Behind the Screen

Philip Bump, writing for The Atlantic:

Our always-on society is, in fact, becoming a Golden Age for introverts, in which it has become easier to carve out time for oneself.

The full article is here.

As a introvert myself, I completely understand and agree with Bump’s argument. One might think the onset of technology and our current state of always being connected would be the bane of an introvert’s existence, but it’s actually quite the converse.

As Bump points out, introverts likely found pre-Industrial Revolution America to be quite the safe haven. Communication was more difficult, and there were less people and more space between them. As technology and populations exploded over time, the advent of the city packed more people into smaller spaces. As a result, introverts likely found themselves in stressful situations far more frequently. Regular telephone calls, increased social interaction, and solitude that was much harder to come by.

Fortunately, technology today has actually managed to rescue the introvert, as Bump illustrates:

A brilliant first volley was the answering machine: ostensibly a device meant to ensure that a call wasn’t missed, it quickly became a tool to ensure that you could miss any call you wanted.

A puzzling point for an extrovert, but for the introverted among us, a brilliant one. As technology has grown, so has our ability to hide our introversion without anyone else (i.e. extroverts) noticing.

Bump, a self-described introvert, explains the distinction between these two personality types:

For introverts like myself, it takes energy to engage with other people. Doing so requires thoughtfulness. It’s tiring. Expending energy, for us, isn’t energizing. Please note: we’re not talking about shyness, some character flaw. The problem isn’t with the introvert — it’s with the demands you make on the introvert. An introvert can’t force an extrovert to sit quietly in a room and read a book, but extroverts (and the stigmas they’ve inadvertently created) can impose social demands with ease.

I’m not complaining, because I wouldn’t trade my introversion for any amount of gregariousness, but I believe an extrovert will never be able to fully understand what it’s like to be an introvert for the precise reasons Bump describes. Through no fault of his own, the extrovert can’t possibly know what it feels like to be physically and/or mentally exhausted after, say, an hour in a room full of strangers. The stigmas Bump mentioned are undeniably true. How can you possibly not like going to parties? The notion that someone could feel this way is nonsensical to many, and we introverts often come off looking rude and stand-offish, even though we don’t intend to be.

But technology has in many ways given us an out. Bump goes on to detail his four reasons why technology protects the introvert, and for the most part, I agree with all of them. The notion of essentially lying about what you did this weekend in a status message (Bump’s first reason) seems suspect, but it’s actually just a means to create the solitude the introvert needs. As such, a simple “Be back later” status can achieve the desired result: personal space and peace and quiet.

Serial communication in the workplace, Bump’s second example, is something not just limited to introverts. I’m sure we’ve all been in a situation where we email someone instead of calling, because the latter is a little too personal, or we might be slightly afraid of the impending response, or we just don’t have the energy to get roped into a twenty minute telephone call.

I used to pride myself on responding to emails instantly; it’s the kind of disciplined and respectful response I’d prefer from others. Plus, it helps keep my inbox at zero. But in reality, one of the main benefits of email is that it doesn’t require an immediate response, which contributes to a more relaxed correspondence. The same can be said for text messages; you can read a text and take your time to think about your response, which contrasts with the more rapid-fire cadence of a telephone call. While certainly not appropriate in all instances, these “slower” forms of communication have distinct advantages.

Bump’s third reason, that technology fosters serial communication everywhere else as well, is perhaps the most beneficial to introverts. Nowadays, communication is expected to be brief and to-the-point. After all, the crux of Twitter is its 140 character limit. People are used to this concision, and introverts and extroverts alike groan upon discovering a three-minute voicemail. The brevity of a text message has become the norm, personality type notwithstanding.

As twenty-somethings and frequent texters, we’ll often hear our parents shake their heads and mutter about how we always need to be connected, exercising that typical “kids these days” tone. Whatever happened to writing letters and talking on the phone instead of being glued to a little glowing screen? A valid point, but I would argue that reliance on the text message or tweet is rarely a character flaw displaying a rude aversion to human interaction, though that’s possible. Rather, texting allows me to be in almost constant contact with friends and family while maintaining the personal space I need as an introvert. I can still have a conversation and enjoy that human interaction without expending the energy a phone call demands. Texting allows me to preserve solitude while eschewing loneliness.

Bump concludes by pointing out that technology allows us to simply “push [our] thoughts out into the world, to be responded to at some undetermined future point.” In this way, technology has allowed the introvert to thrive. I’ve always been far more articulate in writing than I am in speech, and our always-connected world encourages that sort of thoughtful expression and reflection.

Bump’s essay, nor my response, are not in any way meant to be an attack on extroverts, and they are certainly not apologies for introverts or modern forms of communication. Bump concludes:

I speak of the struggle between introverts and extroverts in antagonistic terms. But it shouldn’t be considered that way. Extroverts, we love you. We just don’t want to talk to you all the time. Happily, we live in a time when the expectation that we do so is much lower.

I whole-heartedly agree. While technology is growing at a rate that may be scary to many, in some ways, it has allowed me to be more expressive, and thus truer to myself, than ever before.

Via Minimal Mac, who found it on Boing Boing