Introverts have a new dilemma.
People (mostly) now know the word “introvert.” They don’t immediately associate it with “shy.” Huge achievement. Say it with me: I’m introverted!
But we have a new challenge. Just because people can spell “introvert” doesn’t mean we can be introverted in public. The public space is still dominated by extroverts. And this extroverted world demands we explain ourselves and make them comfortable with our introversion. To do that, we need to be out there, public, expressive.
We have to be loud to get our quiet.
Tell me if this sounds familiar. I form a new friendship. We connect. We’ll make plans, we see each other as schedules permit. She’s comfortably extroverted, I’m not.
When we get together, we’re doing something—a group dinner, a party, a street fair, shopping, exercise classes. Multitasking friendship dates are common and difficult for introverts because we’re forced to spend energy on the other thing, not on the person, not on the friendship.
Her preferences set the tone of our interactions because extroverts have such fun ideas about things to do. She’s lively, not selfish, she has no idea what my needs are. I didn’t express them. Why wouldn’t I want to go to a barbecue in the park? Doesn’t everyone?
I’m uncomfortable, but I shrug it off—“I’m just difficult. Of course I should want to go to a barbecue in the park. Doesn’t everyone?” After a bit, I think I’m not so interested in this person. It’s too much work, I don’t feel fulfilled. We’ve done things, we have similar interests, yet our friendship feels shallow.
I withdraw, ignore calls, make excuses. She’ll feel hurt, rejected. She might just think I’m weird. Our friendship ends—or whatever it’s called when you stop hanging out but still emoji their Facebook posts of happy, fun times in the park.
This scenario has happened countless times. Each time, I blame myself for taking yet another venomous bite into friendship. I’m where friendship comes to die. And you’re probably thinking, “No, you’re not, stop being dramatic—but why the hell didn’t you just say what you needed?!”
Yes, an introvert dilemma.
First, because for the longest time, I was ashamed about being introverted.
Introversion wasn’t a thing. You were social, or you were weird. You did social things, or you had a moment of “down time” but it was just that, a moment, we all need moments. of down time. But it’s not how we live. Except, it was how I lived. I live in down time sprinkled with up time. And that wasn’t normal. I was ashamed I wasn’t more social. I wanted to be extroverted, the kind of person who wouldn’t blanch at the thought of a street fair. But I wasn’t.
Second, when exactly is the appropriate time to set friendship expectations?
Is there a “talk”? At what point in a new relationship do you say “Great to see you, yeah let’s hang out, oh you want to hang regularly? Um no, I don’t do that. No, it’s not you . . . I just prefer books. I also don’t do peopled events, phone calls for no purpose, or pedestrian small talk.”
Bring it up too soon and you sound weird. Too late and they think you’re lying.
Of course, it’s gotten easier since the word “introvert” became mainstream. Thanks to Susan Cain—whose sensational TED Talk The Power of Introverts (and now her Quiet Revolution, an organization aimed at bringing awareness and space to introverts)—people know the word “introvert,” and people identify as “introverted.”
OK, so now I say, “I’m introverted” to anyone who listens. Many of us do. Bravo us!
Except, it’s not enough. We can’t just say, “I’m introverted.”
Tell me if this sounds familiar. I say to my new friend, “I’m introverted.”
She responds, “Oh, like that woman on TED. What’s her name?” I say, “Susan Cain” and nod, yes, that is the one. But in a few sentences, it becomes quite clear that while this other person has heard of Susan Cain, she hasn’t processed the content. She doesn’t know what introversion looks like.
Or she says, “But you don’t seem shy.” I hate this one. I have to explain what introversion means—that I get energy from within. I prefer to be alone. Not necessarily shy. Then she thinks I’m neurotic about my needs. Which I am, but I have to be.
Or she launches in at length about herself and her preferences. I shared and she wants to share back. This response makes me close up because it’s not in my nature to compete for airtime. I don’t feel heard, I feel silenced.
Or she might just say, “OK, cool.” And I think, “Great! That was easy! She’ll text instead of email, she won’t expect me to go to parties, she’ll understand my default is being quiet.”
Oh no. No no no. Saying “I’m introverted” is not enough. The world doesn’t get it. And it is our fault. Yes, looking at you, fellow introvert. We’re asking people to respect our preferences when they can’t even see our preferences.
We can’t just say it, we have to show it. We have to be loud to get our quiet.
Extroverts have a power we don’t have: assembly. Two extroverts make a social network. It grows because the nature of extroversion is to be public, to interact. Their behavior is visible. So visible that they don’t identify as “extroverts”—they identify as the Facebook Groups we see every day: Beer-drinkers in Cleveland, American Expats in London. Groups built around activities, events, commonalities.
Giant extrovert networks.
Introverts don’t assemble, and if we do, it’s not in public, it’s contained. It’s not our nature to form and grow tight-knit social groups. Introvert networks exist but as safe places to self-express or as virtual chat rooms where we can share readings, thoughts, etc. Which begs the question, how can we ask people to respect the preferences of a group that doesn’t exist as a group?
And it’s not just that: we don’t always exist as individuals. A joke I just made up: “How do you make an introvert invisible? Stand him between two extroverts.” When two extroverts come together, something happens: introverts disappear. Either the introvert fakes it as an extrovert, or he withdraws.
The only solution to have people truly understand us is to exist as an introvert in front of extroverts.
Another way is to interject ourselves into extroverted groups and talk more about our needs and preferences or just offer alternatives. That’s tough. I can write here about introversion, sure, but I’m still sitting at home alone with my cats. But am I going to the Beer Drinkers in Cleveland group and suggest we read books in our own homes and discuss them? Or suggest that we change the vernacular so that “downtime” is the normal and anything social is now called called “up-time?” I cringe.
How do we make ourselves known? How do we solve this introvert dilemma?
In my experience, there is one thing that works, that feels comfortable: I talk to people—face-to-face, specifically—and help them understand. I don’t stop at “I’m introverted.” I say: “I’m introverted, and this is how it’s reflected in my behavior. . .”
This might be a tiny bit controversial: Why should I, introvert, have to explain who I am? How is that fair? Isn’t that like apologizing? Yes and no. Moreover, who cares? While introversion is absolutely normal, it is not the social norm. Many people might not understand what it means. And aren’t we the best ones to explain who we are? Self-reflection is something we’re good at. We can’t possibly expect extroverts to do this, can we? (Half-jest.)
We must explain our preferences and needs with dignity and self-respect. Not apologies.
And then choose to spend your time with the kind of people who will understand and accept you. Some people don’t understand, some people just don’t care. Focus on those who don’t understand. If I meet someone who doesn’t relate to introversion, I’m willing to help. I follow up “I’m introverted” with an explanation, empathy for how my listener might feel rejected, examples, even an analogy to her extroversion. If she cares, asks questions, understands that this isn’t about her, there’ll be friendship. If she sees my preferences as a rejection of her, no. It isn’t all about my needs or hers, it’s about respecting each other and meeting in the middle.
If you can’t do it for yourself, do it for another introvert, for introverts everywhere.
I’m more compelled to be patient and helpful if I feel like my explanation of needs will somehow help a fellow introvert. I’ve been shamed before for being introverted, we all have. It is painful. It is exhausting. But I’m willing to put myself out there, so someone else doesn’t have to. This is what Susan Cain did that was so amazing. She didn’t just tell the world about introverts, she made it safe to come out of the dark because she put up lights. She also handed each of us a script of how to talk about our preferences without being scared and without making it a judgement.
The Quiet Revolution isn’t quiet, even though it’s about quiet. It has to be engaging, talkative, and honest. It has to be ongoing. I’m happy to be part of it, as uncomfortable as it is.
I hope you will join me, all you introverts. And then go back to your well-earned quiet.
To keep up to date with all the latest news enter your email below.