Some Thoughts on Introverts

I adore this list of Seven Things Extroverts Should Know About Their Introverted Friends, which M.G. Siegler linked to over the weekend:

  1. We don't need alone time because we don't like you. We need alone time because we need alone time. Don't take it personally.
  2. We aren't judging anyone when we sit quietly. We're just sitting quietly, probably enjoying watching extroverts in action.
  3. If we say we're having fun, we're having fun, even though it might not look that way to you.
  4. If we leave early, it's not because we're party poopers. We're just pooped. Socializing takes a lot out of us.
  5. If you want to hear what we have to say, give us time to say it. We don't fight to be heard over other people. We just clam up.
  6. We're not lonely, we're choosy. And we're loyal to friends who don't try to make us over into extroverts.
  7. Anything but the telephone.

When I find myself in the company of talkative people, I find it difficult to do anything other than listen. I literally cannot come up with anything to say, and I'm often rendered speechless anyway watching people who can just talk and talk and talk and talk. I don't know how they do it.

I strongly dislike being asked if I'm having fun or if I'm OK just because I'm leaning against a wall or sitting quietly by myself. I'm perfectly content observing the room. Really. The act of asking me if I'm OK—and thereby calling attention to my introversion and inadvertently making me feel bad that I'm not telling my latest joke or playing charades—is what makes me not OK. Now I'm uncomfortable.

Folks don't realize how challenging it is to be a quiet person in a room full of talkative strangers. The introvert has to rise to the environment's level of in-your-face friendliness. That's the expectation. It's never the other way around. An introvert can't make everyone sit quietly and read a book.

We don't dislike people. We just feel outnumbered easily. We prefer to go one-on-one.

It's not your fault. We introverts are complicated creatures. And we are selective. Intensely loyal to those who do not try to change who we are.

Getting to know an introvert requires more of an investment—we don't let just anyone in—but there are returns to be had. I like to think it's worth it.

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Where Are My Friends?

When it comes to friendships, I've always favored quality over quantity.

Growing up as a geeky, introverted kid, that makes total sense. When I was younger, I was far more interested in my studies, reading, or playing video games than I was in being a social butterfly. In many ways, I still am.

Being a geek when you're little is, to say the least, inconvenient. But as I got older and went to college, I began to wear my social selectivity as a badge of honor. I had little desire to allow anyone into my life who didn't positively contribute to it. Not that I would forcibly reject people — I'd just be content with allowing certain relationships to fade away. To let them be what they were, nothing more, and not try to force anything out of politeness or desperation.

As our dad likes to point out, my sister and I are complete opposites, especially when it comes to our social lives. Through her, I've noticed how being selective with friendships has its advantages and disadvantages. I don't think my sister has ever been without plans, somewhere to be, or someone to hang out with. Or so it seems to me, anyway. That's really awesome, and there are plenty of times when I wish my phone was going off all the time, if only to have someone to talk to.

On the other hand, the more friends you have, the more likely you are to encounter drama on a somewhat regular basis.

If a relationship causes me more drama than its worth, I let it go. If I want to get through life as contently as possible, eliminating unnecessary people is one of my most valuable strategies.

What I'm beginning to realize now, though, is that as I get older, I find myself having to eliminate unnecessary people less and less. That is, I'm meeting new people far more infrequently.

A few days ago, Alex Williams wrote an article for the New York Times about the challenge of making friends as an adult:

As external conditions change, it becomes tougher to meet the three conditions that sociologists since the 1950s have considered crucial to making close friends: proximity; repeated, unplanned interactions; and a setting that encourages people to let their guard down and confide in each other, said Rebecca G. Adams, a professor of sociology and gerontology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. This is why so many people meet their lifelong friends in college, she added.

I met most of my best friends in college. We saw each other, laughed, cried, and lived life together every day. It was amazing, in retrospect. Now I only talk to most of them every few weeks, if I'm lucky, and since we've all moved back to our respective areas of the country, I see them far less often than I'd like.

But they're still my best friends.

I made some best friends in grad school, too, and I'm grateful that I still talk to them as often as I do.

But none of them are here right now. None of them are down the hall or upstairs. Most aren't in the same town, let alone the same state.

Since moving out of my parents' house, I've felt their absence more than ever. There are days when I wake up, read, write, work out, cook, and eat without ever talking to another person. Sometimes it's not until I go to work or yoga or run errands that I hear my own voice. And though I love solitude as much as the next writer/geek/introvert, we do miss our friends.

I tell you this not out of a desire for pity, of course. Being out on my own is great, and I wouldn't trade my best friends for all the acquaintances in the world. It's merely been the observation at the forefront of my mind lately.

As I get older, I don't see myself suddenly gaining five new friends a week as one might do in college. In fact, when I try to imagine where my next good friend is going to come from, I can't come up with an obvious answer. There are no more classes. There are no more parties in the quad. Right now — and with the kind of job I want — there aren't even any coworkers.

It is, admittedly, a bit scary.

Alex Williams:

People have an internal alarm clock that goes off at big life events, like turning 30. It reminds them that time horizons are shrinking, so it is a point to pull back on exploration and concentrate on the here and now. “You tend to focus on what is most emotionally important to you,” [Laura L. Carstensen, a psychology professor who is the director of the Stanford Center on Longevity in California] said, “so you’re not interested in going to that cocktail party, you’re interested in spending time with your kids.”

I don't know if I'm OK with pulling back on exploration, of the self or otherwise. But I do know — so far — who I want alongside me at 30 and beyond.

There are billions of people out there, and not all of them are worth knowing.

So when I find someone who is, I'm going to make sure they know it.

Thanks for reading! Want more? Grab the free QLE Manifesto. Perhaps follow me on Twitter. Need something? Email me.

Night Owls Are Not Lazy

Yesterday, as I struggled to wrench myself out of bed to make my 9am yoga class, I was reminded of the debate between early risers and night owls.

I’ve written about the power of night before, but I still let myself feel guilty from time to time for staying up late and sleeping in. I willingly admit that the early morning is an amazing time of day, if you can get to it. I’ve flirted with the idea of becoming an early riser, possibly by making it part of the Year of the Habit.

But I’ve decided that’s a dumb idea.

I love staying up late and sleeping in. Nighttime appeals to my introverted nature: the quiet, the calm, the solitude — it comforts me. In a weird way, the night energizes me. Even if I only slept for a few hours the night before, if I make it to sundown, I’ll usually stay up far past midnight.

I suppose my relationship to nighttime is akin to a morning person’s relationship with the early hours of the day. I imagine the process of waking up energizes these people. They love having a brand new day ahead of them. (I, for one, wish they would lower their voices.)

There’s a parallel between night and day, and introversion and extroversion, which I attribute to the presence of human beings and the resulting effects on the individual.

According to a definition I agree with, extroverts get energized by being around people. It’s easiest to be surrounded by people in the middle of the day, when everyone’s rushing around trying to get things done.

Conversely, introverts find other people exhausting. I completely relate to this. If I’m in a social setting with a bunch of people with whom I’m not familiar, I can only be friendly and outgoing (or my version thereof) for so long. It’s very mentally taxing to pretend to be someone you’re not. Eventually, I’m going to need to not be there anymore. Not in a rude way, but in an “OK, that’s enough” way.

Solitude energizes the introvert, and what better time to find solitude than when the world is asleep?

Mike Vardy has a terrific article about why it doesn’t matter whether you’re an early riser or a night owl:

There is no advantage to being an early riser over being a night owl when it comes to increasing your productivity. It’s all in how you handle what comes at you – day and night – and making sure that you handle in it in a way that suits you and your lifestyle [sic]. If you find that you like getting up early, go for it. If you don’t, then don’t change that. Instead, put your efforts into making sure that your are being productive rather than when you are being more productive [sic].

So simple, yet so profound. As Mike says, “The notion that early risers are more productive than night owls is a myth.”

Exactly. It’s a myth perpetuated by social convention — the same conventions that say you need to work from 9am to 5pm to be successful, or that you need to buy a big house to be happy, or that you need 6 – 11 servings of grains a day to be healthy.

I lovingly reject all of that conventional wisdom, so why would I try and force myself to conform to the “rule” that says I need to wake up at the crack of dawn when it defies the nature of who I am?

You should read Mike’s article, because it’s spot-on. A night owl gets as much done as an early riser; he just does it at a different time of day. Neither lifestyle is right or wrong. What’s wrong is trying to force your body to do something it doesn’t want to do. You don’t force yourself into a yoga pose if your body is screaming, “NO!” That’s how injuries happen.

As long as it’s not negatively impacting other aspects of your life, I say keep whatever hours you like. Doing great stuff is more important than trying to do it when other people say you should.

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The Power of Night

When I was little, I used to freak out if I was the only one awake in my house. Being alone in the dark is scary for a kid. These days, though, I’ve come to appreciate it.

If left to my own devices, I could probably become completely nocturnal in about two days. I love staying up late, and I could sleep until noon every day if my schedule allowed. I’ve never been a morning person and find the moment my alarm goes off to be excruciating. Those of you who blink twice and spring out of bed with a cheerful, “Good morning!”, please keep your voice down while I remove the welding from my eyes.

I do, however, have a certain affinity for the dawn. Getting up for it is hellish, but five o’clock in the morning is an incredible time of day. You just have to get to it. For me, that usually means staying up all night — and then sleeping in, of course.

People always allow themselves to feel guilty about sleeping late. “I feel like I wasted my whole day!” Or, if they’re tough, they’ll say, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead!” I never understood that line of thinking. For one, you’ll die a lot sooner if you don’t get your sleep, and two, all you have to do is stay up later. Boom. Hours regained.

I appreciate vitamin D as much as the next person, but I’ve always found nighttime to be preferable to daytime. There’s no traffic. It’s quiet. In the summer, it’s much cooler. You’re probably not rushing to get anywhere, so it’s more relaxing. You see things differently in the dark. It’s a different world. It’s a world at rest.

There’s also a special benefit. All of these qualities contribute to a sense of heightened emotion.

Have you ever noticed how emotions are way more intense at night? Whatever you’re feeling seems to increase tenfold. That’s because we are more likely to find ourselves alone with our thoughts at night. During the day, we’re all running around, doing our jobs, talking to each other, trying to get things done. It’s easy to suppress our emotions when we’re busy and have life to distract us. But at night, when the world slows down, and everyone is asleep but you, the only company you have is your mind. Your emotions become much bigger and more powerful because they’re being amplified by solitude. It’s hard to ignore them when everything else is so quiet.

Maybe it’s the introvert in me, but I value this time. It’s a great opportunity to practice mindfulness. You can wrestle with feelings, contemplate the unknown, or appreciate something or someone in your life. With no one around, you can give something your full attention. You can focus all your energy into a single thought or project. I’m writing this article at two in the morning, for example. It’s hard to find such opportunity during the day.

It works both ways, of course. Being alone in the dark when you’re happy can be liberating, but when you’re sad, it can be miserable. In either case, though, we should remember to take advantage of the heightened awareness the night provides. It’s a wonderfully cathartic environment. It’s the perfect time to get to know yourself a little better. To sit still, be quiet, and just think. Your mind might teach you things you missed while running around in the sun.

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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