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?"
- 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.
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.
- 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.
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.