by the way. My reaction was "Oh my gosh! They WANT to do this stuff. I can go home!"

Narrowing it down: I now return to one of my earlier points: introversion is not automatically interchangeable with shyness. Shyness can be a product of introversion; however, shyness can also be a product of context.

C.S. Lewis and Tolkien are a case in point.

Both men were reserved Britishers (Lewis was Irish; Tolkien was English). Both men would appear shy to Americans. (Just like Easterners often appear snobby and reserved to Westerners.)

BUT C.S. Lewis was an extrovert, and Tolkien was an introvert.

Lewis liked to meet people. He honestly liked to network. He also liked to argue about ideas. He came off as loud, boisterous, and even obnoxious. Except when he came off as completely diffident and reserved.

Tolkien liked to have one good friend who was his one good friend. Other people were okay as long as they didn't intrude too much.

The rift between Tolkien and Lewis can be easily explained by understanding that Tolkien wanted Lewis to be his one good friend, and Lewis wanted Tolkien to be one of a crowd. And although this kind of thing can be overcome, the intensity of Tolkien's personality kind of precluded that. I tend to read Lewis biographies whose authors tend to side with Lewis, and I do agree that Tolkien took umbrage when there was none to be taken (Tolkien wasn't all that introspective; Lewis was: go figure).

But I completely and totally understand where Tolkien was coming from! When you start thinking you are #56 REALLY GOOD FRIEND, you start going, "Are you kidding me? Go hang out with the other 55."

Having said that, there are many extroverts who enjoy having one or two best friends with everyone else being acquaintances. The trick, with extroverts, is to figure out which you are towards them and just stick to that.

TO SUM UP
  • Introversion can involve social noblesse oblige (a sense of social obligations) although contemporary introversion often doesn't (although women still usually do). And, pipes up my Jane Austen side, a lot of tension here for both introverts and extroverts is largely due to a changing culture that does not deliver firm social guidelines/roles. I'm not saying this is wrong or right, mind you, just that firm social guidelines/roles enable both extroverts and introverts to fulfill social obligations without feeling put upon ("Why do I have to do everything?!") or pressured ("I didn't invite these people here!"). My parents, for example, both have far more social training than I do although I would argue that I am more conscious than they are of social intricacies. But they grew up in the 40's and 50's. They were trained to be social. No Internet dating back then.
  • Introversion is NOT automatically a distaste for crowds. Rather introversion is a distaste for crowds of people all expecting constant social interaction.
  • However, introversion is more a state of mind than the social interactions one sees.
  • Introverts do understand extroverts better than extroverts understand introverts. Extroverts will often misinterpret introversion as shyness (which can be cured!) rather than a way of looking at/handling social interactions.
Think of it, finally, in this way:

An extrovert and introvert are in a railway carriage.

The extrovert will think the introvert is being selfish not to show interest in the extrovert's polite questions, and the extrovert is right. The introvert will think the extrovert is being selfish for demanding the introvert's attention, and the introvert is right.

The straddler will pinpoint both when she gets into the carriage, wait for the extrovert to start bugging the introvert and then read her own book while listening to the conversation.

11 comments:

  1. As Jonathan Rauch puts it, "Extroverts are easy for introverts to understand, because extroverts spend so much of their time working out who they are in voluble, and frequently inescapable, interaction with other people. They are as inscrutable as puppy dogs. But the street does not run both ways. Extroverts have little or no grasp of introversion. They assume that company, especially their own, is always welcome."

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  2. Mathew Park7/16/2010

    I like to think of myself as a career Introvert. I used to think being a J. D. Salinger-esque hermit would be sweet. Though I know better. I understand there are times when people are needed. Though in cases of emergency, I have partitioned of a section of my own personality so that I can talk to myself if need be.
    For me you hit the nail on the head when you mentioned the parties that are nothing more then milling about with crackers listening to stories about soccer tournaments won by 4th degree nephews 12 states away.
    My introversion manifests itself in a phobia/utter ahboration of small talk. I enjoy talking to people, but the conversation must be like a laser guided missile.
    Pop quiz! Three people come up to me and they each ask a question:
    1) So, how ya been?
    2) Nice day isn’t it?
    3) So, what’s your opinion on the oxford comma?
    To number 1, I say “Good” and hope they walk on. To 2 I will say “Yes, better than…” and compare it to some bad day the previous week, THEN hope they walk on by. To number 3 I will engage a long conversation that starts with the use of commas, the oxford comma, and ultimately ends in a diatribe about how people misunderstand the apostrophe.
    I do not attend many parties.
    On a side note, as I will be your student by the end of next month, I will make sure not to be your friend, or enemy as I would not want to make you uncomfortable ;)

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  3. Mathew: I appreciate anyone who visits my blog! I must say you are one of my first students (or potential students) who has happened on the connection between Katherine Woodbury, the teacher, and Votaries. (As far as I know, of course.) Still, to be on the safe side, although I often talk about education, I rarely discuss specific events in the classroom (in the faculty lounge, occasionally). I'm saving it all up for that book I write some day!

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  4. Interesting exploration of definitions, Kate. I think I would qualify as a straddler, too.

    The definition I have heard that has made the most sense to me is that introverts are drained by crowds and energized by solitude, but extroverts are the reverse.

    Since I like to speak before people (as in a teaching situtation, or on a conference discussion panel) and feel energized by it, but can feel drained if I do it too long, and since I also like long, interesting one-on-one (or small group) conversations, and since I also am completely happy--for a while--just being alone and reading or doing genealogy or whatever, I'm inclined to consider myself a straddler by that definition as well.

    Do people have to be one or the other all the time?

    By the way, I find myself wondering if I should preface each of my comments here with "no relation" though I realize it probably doesn't really matter.

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  5. Hey, Kathleen, we probably are related somewhere back along the genealogical tree! I was always told, "Two Woodbury brothers came to America and got married, and all the Woodburys in the U.S. come from those families."

    When I was growing up in New York, Woodbury wasn't a common name. But now that I live in New England itself, I run into it all the time. There's a Woodbury Campus Center at the USM campus right across the street from me. I wish I was directly related to that Woodbury! (When I worked at USM, the mail guys used to kid me, asking me if I was going to inherit from my wealthy relation. Not sure that would be possible even if the relationship was closer. If a long-lost millionaire Woodbury did show up, it's not like my siblings and I would be the only claimants: all those cousins!)

    Re: introversion, I do believe in extroverted introverts and introverted extroverts. I'm not a big fan of personality profiling in general (Myers-Briggs, etc.) because there are SO many combinations and exceptions, etc. etc. etc. But I accept extrovert and introvert as a basic starting point.

    I think a lot of it does come down to context, and I like your energize definition. For me, teaching is like acting except I'm being myself. Nothing drains me more, but when I'm doing it, I've got all the energy I need. (This really helped when I taught early morning seminary!)

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  6. All Meyers-Briggs does is work off of Extrovert/Introvert and Right/Left Brained. The mistake it makes is assuming that both attributes aren't scales, but one or the other. Still as a general tool, I find it useful.

    Studies of the scale of extrovert/introvert have found that introverts who pretend to be extroverts and/or are repeatedly placed in situations where they need to "be" extroverts undergo extreme stress. The conclusion is that these are not mutable traits.

    Yes, there are many other personality traits but not with such clear opposites and a continuum.

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  7. So I took a few quizzes (I honestly don't know if I'm an introvert or extrovert), and it looks like I'm a straddler too.

    While I can be very outgoing and loud, it takes a certain group. The funny thing is that (and you've witnessed this Kate) I'll be in public, and random people will walk up and start talking to me out of the blue. But, when I'm talking or telling a story, even though I'm told I'm entertaining to listen too, inevitably I'm cut off before I finish(that may have something to do with working around a TON of women- you see, women typically jump from topic to topic, men will build up to their point- think punchline).

    Anyway, I enjoy one on one attention with friends, and stopped going on big group activities. But, I sit home on the weekends wishing someone would call and invite me to do something!

    So I've decided that I'm weird.
    Sorry, not that you all wanted to know all that, but the post got me really introspective.

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  8. I'm taking a guess here, Mike, but you're a pretty self-effacing guy, and orators usually are not.

    I discovered this when I started teaching: a presenter has to absolutely BELIEVE that they should be listened to.

    This was hard for me at first. I thought what I had to share was important. And I thought I was right about what constitutes good writing. But I thought the students should figure out it was important and that I was right on their own.

    I had to come to believe (and I actually do now) that what I was going to share wasn't only important and right for the students, it would make them better writers.

    Part of this was experience. I saw which assignments/grading systems worked and which didn't. But part of it was I developed an actual theory about writing and teaching.

    This is why I dislike teaching online courses: too often, I'm preaching someone else's theory, and way too often, it's pretty (higher education) stupid.

    BTW, I don't think this absolute belief in oneself is an extrovert or introvert quality. As Eugene points out about the Big Bang Theory, when it comes to his opinions, Sheldon is about as alpha male as a male can be.

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  9. Mathew Park7/17/2010

    In high school band once the conductor had us all sing our parts. We did, and one of the oboes piped up “if I wanted to sing, I would be in chorus.” Of course he went on to explain that singing has a lot to do with playing an instrument.

    You reminded me of this when you said that it would help you be a good writer if you belived that you should be listened to. I remember back when I was reading peoples stories; I would give them the good, the bad, the suggestions, and at the end I would always ask “Why do you think someone would want to read this story?” Many people did not understand why I asked this, they had no answer. Some people got down right offended that I would even ask something like that.

    To sum up—most people ended up confronting their worst fear: they did not find what they wrote to be interesting enough.

    To tie it to Introversion and extroversion, I often times don’t speak because I feel that what I have to say is not interesting at the time, or not on topic enough. So I pipe up till I see an opportunity. Extroverts just seem to have the confidence charm oozing from them and they tend to feel that they always have something interesting to say.

    These are just some observations and may not be true all the time, if at all.

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  10. I finally had time to read these two posts (your posts, Kate, are not ones that can be casually skimmed!)

    I am a shy introvert. I like the way you separated shyness and introversion - yes, they do get conflated a lot, even by people who should know better.

    I look at introversion as being like a car without an alternator - the more social interaction I have, the more my battery is drained, until I have to go plug in somewhere (preferably with a good book.) Extroverts have alternators - social interaction energizes them, while "sitting in the driveway" so to speak, drains their batteries.

    Roles, for me, are more about shyness than introversion. Shyness, IMO, is about discomfort with unfamiliar situations. Having a role at those times gives me a measure of comfort that lets me function. If I am in an unfamiliar situation, where my role is unclear to me, I freeze up and withdraw. I don't know what to do.

    I like to put introversion / extroversion and shyness / not shyness on a grid (what's a good antonym for shy, anyway?) Doing that makes it easy to see that you can have: Shy Extroverts, Shy Introverts, Not-Shy Extroverts, and Not-Shy Introverts. So, a Not-Shy Introvert would be comfortable in unfamiliar situations, but not interested in too much interaction with others (Temperance Brennan, maybe?) whereas a Shy Extrovert needs the stimulus of social interaction, but is happiest when that interaction takes place in familiar places with familiar people.

    Me, you can just call a closet hermit. :) Although, when it comes to social interaction, my family and closest friends are not so tiring to me. It's as if they are labeled as part-of-me somewhere in my psyche, and therefore not as stressful to be around. Even so, I find that I stay up late and give up sleep so that I can have some of my very essential alone time each day. Too many days in a row without alone time and I start getting fractious.

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  11. I like defining Brennan as a not-shy introvert although my brother Eugene would probably classify her as an apavert. Like Sheldon on Big Bang Theory (fantastic show!), she doesn't behave in the "correct" introverted manner, respond in the "correct" extroverted way, OR even realize she is supposed to.

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