Addressing the Extrovert in the Room

I have a love-hate relationship with advice columns. I love them because they prove that other people out there have the same problems I do (albeit usually in a more extreme version), but I hate them because they make me feel like I’m rubbernecking at a crash scene, somehow getting comfort or enjoyment out of the fact that I’m not the one in such dire straits. The addition of reader comments to online columns only makes this phenomenon that much more potent; now the general public can also play judge and jury to those desperate enough to write to a total stranger for advice. Sometimes it makes me nostalgic for the old days, you know, when Abby or Ann had the last word.

What makes these comment sections so insidious is that they seem to draw mostly those on polar opposites of a certain question; the vitriol and intentional misunderstanding on both sides often makes me cringe. Alas, this is also what makes them fun to read! But after taking in so many comments by wannabe advice-givers, I have to stop and remind myself that no one making these comments has the full story. They are only guessing, based on the letter writer’s account, which may be further edited by the columnist, at where the real problem lies. For that reason, I’ve stopped reading these comments as attempts at helping or admonishing the letter writer, but more as an indication of the state of that particular person’s soul. What are they reading into the story based on their own experiences that makes them so passionate about this topic?

All this was going through my head as I re-read a column written by Cary Tennis, the advice columnist on Salon.com. I had saved the link to this column, which originally ran last March, because it seemed pertinent to introvert-related discussions. The basic story is that a woman was incensed because her best friend’s husband, whom she has known for forty years, recently made some comments to her that she found highly insulting (you can read more of the details in the column). The letter writer summed up his comments as follows:

He told me that he was having a difficult time being in my company. I said that after all these years you are telling me this? After that he continued: I make noises and cackle, I laugh too loud, I’m offensive, I’m too boisterous, and maybe I should walk around with a microphone to hear myself. And to add more insult, as if this were not enough, he noted that friends of theirs also have difficulty in my company.

All in all, written from her perspective, these comments seem very hurtful and not very constructive. However, going with my theory that the reader isn’t getting the full story, I wonder how the situation felt to the man who made the comments. I have to say, being an introvert, and having known many people who seem to suck the air out of a room without realizing the effect they are having on other people (only a small subset of extroverts by the way), my sympathies naturally lie with the best friend’s husband. And as to her question about why it’s taken him so long to express his discomfort, I can easily understand why he might have been hesitant to mention anything to her. As most introverts know, it just isn’t done. You don’t get to call someone on their “boisterous” behavior, no matter its effect on you, because you might hurt that person’s feelings when they are only “expressing their personality.” If you do, you risk having your own preferences questioned and belittled, as many of the comments on this column went on to illustrate.

Not knowing either of the people involved, the majority of the commenters (apart from a few brave souls who expressed sympathy for the possibly introverted man) felt free to make harsh judgments about this woman’s “tormentor,” insinuating that he is insensitive, has a problem with women, is anti-social, leads a pitiful little life, even going so far as to imply that his mental faculties are eroding as he gets older. Even Cary Tennis, the columnist, gets in on the act of bashing this man for his behavior. Maybe he knows something we don’t, but based on what was available, I don’t think all this vociferousness was justified. I don’t agree with the manner in which this man made his comments, but I can identify with the level of frustration he may have been feeling. As one of the more thoughtful commenters noted, if it was insensitive for him to bring up his grievances after all these years, she was equally insensitive in not realizing the effect her behavior had on him for the same number of years.

As I said earlier, I believe that we bring to these modern fables our own experiences which color our reactions. I will admit up front that I am usually more sympathetic to the introvert in these types of situations (within limits of course). But I don’t yet know how to answer the bigger question this raises: how do we as introverts make space for ourselves without lashing out in frustration (as this man seemed to do)? Is there a constructive way to tell someone they’re bothering you?

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12 Responses to “Addressing the Extrovert in the Room”

  1. jasper said:

    During an argument, my sister told her friend of many years all the negative, annoying aspects of her friend’s personality. She had never said these things begore, and felt (and still feels) totally justified in doing so, and the friend was offended and, like the woman in your article, was shocked, upset and didn’t believe these statements. They no are no longer friends, and they haven’t spoken to each other in 6 years.

    When someone has said anything negative about my personality, work, thoughts or actions my immediate reaction is to become defensive and justify why in my head. Of course I am right and the offending person is wrong – even if deep down I may know differently.

    Even Al Capone disbelieved the criticism he received “I have spent the best years of my life giving people the lighter pleasures, helping them have a good time, and all I get is abuse, the existence of a hunted man.” (http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Al_Capone and HTWFAIP by Dale Carnegie) and yet he was one of the most feared men in Chicago.

    When we put up with annoying or thoughtless people and situations that upset us we become like bottles of tomato ketchup. The longer we don’t find a release the more ketchup we try to stuff in the bottle until… we explode and it gets pretty messy! We get angry and hurt, others get angry and hurt, and it’s difficult to clean up the mess and pick up the pieces.

    Getting angry means we have been hurt personally. It takes time for those feelings to heal. So, if we find another way to deal with our frustrations caused by others we will save face and there will be a lot less tomato ketchup stains in our lives!

  2. Dennis said:

    Dealing with oblivious bombastic extroverts is a fact of life. If you are close enough friends that you can spend years together, the introvert will need to don that extrovert hat once in a while (as we commonly do in the work world and the social world) and express him/herself. I’ve learned to spar right back with bombasts by calling them on their rambunctious behavior– in a fun and joking way of course. “Wow man, you have no idea how much you’re losing the crowd right now, huh? hahaha!” They say that in every joke is some form of truth, so eventually it will sink in that this is how you see that person.

    The key here is “fun”. Don’t let it get to you. Let it roll off like water on a duck’s back. Bottling it up is never good. Extroverts thrive on external feedback, so have fun with that. Learn to let things go, and to have fun with people who are crass don’t know it.

  3. spectatrix said:

    Jasper and Dennis:

    Thanks so much for your comments! You’ve both given me a lot of food for thought regarding how to deal with this type of situation. No ketchup bottles!

  4. Elgog Partynipple said:

    Dear R&R:

    I am one of those extroverts you speak of. I am also 6ft 4in tall and have a booming voice as well. When I am in the house, everyone knows. I am also an annoying know it all. Any time someone mentions a subject I know anything about (and I do mean anything), I can’t help but expound on the subject ad infinitum.

    I know I am annoying. I know I drownd out people who are introverted or not as “Bombastic” as I am. I am also quick to make jokes about myself and admit that I am annoying to help relieve the social situations that I am in. It’s like taurrets (sic) syndrome for me. I honestly try to keep my personality under control but frequently find myself wondering if I have gone too far as I provide punditry about subjects as esoteric as ancient Roman plumbing, the chemistry of emulsifiers or analysis of bad drivers in my town. I truly feel sorry for the people around me some times. I can no more stop my personality of being extroverted than you can of being introverted.

    My feeling is that most extroverts know that they can be annoying. Gentle hints and sad faced comment about the relevance gel physics at a party from my audience are often enough for me to try to limit my expositon. I do get an occasional person who seems enraged that I am who I am. But rarely do I get enraged at people who are wall flowers and don’t join in the festivities of a friendly gathering or party. I understand thier angst and I try to work with them, maybe to thier dread.

    In the end, that is why we choose the people we do to “hang out with”. Most people I hang out with love the fact that I make things happen in thier otherwise dreary life. And they can (and do) take frequent pot shots at me for my social style. But like most successful commedians, I can handle the heckeler in the crowd. But I try to do it with self deprication instead of anger or spite.

    I feel you pain. Can you feel mine?

  5. spectatrix said:

    Elgog:

    I can imagine what it might feel like to be on the other end of the spectrum, and how that has its own challenges. But I have to say that you seem very self-aware and open to hearing what other people have to say, which makes you different from the type of person I referred to in this post. It really is a question of respect, and the ability to have compassion for someone who sees the world a little differently than you do. Unfortunately, there are some people (introverts and extroverts alike) who are consistently unable to see beyond their own concerns in order to gauge the effect they are having on other people.

  6. Frustrated Introvert said:

    I just discovered this blog last night and I am happy that I found it, specifically this topic. I am a very introverted person and I have found myself in this situation with extroverted people on more than one occasion. The situations that I have found myself in have truly frustrated me because I didn’t know how to deal with the extroverted person in those situations without becoming very irritated with that person. My most recent experience was when I worked with an extroverted coworker who had the same exact traits that the woman who wrote into Salon.com seems to have. This coworker was loud, had a big laugh, and was overly opinionated. I realized that she was just behaving according to her personality but at the same time, that realization did not make her personality any less irritating to me. I think what made my situation worse was that our place of employment was a store and the both of us were cashiers. We worked in close proximity to each other. We often worked on the same shifts so there was no escape from her consuming personality. And when I say consuming, this coworker was CONSUMING!!!. I think that one of the ways that introverts tend to deal with conflict or of being uncomfortable is by avoiding the person or thing that makes them uncomfortable. But when an introverted person is forced to be around an EXTROVERTED person who is completely oblivious to their own behavior, it becomes harder and harder to deal with that person through avoidance, specifically when that person is not only loud but also quick to make comments on things that should not concern them. There were other extroverted coworkers who were not at all like the coworker that I am talking about. I was able to get along with those coworkers, but this coworker in particular really got under my skin because of her attention seeking nature. I actually think that the guy who finally confronted the lady in the article probably felt like he had no other choice but to finally say what was on his mind. It might have seemed mean, but frankly I don’t blame him. He had probably felt forced to keep his opinions to himself because his wife is best friends with this woman. If someone is in a situation like that, they often feel trapped. And to make it worse, once he finally did say something, his wife was angry with him for hurting her best friend. What I have realized is that people will often become very defensive if they feel like their personality is being attacked but at the same time, sometimes people need to hear things about themselves so that they can change some of their behavior, especially if that behavior is having a negative impact on other people. I also agree with the poster who said that sometimes this particular brand of extrovert has narcissistic personality disorder. I have also realized that these people are the last people to want to change. They think that they are simply perfect and no one can tell them anything. I remember watching an episode of Dr. Phil in which a woman went through her life craving attention to the detriment of her kids. Everywhere they went, she had to have all of the attention. Her kids felt consumed by her personality but she did not want to change anything about herself. Dr. Phil had to explain to her that not everything is about her and that she had to tone it down. I still don’t think that she GOT IT by the end of the show. I think that the lady who wrote in to Salon needs to maybe focus on herself a little bit and try to understand where her best friends husband was coming from, instead of simply rejecting his words and acting like a victim.

  7. spectatrix said:

    Frustrated Introvert,

    Welcome to the blog — I’m glad you’re finding it useful! I really feel your pain in how difficult it can be to deal with those certain extroverts who figuratively take up more than their fair share of attention/space. I sometimes call them “energy vampires” because after dealing with them I feel so exhausted.

  8. Frustrated Introvert said:

    Spectatrix, the funny part of the whole story with the lady that I worked with is that even though I did not get along with her because of her personality, her daughter and I got along pretty well. Her daughter worked at the store too. The daughter was just completely different than her mother. Even though they seemed to be the best of friends, I have to wonder if the daughter ever felt overshadowed by her mother because of the mother’s loud personality.

  9. spectatrix said:

    Frustrated Introvert,

    That’s interesting, because when I read your first comment about the Dr. Phil guest I was reminded of a character in the Dickens novel Bleak House, Mrs. Jellyby, who is a crusading do-gooder with a big personality that overshadows her husband and children (especially her oldest daughter). The comedy/tragedy of the character is that she is so involved helping “the unfortunate” in other parts of the world that she neglects her own family. I think Dickens was trying to capture a certain “type” common in his time, but I’m a little torn about the characterization because it sometimes seems to veer into sexism with the insinuation that Mrs. Jellyby is a “bad woman” for not being more domestic. Anyway, it seems like we may have a few modern-day Mrs. Jellybys among us.

  10. Frustrated Introvert said:

    Spectatrix, Mrs. Jellyby sounds like an interesting character. For some reason, my father suddenly came to mind. He is another example of an EXTROVERT. He is very adept at socializing. He can go from not knowing someone to knowing everything about that person in a short amount of time and the other person will know everything about him. There were times that he would make me feel very uncomfortable because not only did he draw attention to himself but he would also try to make me the center of attention and needless to say, I did not like it. My father and I had a good relationship during my childhood but as I got older, I became frustrated with him because of his uninhibited behaviors and willingness to share personal information to strangers. He seemed to be a man with no boundaries. He and I don’t see each other very often because of bad choices that he has made in his life but on the occasions when we have seen each other, he has tried to make me feel bad because of my personality. He has tried to make it seem like I am mentally unstable because I conduct myself differently and have a completely different mentality than he does. I have a half sister who is extroverted and shares many of the same personality traits as my dad. On the rare occasions that the three of us have been together, he has gone out of his way to make it seem like my half-sister is somehow better than I am because of her outgoing personality.

  11. curtis brockwell said:

    acceptance is the answer to all my problems today.when i am disturbed it is because i find some person, place, thing or situation-some fact of my life unacceptable to me, and i can find no peace nor serenity until i can accept that person, place, thing or situation as being exactly the way it is suppose to be at this moment. i need to concentrate not so much on what needs to be changed in othersnor even the world,but rather on what needs to be changed in me. i wish to know,after he told his wife he didnt like her laugh, noises,cackle or her company—was he a happy man when she was walking out the door?

  12. The Shytrovert said:

    It’s interesting or ironic that extroverts can not be criticized for their bombastic presence but introverts and shy people are consistently pestered about why they are so quiet and to come out of their “shells.” Cultural bias is a wonderful thing..