Friday, March 23, 2012

The Plight of the Introvert [A Rant]

"You are not an introvert."

I hear this a lot, from otherwise completely well-meaning and understanding people. I get this from people who I trust to mentor me, from people who I've known since I arrived at this school nearly four years ago. I talk too much to be an introvert, perhaps, or I spend too much time in groups. I don't sit back and silently observe the proceedings like the other introverts in the group.

Unfortunately, perhaps, introversion and extraversion are not binary opposites. They not even a spectrum. They are simply ways of describing how a person functions in large group settings. Extraverts will continue to crave more and more group interaction, while introverts, though perfectly happy in many cases to interact with a large group, will quickly tire of the group and desire more focused interaction.

Unfortunately, our society is built around large groups and public interaction. If one tries to build more focused times for interaction, it's usually looked upon as being "antisocial" or in cases where the introvert is more desperate or less subtle about how they go about looking for that interaction, even "creepy"

So introverts are faced with a choice. For some, a satisfactory solution is to hover at the fringes of these large social events, meeting other introverts and then remaining on the fringe being quiet, reserved, and polite, and then leaving early to be alone.

However, some of us can't do alone. We also can't do large groups well. We can adapt, to a point, but it's not natural for us. So our next best option is to come into the groups looking for one-on-one conversations. However, when we try to draw people into these one-on-one or small-group interactions, we are accused of being "anti-social," as if being "social" were the highest virtue of a relationship. So we try to maintain these singular or small-group relationships within the context of larger groups, with varying degrees of success. But this is far from satisfactory.

The plight is worsened by trying to explain it, in most cases. My attempts to explain my needs for interaction to people are usually thwarted by the assumption of a false dichotomy. Either one wants to interact with people, in which case the more the merrier, or one does not, in which case they may as well sit at home and read, play video games, knit, or whatever else those weird people do. But the problem here is that I don't want to interact with more, but I also don't want to interact with no one. There is some ε which is the ideal number of people to interact with at once. It's certainly less than 10, usually less that 7, and quite commonly 1 or 2, depending on the person, their mood, and the circumstances.

Some introverts resort to staying at home and seem satisfied. The harder part is for those of us who really, really do crave interaction with others. The only place to get it is in the massive groups which make up what our society deems "social" events, so we go. But people see how we've adapted and assume that because we put on a bright face (because, you know, looking unhappy at a party is quite conducive to the goal of interacting with people), we're perfectly happy to be in the middle of everything. Then when we finally crash and have no energy left to exert in interacting with a large group, people assume that something must have happened, otherwise why would we leave? We were so happy!

So what can you do for the introvert in your life? Take time out to visit them, perhaps go to a bar or their apartment with one or two others. Take time to talk about deep and important things. When they are in large groups, take the time to sit down and engage them in meaningful conversation. When they exit the group, don't assume they are bumming out. Offer less crowded company. Any introvert in a group larger than 10 people is exerting tremendous energy to avoid intruding on the enjoyment of those who really do like such groups. Pay attention to the signs that somebody might prefer something a little deeper, and give them an opportunity for that interaction

tl;dr Just because we talk a lot and interact in large groups doesn't make us happy there or mean that we aren't introverts

P.S. The pronoun "we" is used under the assumption that I am not the only one faced with this difficulty.