“Introversion? Yes, I know all about introversion, I have many friends who are introvert, in fact, I am sometimes one myself.”
It often surprises me how people react when I tell then that I am an introvert. It’s endearing for sure, as most respond by attempting to be supportive, as if I have just confided that I have a bad back, or that I’m on my period. Others, as in the example above, offer support by way of shared experience. I cannot speak for all introverts, but personally I don’t ever state that I am in introvert because I am looking for support, validation or compassion. I am usually saying it in an attempt to apologize for my perma-grimace or because I am worried that I just did or said something rude.
It’s my way of saying: I’m sorry, it’s not that your party is awful or that I hate you, just right now I am all out of extravert—that’s why I wince whenever anyone approaches me. It’s not you, it’s not your party, it’s not your friends, it’s just that I used up all my extravert supply for today already when I went to Whole Foods earlier and bumped into about ten people whom I know well enough not to escape polite “how-do-you-dos” with; that grocery trip resulted in approximately 68 minutes of unplanned conversation, which took me about 44 minutes over my daily limit. I know that I should never have come out this evening at all, but I was afraid it would seem rude not to. As a result, I am here, but I can’t talk to anyone without looking like am an having a tooth removed—sans anesthesia. Basically, long story short, I am all out of extravert and need to go home. Alone.
The problem I find, is that the world likes to think that it understands introversion, but in my experience, it doesn’t. Not really.
(Interestingly, the word extravert, when coined by Jung, was spelt with the ‘a’ and is taken from the word “extra.” For some reason that “extra” is nowadays more commonly seen as “extro” as in extrovert. “Extro” has no Latin origin. Etymological consensus is that the use of the “o” came about to match the “intro” in introvert. I am not a fan of Jung, but I spell extravert his way because he made up the word so I think that qualifies him to know how to spell it.)
The Trendy Introvert
Introversion even seems to be somewhat trendy right now—to the point that if I say to someone: “I’m an introvert,” they might answer with: “yes, me too,” before continuing to attempt to engage me in arbitrary conversation. That, by the way, is bizarre.
In my ideal world, a conversation between two introverts would go:
Me: I’m an introvert.
Other person: Me too.
Me, option one: Oh good. *commence happy silence*
Me, option two (if I feel like it): “Do you differentiate usage of the verbs ‘bring’ and ‘take’ dependent on the perspective and location of the speaker?” Or: “Studies show that people are taking less than their allocated number of vacation days. Did you take all your planned vacation this year?” Or some other question about something which I am very interested in and actually itching to know that answer to.
We would then talk about something like that, or we would not talk, or I would pull out my book and sit down and start reading, and that would be totally and utterly acceptable and not rude at all.
Is it small talk, or arbitrary conversation that is the problem?
I distinguish arbitrary conversation from small talk. Sometimes, small talk can be interesting as I learn about people from it. Small talk is not always arbitrary conversation. Arbitrary conversation is talking for the sake of talking—my definition of hell.
Most of all, the problem that I feel is that it is not socially acceptable to not talk at all. I am really quite happy to not talk; to me, that feels more reasonable than talking for the sake of talking. When one doesn’t have to talk at all, if one does talk, it is about something that genuinely interests. I find that arbitrary conversation gets in the way of allowing those more interesting conversations to emerge.
Wasting space with arbitrary conversation feels a bit eating hors d’oeuvres that I don’t really like just because I don’t want to seem rude and then not having any room for the main course.
There is a lot of introversion literature circulating at present. There are also a lot of memes on Facebook. Most of this surrounds embracing introversion in a “geeks are cool too,” sort of way. That’s fine. I can’t say that I care one way or another about any of that. What I wish however, is that this “understanding” of introversion would translate into tolerance and understanding in social situations. Here are some examples of what I mean by that.
A Few Things That Might Seem Rude to an Extravert
I don’t show up at your party.
Because, quite frankly, sometimes I’d rather not turn up at any party—including my own.
I hold parties infrequently—once every two or three years. Actually, that is a lie, the last time I held a party it was 2011. Anyway, whenever I have decided to have a party, I’ve planned it for a date somewhere far, far in the future—you know, the type of date that seems so far away that it might not ever happen. The trouble is, that sooner or later that date will come around, and when it does, I regret having had an idea as ridiculous as having a party. I panic awfully and consider emailing everyone to say that it is cancelled. The reason that I don’t cancel, is simply because it is not socially acceptable to email your friends and acquaintances with:
Dear Frank and Emma,
The gathering next week is cancelled because I don’t want to do it.
Thanks for understanding,
Considering that every party I have ever hosted I have without fail wanted to cancel, you may be unsurprised to hear that I often do not want to go to other people’s events either. I often feel like I do have some extravert energy, but it is in a very limited supply. When it is used up, it is gone for that day. If I have had a week consisting of a few social events, the chances are very low that I can handle a weekend of parties too. That said, if I have enough time to plan ahead, and I know your party is on Saturday night, I will ensure that I conserve enough extravert energy to attend. Sometimes however, life happens, and I am faced with unexpected and unplanned social situations and the result: I am all out.
The best thing about other peoples parties, is that success is not dependent on me. They still happen whether I go or not, so my tendency to bail is high. I think that is also why the fear and panic sets in when it comes to hosting my own party: I suddenly realize that I really do have to be there. Worse still (and this really is the nail in the coffin) I have to stay until the end!
I am not anti-social. It frustrates me that I sometimes just don’t have it in me to go to all the parties, but the worst part is feeling rude or worrying that I upset the host by not going.
I need oodles of advance notice.
Oodles. We are talking, in an ideal world, something in the region of five years notice. I need to plan for this shit. Okay, so I don’t really need five years, but last minute invites are not my cup of tea. It’s all to do with a particular type of energy again. I call it my extravert energy supply, and its rarer than a Brit with an actual suntan.
With reference to the above. If I have only 10 units of extravert energy available to me per week, and your party is a 6-pointer, I need to know in advance so that I can plan to reserve those 6 units. There is a weekly budget, and if I exceed it, I’m as much fun as a toilet brush.
On a similar note, you should not think anything of it as rude if I ask “how much longer are we going to be here?” It is very important that I know how long I have to last. Think of this rather like an exercise class at the gym. When you are holding the plank, you want to know that you are being timed and that you have a time goal to reach. Can you imagine holding the plank and the instructor giving you no anticipated end point? Torture. That is exactly how I feel if I do not know when I can leave a party.
I can tolerate it for a while, but at some point I am going to get irritated. After a prolonged period of this, I will begin to devise escape routes in my head. (After all, if you were being poked with a stick wouldn’t you do the same?)
Instead, ask me something that would usually be considered too deep/controversial/taboo/boring/nerdy to ask someone that you have just met. Introverted doesn’t mean anti-social. For me, arbitrary conversation is actually painful: I’ve had instances when I’ve felt tears prickling behind my eyes from sheer frustration. Ask me something interesting or relevant however, something that causes my brain to flip into gear, and my verging panic dissolves into calm.
“I have to leave now” means NOW—not in ten minutes.
When I suddenly stand up and leave without saying “Goodbye,” please understand that you did not do or say anything wrong. I just had to leave—immediately. Also, something that my husband is finally beginning to understand is that “I have to leave”, means now. Not after one more drink, or at the end of the next song, or after we have systematically worked our way around the entire room saying farewell to each person individually. It means now—as in I am already out the door.
I have some great friends who totally understand me and don’t bat an eye when they notice that I left without saying goodbye. I am so thankful for friends like this.
I recharge by being alone.
There is no substitute for this. I have to go home. Home is the only option. A different type of alcoholic beverage, or dessert, or music, or food is not going to reenergize me. I have to go home. Trying to up my energy levels with anything other than going home, is like trying to charge an iPhone with a piece of tagliatelle.
This doesn’t mean that I don’t like you, or that you don’t throw an incredible party. It simply means that I have to be alone. It is similar to needing to go to the loo, or needing to eat some food, or needing to go to sleep—all compulsions that are a natural part of being human and considered essential for survival. For me, add “being alone” to that list.
Like I said, there is a plethora of introvert-friendly material out there in the world, but thus far, I do not see any of this having real influence. If extraverts really did understand introverts, then none of the above points would seem odd, or out of the ordinary, or (more importantly) rude. That is not the case; there is rarely a social situation that I come away from without wishing that I was more extravert.
If I were more extravert I would not have had to leave after an hour.
If I were more extravert I would have been interested in talking to someone’s wife about something totally benign.
If I were more extravert I would have not want to scream “NO GOD NO!” when someone suggests we stay for another drink.
If I were more extravert I’d not feel so rude all the time.
However, if I were more extravert, I guess I wouldn’t be me. Would I?
I am really thankful that I have friends who really do “get” me. However, society doesn’t, not really.
Each week, I spend a lot of time wondering if I did a good enough job at being extravert to not seem rude. I never want to be rude, but I think that in an extraverts eyes, often, introverts are rude. We have to be, because the social norms that define what it is to be rude were made by society—and society favors extravert because extravert is the majority.
The problem is not you, and it’s not me either; the problem is that we have different operating systems.