Tending the Introvert

A recent io9 article on the science behind extroversion and introversion got me thinking on this subject at length. Not least because I think that society tends to render introversion with negative connotations. Just consider the loaded introduction to this Huffington Post article:

Are you a happy, outgoing person, or are you more neurotic and anxious?

Like, really? So in the broad spectrum of human experience, personality can be read as either outgoing or, as a single mutually exclusive alternative, neuroses?

I’m an introvert, and I’m comfortable being an introvert. But it wasn’t always so – from the end of my teens to my early twenties, there was a time when being an introvert seemed a definite disadvantage: Like the Huff Post article, people around me seemed to be pushing the notion that introversion was a defect, an illness a person could and should be cured of.

It’s at this stage it seems worth noting that introversion and shyness are very different traits. Shyness, or social anxiety, is a response to the real or perceived opinions of others. If left unchecked, it promotes a dependency on the approval of others which can lead to extremes. And if we’re stuck in a loop of either approval seeking or disapproval avoidance, at which point do we find a moment to be true to ourselves, to live our own lives?

No, introversion is something else entirely. While Carl Jung first popularised the terms extroversion and introversion, modern popular understanding tends towards a description based on how a person derives their mental energy – for introverts, from solitary introspection, and for extroverts, from external interaction.

Various personality models take this into account, and tests such as Myers-Briggs may then go to add further personality classifications to result in a wide variety of “common” personality types. It’s always interesting to see that Introverts take up a significant proportion of a sample population in these test results.

Take that, extroversion promoters!

Yet, I’d wager that introverts are always going to tend to perceive themselves living in a world where they’re second class citizens.

Sure, introverts can expend energy in social interactions, but given an introvert is energised by solitary time, that’s where their compulsions lie. It follows then that they’re not going to be running out to promote their product to others, to perform three stage shows a day, every day, for a year on tour, or to be perceived as the last man standing at the bar. Not that those things are anathema to the introvert, but if they’re not where you’re most motivated to spend your time, you’re quite possibly not going to be as good at them as those who are, right?

But introverts have their place too, and not just as computer programmers or writers. As a New Statesman article put it when discussing the strengths and weaknesses of having a more introverted leader such as Obama:

Carl Jung, who popularised the word, described introverts as people who focus on the meaning of events rather than the social surface. They tend to work in a more considered way. We may need those qualities now more than ever. The incentive structure of democracy has been revealed as problematic: too many promises, too lightly made.

In a media culture that promotes performance, social high-fives itself every chance it can get, and tries to motivate our purchasing decisions based on how we will socialise with one another or be seen by others, it’s easy to conclude that the introvert is the endangered species. One of the latest films out of hollywood is not called Woz, it’s called Jobs. It’s a story about the extroverted guy behind the founding of Apple, not the introverted guy.

Because after all, watching someone sit in a cubicle for hours at a time, talking to nobody and quietly solving problems isn’t box office material.

But don’t be fooled: Just because it isn’t fun to see, doesn’t mean it isn’t fun to be.

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