The Run-Down

Ever since I put together the FAQ for this site, I’ve pondered one of the answers I gave, and wondered if it was truly accurate. The question is “What is an introvert? What is an extrovert?,” and the answer I gave was (in part):

Most basically, these terms refer to where a person gets their energy from; introverts find it energizing to spend large periods of time alone, while extroverts gain energy from spending time with other people…

What has caused me to wonder about this answer is the frequent experience I’ve had since starting this site of meeting extroverts with “introvert tendencies.” Most of these individuals have been young women, and all have described to me how although they consider themselves extroverts, they still need time to recharge their batteries from time to time. As an introvert I totally understand this, but it confuses me as to whether these folks are really introverts in extroverts’ clothing, or if it is just a basic human need to withdraw from the world periodically.

I’ve decided that it has to be the latter, because rarely are such sweeping generalizations (e.g., introverts get energy from solitude, extroverts get energy from other people) borne out universally in real life. It sounds almost mechanistic to say extroverts are always pumped up by social activity (like plugging in an electrical device), and I know from my own experience that I gain joy and yes, energy, from hanging out with people I love.

With the hectic lives many of us lead, we all need time to simply rest—introvert and extrovert alike. If we are not to become physically run down, we need sleep, and one can’t be around people ALL the time. In fact, those who identify as “people” persons may be under greater pressure to be “on” all the time, even when they find they can’t maintain their usual level of activity. Many introverts simply cannot function when they have too much on their plate, but I think this is a danger for extroverts too.

This realization could be threatening to my concept of just what separates introverts and extroverts, if not for the fact that I’ve found many more examples of what makes introverts tick through the writing and reading I’ve done for this blog. Perhaps I’ll make a change to the FAQ at some point once I’ve come up with a pithy way of expressing these observations.

On a different note, thinking about this topic has reminded me of a great culinary experience I had in Costa Rica a few years ago. Staying in the sleepy surfing town of Puerto Viejo on the Caribbean coast, one night we were lucky enough to sample a local dish known as Rondon. Basically a fish stew, our hostess explained that it got its name from the fact that it included everything that could be “ron-don” (run down) that night. I managed to find a recipe for it online, and I’ll have to try it out the next time I’m feeling “ron-don.”

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The Lonely Gargoyle

I’ve always loved the photo (seen top right on the homepage) that Joe took during a trip to Paris a few years ago, that of a gargoyle looking down from the rooftop of Notre Dame Cathedral. I’ve taken to calling the figure in the photo “the lonely gargoyle,” and consider him the unofficial mascot of Spectatrix. I identify with his pensive and yet seemingly content demeanor as he gazes raptly at the world around him. He may seem monstrous to some, but I’m not put off by his grotesque expression and incongruous horns. I believe he has the soul of a dreamer, and that he is starkly beautiful in his solitude. I feel that at any moment he could unfurl his wings and take to the skies, or remain where he is, happy in his perch above the chaos of the city.

The lonely gargoyle has taken on new meaning for me in the past few weeks, as I’ve contemplated my own dreams of flight. After months of anxiety and stress, I am so pleased to announce that I will soon be joining my gargoyle friend in the City of Light. Joe and I just received our long-stay visas for France, and we will be moving to Paris on July 1st. This plan has been in the works for a year and a half, and we are incredibly excited (and also terrified) that in just over a month we will be leaving our comfortable home in San Francisco for the boulevards and boulangeries of Paris.

This change in our lives has been affecting the frequency of my posts on Spectatrix, but I hope to become more prolific as our list of moving-related tasks decreases. I’m not sure yet how this new environment will affect my introvert sensibilities, but I look forward to exploring cross-cultural differences (and similarities) as they relate to introverts.

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Mind Matters

One thing I’m really enjoying about this blog is the great feedback I get from readers on a variety of topics. Not only does it boost my spirits, but I often learn very interesting things. For example, a recent comment on the Converting the Introverted post gave me a lot of food for thought. The comment came from “Foozler,” who identified himself as a teacher of psychology for the past 35 years. He gives an interesting analysis of normal introvert and extrovert states (and their opposites), and then makes a fascinating statement:

Introverts’ brains are much busier and therefore we need little input from the environment to be at a comfortable brain activation. Extroverts need a lot, and so there you will find people who jump out of planes, rollercoast, and the like.

I had never heard this idea before, but it made intuitive sense to me when I read it. I often feel like my brain is going a million miles a minute, and to take in even more information can be quite difficult at times. It seems to explain the overwhelmed feeling I sometimes get in stressful situations; my brain is too busy processing my own stuff to be able to deal with what’s going on around me.

This idea tempts me to make some ungracious comment about the relative emptiness of extroverts’ brains… But that wouldn’t do. I’ll have to be content with simply noting that introverts often have a lot on their minds.

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The Great Quiet North

Last month I had the chance to visit my family in Canada, and as always, I felt both completely at home and like I was in a foreign country. Having lived in the US for a total of eight years, every time I go back to Canada it’s interesting to gauge how different things seem, or to put it more accurately, how much I’ve changed in the intervening years.

I do think my accent has shifted somewhat (plus I now employ California-lingo with ease), and I think I’m instinctively less patient with the slower pace of doing things in my old home city, although I find the change refreshing. It also seems the longer I am away from home, the more clearly I see what is unique about it. For example, this time I kept noticing a habit people have of trying to make strangers laugh in stressful situations, making silly comments to ease those awkward moments in public interactions. I’m sure it always happened when I was a child, but it was a revelation to me as an adult. I also noticed how drivers actually stopped in the middle of the block to let us pedestrians cross the street, and when we were in a car, how they let us merge ahead of them in traffic (one car even backed up into a parking lot to let us pass). I felt somehow restored by these actions, and more optimistic that human society is capable of gracious, civil conduct.

I guess I’m referring in a roundabout way to Canadians’ much-vaunted “politeness,” and as much as I feel I’ve changed, that is one quality I think I will never lose. I still say “sorry” when someone steps on my foot, I have trouble complaining when I’ve received poor service, and if someone is hostile to me, I’d much prefer making them laugh than returning their ire. While I think these are good practices generally, few things make me fume more than Americans making fun of Canadians for being “boring” or too polite. We do so have rough edges, gosh darn it.

But some small part of me has to admit there may be a grain of truth in this assessment, although I don’t think you can categorically make that claim about all Canadians. This admission leads me to an even more contentious question: Are there more introverts (as a percentage of the population) in Canada than in the US? Granted politeness and introversion are not the same thing, but I do think they have many similar behaviors, such as taking time when dealing with others, not raising one’s voice, and giving people their own space.

With thoughts of this blog on my mind, it seemed like my recent trip to Canada was also a research mission, a chance to prove or disprove my theory about Canada’s introvert population. Were the people around me introverts, or simply more reserved, more polite, than what I was used to?

Early on in the trip, I thought I had found an answer. Due to a delayed flight, we had to spend a considerable amount of time in one of the departure lounges of the Vancouver airport. When Joe and I first sat down, there were about ten people seated around us, and all were engrossed in reading or other silent activities. Joe even remarked to me, “It’s so quiet here. I like it.” I felt ready to pat myself on the back for being raised in a society that was so hospitable to introverts.

But then it started. Slowly, as I lay nearly dozing in the uncomfortable chair (our first flight had left very early in the morning), I noticed that the noise level had increased slightly. I looked around for the source, and saw that two men had sat down a short distance from us, and were now engaged in a spirited conversation. Spirited, that is, on the part of one of the men, who didn’t seem to take a breath as he rambled on for nearly fifteen minutes of nonstop chatter. Nothing could block it out: not my headphones, not my fingers in my ears, not even the baleful looks I kept directing his way. But then, just as suddenly, it stopped.

That’s when I noticed the squealing children and their loquacious mothers staking out the play area not far from us. And the long line of grumbling customers waiting to speak with the customer service rep about the delayed flight. And so on. My visions of a silent utopia were shattered, and I had to admit that we were indeed surrounded by Canadian extroverts. I realized, as I had probably known deep down all along, that while the general tone of public life in Canada may be more muted than in the US, it is only a matter of degree, not of substance.

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Secret Identities

Like millions of other people, Joe and I went to see Spider-Man 3 last weekend. Having seen a few bad reviews, I was pleasantly surprised by the movie, finding it engrossing despite its almost two and a half hour running time. Even the presence of an especially noisy and disruptive audience didn’t prevent me from enjoying the show (a very rare occurrence).

I don’t want to spoil it for anyone who hasn’t seen it yet, but I think it’s safe to reveal that, as in the previous two installments, this third movie veers between quiet character-driven scenes and huge action sequences. It was obvious the filmmakers were trying to cover both stereotypical bases: a romantic storyline for female audience members, and plenty of testosterone-driven battle scenes for men. While I don’t want to buy into those limiting categories, I have to admit that I preferred the more introspective scenes to the intensely aggressive ones. There were moments when I was blown away by the CGI effects, but mostly I felt overwhelmed and over-stimulated by the mass of frenetic images.

At times the divide between these two types of scenes seemed so extreme that it was almost like watching two different movies. It was sometimes hard to reconcile the tender, kindhearted actions some of the characters displayed, with the flinty, purposeful maneuvers they made once they donned suit or mask. But that’s always been the point. Almost every superhero must have a secret identity—à la Peter Parker or Clark Kent—the face they show the world when they aren’t busy saving it.

That is the appeal of comic book heroes to so many; the seemingly ordinary person turns out to be extraordinary in some way. And I think it can be an especially potent fantasy for introverts: if only the world knew what I was really like, I might gain the respect and attention I think I deserve. While I definitely think it is important for introverts to get their due, this kind of thinking can be a trap. It assumes that heroism is limited to acts of direct (often violent) engagement with the external world. I think far greater acts of courage can occur solely in the mind or the imagination, and have longer lasting effects. The courage to think beyond what is acceptable or allowed has been the impetus for many important social movements, such as Gandhi’s nonviolent resistance actions in India, or the civil rights campaign in the U.S.

That being said, it is quite interesting to me to see how many popular superheroes have alter egos who display typical introvert qualities. Joe just put together a list of them for our Web site SenseList: Top 5 Superheroes Whose Secret Identities Are Introverts. This list raises the question for me of whether so many superheroes have introverted secret identities simply because they provide such good cover—who would ever suspect Clark Kent of feats of heroics—or because characters with these extremes of personality tap into the collective unconscious in some way. What do you think?

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Slow Travel

I recently ran across the Slow Travel Web site and was immediately intrigued. The aim of the site is to encourage travelers to do their sightseeing at a slower pace by spending more time in one location before moving on to another. The authors recommend a stay of at least one week in a specific place, and provide a ton of information about accommodations for this kind of travel (e.g., villas, apartments, holiday cottages). The site offers predominantly European information, but there are also entries on vacation rentals in other parts of the world as well.

I can highly recommend this mode of travel, having experienced two weeks of living life like a Parisian (sixth floor walk-up and all) a few years ago. We rented an apartment in the 3rd Arrondissement, and enjoyed shopping at the local grocery store and getting to know our neighbors (it was hard not to, since the apartment faced a small central courtyard in the heat of summer). We had time to settle into the rhythm of the city, and didn’t feel rushed to see everything all at once (a good thing for introverts I think).

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Converting the Introverted

I think one of the most difficult aspects of being an introvert is dealing with those people in our lives who want us to become extroverts. I have experienced this phenomenon many times with individuals who I didn’t feel the need to impress or explain myself to, but the more challenging encounters have been those involving people whose opinion mattered to me. I write about these encounters in the past tense, since I now feel secure enough in my introvert-hood to withstand most attempts at conversion (however annoying they may still be). But as a child and adolescent, the opinions of the adults in charge of my upkeep and education held immense influence over my self-image.

Luckily I was blessed with parents who are introverts themselves, so I didn’t experience much parental pressure to behave in an extroverted way. However, I can remember extroverted teachers and professors who did not understand what I was going through, and who tried to make me fit into a mold that felt extremely uncomfortable. The sad part is that I think they really did believe they were doing me a service by trying to draw me out of my “abnormal” inwardness. They felt I needed to behave differently in order to be successful in the external world, when what I cared about most was the inner world of my feelings and impressions.

I was reminded of these painful memories when I read a post on the June Harbor Web site. The author begins by lamenting the treatment of female introverts by society (another topic on which I have strong feelings to be discussed at a later date), and continues on to voice an insight I felt to be very poignant:

Being an introvert does not make me unhappy. What makes me unhappy is the number of extroverts who insist that I am not happy as an introvert, and that I need to “get out” and party, etc., in order to qualify as a satisfied individual.

I think this is spot on, because others’ misunderstanding of our deepest nature can truly make us miserable at times. And adding to that, it can be very difficult for introverts to explain themselves to people who have never learned the “vocabulary” of introversion; the concepts just don’t make sense. As an example of this, further on in the post the author links to an article, Introversion: The Often Forgotten Factor Impacting the Gifted, that aims to inform educators and parents about the particular needs of gifted introverted children (again another interesting topic to follow up on at a later point). While I think the article is a good attempt at raising awareness, I disagree with the overall approach to the subject matter.

While I don’t mean to be dismissive, the two authors themselves state that they are, respectively, an extrovert and a “coping introvert.” This identification seems to set the tone for the article. I was especially struck by the statement that introversion is “…similar to perfectionism in that a little is beneficial and too much is harmful.” Huh? To me perfectionism is a bad habit that causes problems for those suffering from it; I don’t feel that way about introversion at all. It’s not something I can turn on and off and experience in degrees; in other words, it’s not simply a behavior, it has to do with one’s whole orientation to the world. To be fair, the authors do make a lot of good points about how to create more comfortable home and school environments for introverted children (which I applaud). However, overall the article seems to imply that introverts are fragile beings who must be protected from extroverted society, instead of advocating for fair treatment of both introverts and extroverts as equals.

I think this is what rankles the most when people try to convert the introverted; the unspoken bias that introverts need to be “fixed,” that they are somehow fundamentally flawed and need to be saved from themselves in order to succeed in life. I don’t buy into that belief system—I’ve got my own religion and it doesn’t involve repenting of any introvert sins.

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Silent Nights: Introverts and Dating

Some time ago I read a great article by Salon’s advice columnist Cary Tennis called The two-introvert problem (you may need to click through an ad to get to it). In the article Cary responds to a letter from a woman who is frustrated because she wants to invite a fellow introvert on a date, but is concerned that their interactions will be painfully awkward. She doesn’t want to be forced into meaningless small talk, but can’t come up with an alternative scenario for the potential date.

Cary begins his response to her letter by describing a situation he recently observed:

The other day I watched an attractive young couple come into a cafe. The young man went to the counter and got some coffee drinks. The woman sat at the table. The young man came back and they sat drinking their coffee drinks. They looked at each other. They looked at the table. They looked around the room. They drank their drinks. They were quiet. They seemed comfortable with each other, and yet there was also a kind of intensity in the air. They didn’t say a word the whole time they were there.

I find Cary’s observation of this scenario interesting for two reasons: the first is that I like to imagine he was observing Joe and me during one of our many coffee house outings (Cary lives in San Francisco too), although I can’t vouch for the “young” and “attractive” description; the second reason is that I think he makes an important point about how there are different ways of spending time with someone in a public place.

While the popular idea about what a “date” looks like usually involves intense conversation and interaction, Cary goes on to advocate for a different type of dating encounter for introverts, one in which sitting in silence is acceptable if not preferable. He even puts forward a lengthy manifesto for introverts considering a new way of approaching their love lives, which basically boils down to rejecting dating stereotypes that don’t fit the people involved, and affirming more introvert-friendly ways of being together.

I think this column really resonated with me because it fit my own experience of dating a fellow introvert; Joe and I quickly bonded over our shared distaste for small talk and found ways of interacting that suited our dispositions. I’m sure it’s a different story for introvert-extrovert couples, although it may be easier on them since there is at least one person who is comfortable sustaining a conversation through those inevitable awkward moments during a first date.

I’d be interested to know what the dating experience has been like for other introverts; if you’ve got a story to share, I’d love to hear about it in the Comments section.

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The Happy Loner

In her book, Party of One: The Loner’s Manifesto, author Anneli Rufus attempts to reclaim the word “loner” from the negative associations it often carries. Frequently used by the media to describe serial killers and sociopaths who are said to have “kept to themselves,” the term “loner,” Rufus asserts, more aptly corresponds to the much larger group of people who are not mentally disturbed, but simply prefer solitude to any other state.

While I don’t consider myself a loner (not that there’s anything wrong with that), I strongly agree with the argument Rufus puts forward, namely, that it is unfair and incorrect to assume that introversion should necessarily be equated with anti-social and violent tendencies.

I was reminded of this argument when I began reading the news coverage of the incredibly tragic events that took place at Virginia Tech on Monday. True to form, newspaper articles made liberal use of the word loner to describe the shooting suspect, subtly implying that his solitary nature somehow influenced his horrific behavior. I found the information that he had previously displayed signs of mental illness to be much more pertinent to his state of mind.

While it may be empirically true that this man did spend a lot of time alone, what gets missed is that there is a difference between having a preference for being alone, and feeling isolated. One state of being is a choice; the other may be a symptom of a larger problem. It is the difference between someone who gains happiness and contentment from their loner state, and someone who yearns for connection with the larger world, but is unable to realize it. Sadly, it seems that for some people, committing large scale acts of violence is their twisted attempt to communicate their rage and despair to others; it may be that they felt unable to communicate in any other way.

For this reason, I think there needs to be more attention paid to distinguishing between happy and unhappy loners. While those of a more extroverted nature might not be able to understand how being alone can bring happiness, there are a lot of us who understand this perfectly well. Perhaps we need to set aside our preferred mode of silence more often to make this point; to proclaim that it is possible to be healthy and happy even if—and sometimes especially if—we are left to our own devices.

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The Many and The One: Introverts and Friendship

One of the writers I greatly admire (despite his seeming low opinion of women), the 16th century French essayist Michel de Montaigne, had a lot to say about the subject of friendship. His famous essay Of friendship describes the unique relationship he had with Étienne de la Boétie, a fellow writer he met while both men were serving at the Bordeaux Parliament. La Boétie is best known for a treatise he wrote condemning tyranny and absolute monarchy (Discours de la servitude volontaire) but is equally well-known as Montaigne’s closest friend. The two men were so close that after La Boétie’s untimely death in 1563 (at the age of 32), Montaigne despaired of finding someone who could understand him as well as La Boétie did.

The loss of this trusted confidante is said to have been the catalyst for the development of Montaigne’s life’s work: the 107 written pieces that make up the three books of his Essays. If Montaigne could no longer converse with his friend about all that was on his mind, he could pour out these thoughts and ideas onto the page instead. This is what makes Montaigne’s writing so compelling to later readers and admirers; to read one of his essays is to feel like you are listening to a friend, following his arguments, allusions, and theories about a variety of subjects.

On the subject of friendship, Montaigne concluded that “…what we ordinarily call friends and friendships are nothing but acquaintanceships and familiarities formed by some chance or convenience, by means of which our souls are bound to each other.” In contrast to this, he describes the type of friendship he enjoyed with La Boétie as one in which “…our souls mingle and blend with each other so completely that they efface the seam that joined them, and cannot find it again.” Because of this close bond, Montaigne believed it was impossible to have more than one friend of this kind; doing so would divide one’s loyalties and energy to an unsatisfactory degree.

Montaigne’s views on friendship may sound familiar to introverts, who are often known for cultivating only a few close friendships, and who may consider other relationships as “acquaintances and familiarities.” This could be the case for the reason Montaigne mentions; introverts have only so much energy to give to others. I also think it’s because introverts thrive on the one-on-one conversations that fuel deep friendships, and are less likely to feel close to people with whom they feel they cannot share this type of conversation. In my own case, I know it takes a long time for me to make friends because I need to be able to trust someone before I reveal what’s really on my mind. It’s too difficult and frustrating to make that effort if I know I don’t have someone’s full attention.

I think this tendency has made me feel lonely at times, like there weren’t enough people in the world who knew what I was like on the inside. But, when I think about this rationally, I realize that having scores of friends might never fulfill this need for true connection; if I can find it in even one person, it’s a gift worthy of celebration.

(Quotations above are from “The Complete Essays of Montaigne,” translated by Donald M. Frame)

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The Philosopher in the Well

Ever since I was little, I’ve enjoyed solitary walks, whether down a city street or a country road. I find this time therapeutic, and use it to follow lengthy trains of thought that are usually cut short when I’m in the midst of my daily activities. Although the activities I undertake may vary—composing a poem, thinking through some engrossing problem, or pondering an episode from the past—I always return from my jaunts refreshed and encouraged.

The only problem with these peregrinations is that I sometimes lose track of where I am at any given moment. Minutes, even hours, can go by before I snap out of my comfortable reverie and realize that I’ve traveled a long way quite unconsciously. For a variety of reasons, which I won’t go into here, I’ve never been a driver, but I’ve always thought this habit of mine would get me in trouble if I ever decided to take the wheel. It would be too tempting to zone out, and to miss what was right in front of me.

Because of this tendency of mine, I’ve always remembered a story I heard in a philosophy class I took in college. It concerned the pre-Socratic philosopher Thales of Miletus, a man whose lifework was extremely influential on later generations of philosophers. Thales, who lived from the mid 620s until about 546 BCE, rigorously investigated philosophical, mathematical, and astronomical questions, along with many other subjects, and is credited with developing the scientific inquiry method so useful to all those who followed him. Despite this illustrious pedigree, or maybe because of it, Socrates is said to have related an anecdote that makes Thales seem quite foolish. Recorded by Plato in his dialogue Theaetetus, the basic gist of the story is that one day (or more likely, night) as Thales was walking along, he was so busy looking up at the stars that he fell into a well.

There is some question as to whether this actually happened, or whether real events were distorted; for example, there is speculation that perhaps Thales knowingly lowered himself into a well because the stars were more visible from that vantage point. Whatever the case, when I heard the story I immediately identified with Thales. I, too, have been guilty of “looking at the stars” instead of what is right in front of me, and at times have been mocked for it. Hearing about Thales predicament helps me to laugh at myself for doing the same kind of thing, but it also reminds me that I am in good company.

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Of Bells and Bubbles

The city of San Francisco, and the Bay Area in general, is known for its great range of eating options; from bargain bites to fancy dining, you can usually find something to satisfy almost any diner. In particular, San Francisco gets attention for the high number of cutting-edge restaurants it contains, and for the seriousness with which locals approach food and dining.

One effect of this phenomenon is the large amount of attention restaurant reviews get in local newspapers, especially in the San Francisco Chronicle. Every year, the Chronicle staff picks what it considers to be the Top 100 restaurants in the Bay Area, an effort spearheaded by critic and executive food and wine editor Michael Bauer. While I’ve been lucky enough to have visited some of the places that consistently make the list, there are always others I’m eager to try. But after reading a recent post on Bauer’s blog, Between Meals, I’m not so sure I’m missing anything.

In his post, titled Restaurants pump up the volume, Bauer discusses the growing trend of excessive noise at restaurants. He chalks it up to changes in architectural and interior design that incorporate “high ceilings, [and] hard surfaces,” and also to some diners’ preferences for a lively atmosphere. He also notes that since different people have different reactions to noise, for the past ten years the Chronicle has included a noise rating in their restaurant reviews. This system, which ranges from one bell (“pleasantly quiet” at under 65 decibels) to a bomb (“too noisy for normal conversation” at 80 decibels and above), is meant to help diners decide where to go for that special meal.

The problem is that—as Bauer himself points out—a huge percentage of well-reviewed restaurants fall at the noisier end of the spectrum. In fact, out of the Top 100 restaurants chosen by the Chronicle, 43 score a four bells rating (“can only talk in raised voices”) or above! Bauer also acknowledges that he doesn’t factor in this noisiness when determining how many stars to give a certain restaurant, whether when considering its food (understandable) or its ambience (not so understandable). Nothing about a restaurant’s ambiance affects me more than the sound level; it’s very hard for me to concentrate in loud environments, and it’s almost impossible for me to enjoy anything in that state.

To be fair, it’s the nature of popular restaurants to be crowded (and therefore somewhat noisy), but what bothers me is that some people see this as a positive thing. Chaos and hubbub are taken to mean that a place is really buzzing and trendy, and there is no reason not to add one’s own spirited conversation to the mix. Obviously, I feel differently. As I mentioned in an earlier post I think people should be responsible for how their second-hand noise affects other people, and telling those who prefer quiet to go somewhere else is unfair. Of course, dining at an expensive restaurant is a privilege, and not a right, but if these restaurants serve particularly excellent food, as the rave reviews would attest, quieter diners should have just as much access to it as those who are more boisterous.

I don’t absolve proprietors of their part in the problem either; many things can be done to tone down the noise level that aren’t always done. However, I think the greater issue is the growing noisiness of society in general; how we are more and more enveloped by noise when in the public space (at least in my urban experience). From excessively loud cell phone conversations to blaring music to nonstop traffic sounds, it’s no wonder many people now insulate themselves through the constant use of music players such as iPods. However, I don’t necessarily see this as a positive trend; it seems to reinforce the illusion that we can create our own bubble, and can ignore those around us. This is just the other side of the coin; those who are excessively loud seem to feel they are in a bubble as well.

Another article from the San Francisco Chronicle last week points this out beautifully. In it, columnist C.W. Nevius responds to the recent decision by the Federal Communications Commission to continue its ban on cell phone use on airplanes. Making a point about how annoying it is to be subject to another’s cell phone whims, Nevius tells the story of a man who was forced to listen in on a loud phone conversation taking place a few steps away from him in a coffee shop. After the two men made eye contact, the caller approached the first man and stated: “I’m engaging in a private conversation here. Could you move down a couple of tables so you aren’t listening in?” For all my aversion to noise, that kind of comment really makes me want to scream.

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Thinking and Talking

One of the things I adore about Joe is that he always asks my opinion on every decision to be made. That may sound like a small thing, but for someone who is used to going with the flow, and thus living with whatever group decision gets made, this is actually a huge thing. My problem, and the reason I often don’t speak up sooner, is that I don’t usually have a strong opinion about something until it’s too late. I’m awful at making split-second decisions; give me a day or two and I can be extremely articulate about why something does or does not appeal to me. For that reason this practice of asking my opinion in the moment is both refreshing and challenging in a good way, but it also taxes my mental faculties greatly.

Just such a situation came up repeatedly during our last trip to Las Vegas, when multiple decisions had to be made about where we should eat, what show we should watch, whether or not we should get off this stalled Monorail to see what the problem is (the answer to that one is no; it will just take off the minute you’re out the door). And so my beloved would turn to me for the fiftieth time that day and ask me to express an opinion about the matter before us. Keep in mind that Vegas aims to suspend tourists in a hungry, thirsty, footsore fog, brought about by the ridiculous amount of walking you must do to simply get from the front door of a casino to the restroom they’ve cleverly hidden behind a bank of slot machines. This is not the optimal state for anyone to be making rational decisions in (which explains the popularity of slot machines and the all-you-can-eat buffet), and it was no easier for me.

But this time, when the options were laid out before me, I really tried to focus my attention in order to come up with the right answer. Suddenly my concentration was broken by a complaint from Joe: “Could you have a more blank look on your face?” Apparently, my complete lack of outer expression was taken to mean that I was ignoring the question, when in fact the wheels were turning in my head, just not noticeably. In addition, my failure to respond verbally was found to be annoying; couldn’t I make some sign that I was pondering the question, a thoughtful “hmmm….” or “let me think about that.”

That made me laugh. I had thought I was applying the most efficient solution to the problem—to actually think about it—and to have to stop that process in order to reassure someone that I was thinking seemed nonsensical. I realized that, as some people cannot chew gum and walk at the same time, I cannot talk and think deeply at the same time.

I know there are folks who thrive on that dual action (a supposedly common trait in extroverts), and while of course I can formulate thoughts while talking, I cannot give the utmost attention to something while still talking about it. It reminds me of the TV show, “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” in which the host, Regis Philbin, was always encouraging struggling contestants to think through their answers out loud. It was supposed to be seen as an encouraging gesture, but I believe it was more to address the fact that watching someone sit and think is incredibly boring. And I guess it also served to hurry the game along; if it were me in that chair, I’d probably wait it out a day or two, just long enough to come up with the million dollar answer.

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Just Ducky: Outside Calm, Inside Stress

A few years ago I agreed to serve as the chair of a committee despite my usual reservations about assuming leadership roles. For me, being a leader has always been a double-edged sword; I enjoy the challenge, but it takes a lot of energy for me to be available and engaged in a group process. So, while I found chairing the committee to be very worthwhile, it was a struggle for me at times to feel comfortable in that leadership role. One source of stress was the distance between the high expectations I set for myself and what I was truly capable of accomplishing with the time I had to offer, and the other was simply rallying the necessary attention and energy to appear confident and competent during meetings (I don’t think I always succeeded).

At the end of my term as chair, the other members of the committee gave me a lovely present: personal notes describing what they most appreciated about my leadership and my contributions in general. As an introvert, I don’t always do well with public acknowledgment because I usually feel a little too exposed (see: birthday parties), but this time I was really touched by their efforts. Later on at home, when I sat down to read their notes, I was quite shocked by what I read. Along with other attributes that I did recognize in myself (if I do say so myself), almost to a person they praised me for my calmness. What? Calmness was the last word I would use to describe my state of being. Didn’t they see that I was a hopeless neurotic, worrying over every last detail, and struggling to keep my cool? Apparently not. For some baffling reason, despite my inner turmoil and stress, I managed to project an aura of unflappability. What was going on?

I found a brilliant explanation of this phenomenon in an article by Henry Thompson, titled The Illusion of Calmness in Introverts. Dr. Thompson describes it this way:

As a result of their energy being focused inwardly, introverts tend to be more reserved and less expressive—in general—than people with a preference for extraversion. This makes getting to know the “real” person more difficult. They have just as much cognitive action going on, it’s just on the inside. Introverts are similar to a duck sitting on a pond. To the observer, it looks as if the duck is just sitting there, and the wind—or something—is moving it across the water. A look just beneath the surface reveals that the duck’s little feet are paddling like crazy—you just don’t see it from above. Introverts, like ducks, give the appearance of calmness.

I find this all very fascinating, and yet irksome; it can be painful to realize you are not conscious of how others perceive you. I’m sure this has led to problems I’ve had in the past, especially in work situations, where I’ve assumed that my level of frustration and stress was obvious to others. Thompson gives an example of a manager who “…continued to increase the workload of an employee (an introvert) until ‘he exploded.’ She had no idea of the level of stress he was under. His behavior had seemed almost the same in the stressed and non-stressed state.” Yikes! This seems like a major problem that introverts (and their extroverted co-workers) need to find an answer to.

Another factor compounding the problem is that introverts are often loath to ask for help when they need it, and dislike exposing their innermost thoughts and feelings to anyone other than their closest confidantes. I think solving this communication problem is definitely a two-way street; it would be extremely helpful if there was greater understanding on the part of the extroverts involved, but as introverts, we also need to find clearer ways of expressing our frustrations.

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Don’t Stand So Close To Me: Introverts and Proxemics

I recently wrote an article for Interesting Thing of the Day about Proxemics, the study of how people manage the space around them. This has obvious resonance for introverts, who often find interactions with people at a polite distance to be draining, let alone if those people are in even closer range.

In the article I mention that different cultures seem to approach the issue of personal space in a variety of ways; one’s idea of “normal” and “comfortable” distances may be influenced by what a certain community values. Keeping one’s distance may seem cold or unfriendly in one instance, and polite and respectful in another (although individuals within each community have their own standards as well). Without drawing broad generalizations, I think understanding that others have different expectations around personal space can sometimes defuse frustration and annoyance.

That being said, it does raise the question of how introverts are shaped by their environment. Not being a neuroscientist, or scientist of any sort, I can’t comment on the universal prevalence of introverted individuals, nor how such individuals may adapt to circumstances that discourage typical introverted behavior. I’d be very curious to know if there are professed introverts out there who are nonetheless comfortable being in very close quarters with others (meaning strangers and acquaintances, not friends and loved ones of course).

On another note, the title of this post, while being relevant to the topic, is also an acknowledgment of the recent reunion and planned tour of one of my favorite bands, The Police. You can find details about their tour schedule here. Speaking of crowds…

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