Monthly Archives: November 2012

Nice Canadians

by Alexia Larcher

It makes me somewhat uncomfortable when Canadians are depicted as “being nice”, usually when compared to our American neighbors. It seems a shorthand way of saying that we are polite, we rarely share our opinions, and we are more systematic about exchanging social niceties and getting along to go along. It’s also a contrast to the general notion that introverts are “impolite”. But what is politeness in the first place and how does it fit in with sociability?

Let me try a definition of politeness first. Politeness is the act of accepting and displaying a set of cultural norms in an effort to smooth social interactions. When you think about it, politeness does not change our personalities. We might choose to be polite or impolite towards someone, but it means little about our personality as a whole. Of course, if you make a habit of being polite or impolite, it will inevitably change your reputation and who you are, but in the short run, an act of politeness does not mean all that much.

On the other hand, humans tend to look out for signs of cooperativeness and selfishness. We would rather work with cooperative people, buy items from their stores or trade with them, build a household with them. We don’t expect cooperation from our competitors, but we expect it for most of our daily interactions. Few people want to spend every waking moment in competition with someone else. In that respect, politeness is definitely a sign of cooperativeness. The cultural norms defining politeness and, by extension, cooperativeness, may change, but the principle remains the same.

When we accuse introverts of being impolite and selfish, we are essentially saying three things:

1) that introverts do not understand social norms

2) that introverts *choose not to follow* social norms

3) that because of 1) and 2), it shows that introverts are uncooperative, i.e. selfish, and do not deserve our trust and respect

If you look at the facts, 1) actually relates to things such as cultural clashes, observation skills, and, in some cases, autism and 2) actually relates to conformity. Neither of these are caused specifically by introversion.

Ultimately, we are confusing cooperativeness with sociability. We are postulating that people who meet 100 people per day are more cooperative than people who meet 10 people per day. If we were to follow this argument to its logical conclusion, city folks would inevitably and systematically be more cooperative than country folks. Country folks would become more cooperative than city folks if they moved to the city and city folks would be less cooperative if they moved to the country.

Why the confusion? Since most work involves working with others, we value cooperativeness quite a bit. The cues for cooperativeness has been lumped by the North American business community as “soft skills” and they include knowledge on things such as posture, smiling, distance, tone, phrasing, levels of formal speech, work-specific slang, gender- or race-based norms, etc. Mimicry is one form of politeness after all (see Mirroring – But there are other signs of cooperativeness, such as politeness. Even listening to others is a sign of cooperativeness – check out active listening ( Go out of your way to tally successful group projects and social interactions and share them with others.

We also believe that the more we expose ourselves to social situations, the more likely we will master these soft skills. Yet placing yourself in a situation does not mean you will learn from it, especially if you have neither lesson plan nor follow-up. Do you as an extrovert even know what social skills you need to work on? If humans had to socially fine-tune themselves to every other human before being able to cooperate, we would never get anywhere, so cooperativeness cues have to be relatively easy to learn. By the time we’re adults, most of us know them already.

In no way is it impolite to fill your own needs as an introvert. However, it’s quite possible to express these needs politely. Yelling “AAAH! JUST LEAVE ME ALONE!” to your coworkers and loved ones will not entice them to put effort in the relationship. We do need to say something, but we need the time to script it, we need the proper stage, and even the proper atmosphere (and you thought public speaking was hard). The longer we silence our needs, the harder that first time will be, no lies. Where will we find the words? But every repetition makes the next time easier and further shapes the habit. We need to politely ask extroverts not to interrupt our thoughts just because we are not spontaneous speakers like they are. Practice that silence in the conversation.It pays for us to speak up just as much as it pays for extroverts to listen without interrupting.

For more about scripts, read some of Captain Awkward’s posts and her excellent commenters for various social script ideas:


The Social Introvert

-David Mein

For this post, I want to address the stereotype that introverts don’t like to go out. This is not true at all. It’s entirely possible to be an introvert and enjoy a night (or day) out.

Remember what makes an introvert an introvert. It’s not that we don’t like to socialize, it’s that socializing costs us energy. The analogy I like to use is exercise. Whether you go to the gym or play some kind of sport, when you’re doing it, you have fun. At the end, however, you’re tired and need to rest. Going to a party, for example, is like that for me. I enjoy it, but when it’s over, I need to rest.

When introverts socialize, though, it can be a bit different. Introverts tend to prefer smaller, more intimate settings. I always enjoy dinner with two or three friends, but a group of ten, for example, can get to be a bit unruly. In situations where there are a lot of people, I tend to find a small group (much easier when there are already people there I know) and stick with them the whole night.

There’s also that point when I know I’m “peopled-out.” When this used to happen, I thought I was just tired and I would stay, trying to start having fun again. Now, though, I know what’s going on, and I know there’s no use in staying, so now I just go home when I hit this point, I just go home. This doesn’t mean that I haven’t been enjoying the party up until then, it’s more like I’ve run/swum/whatever as much as my body was capable of.

Like exercise, though, I do sometimes have to force myself to go out. That is, sometimes I have the urge to just stay home, but I know that if I force myself to go a party, I’ll have fun once I’m actually there.

That said, it is true that introverts are often the type that prefer quiet nights alone at home to noisy parties. I enjoy nights like that myself. The point of this post was just to make it clear that introverts can be social, too.


Introversion in a globalized and over-populated world

by Alexia Larcher

A few days ago, one of my friends asked me whether it was possible for introverts to become more extroverted. I’ve heard this question come up a few times in debates about introversion and I’m sure if we could wave our magic wands in the air and make our wishes come true, several of us introverts would go for it.

From our side of the fence, it seems easier to be an extrovert. Extroverts never get flustered in social situations or tire out. They can chat up anybody easily. They have real pleasure in spending time with crowds and meet a lot of people. They seem to make friends more easily and have more friends over time. They get better jobs and get paid more. People listen when they talk. (That’s what we believe, anyway.) Some introverts will go as far as adopting extrovert traits to get ahead in life.

Most people ask whether introverts can become extroverts. But should they?

Introverts can focus over longer periods of time. We can dig deep into the topics they like and have an easier time putting in the hard work that can make us experts. We put a high value on listening to others. We are introspective and are likely to have large internal worlds. We are often thinking things over, replaying interactions over and over. Reflection comes easily to us. All of these are strengths that we have as introverts.

Essentially, by ignoring our strengths and focusing on our weaknesses, we are treating introversion and extroversion as habits. Introversion is not just a habit – it is how our brains process stimuli. It makes every behaviour that much harder to change. It’s one thing to learn how to make eye contact that your extroverts can enjoy; it’s quite another to become the social connector for party animals. Similarly, extroverts do feel drained from being alone and it would take just as much effort for them to feel any sort of long-term comfort in solitude.

So why are we increasingly pressured to change? I see two possible explanations asides from cultural expectations: overpopulation and globalization.

First, overpopulation. We live in a crowded world, nearly 7 billion as I write this post. Most of us live in cities and more of us move to cities every year. Since so many of us are essentially “competing” for the same resources to live (water, food, homes, etc.), it can only make sense to coordinate things if we don’t want conflicts to break out. Think about politics. Most democratic systems rely on some form of representation, where one politician “represents” several thousand people at once. And each politician has to coordinate with other politicians to vote in the laws they want to implement. Same thing goes for non-profits. If you want to deliver products halfway across the globe, you need to be social enough to acquire these products and persuade several other people to ship them. In other words, many people seem to believe that to be social is a vote for peace. They forget that everybody who is not a psychopath is social to some degree, including introverts.

Next, globalization. The fact that so many people live in cities means that it’s become easier to realize economies of scale, i.e. it’s easier to do everything in bulk. We can build a million products in factories, ship a million things in containers, which then get transported by the hundreds by ships across the globe, distributed over a thousand Wal-Marts, and shelved next to thousands of other products. Similarly, it is cheaper to shove 200 people in a university classroom than 50 people in a laboratory. It is cheaper to do group work in class than to give one-on-one attention to students. It is cheaper to build 100 houses in neighborhoods out of the exact same materials bought in bulk. It is cheaper to serve hospital meals out of a cafeteria, excluding dietary restrictions and allergies. It is cheaper to have “open offices” and cubicle parks than offices for everyone. It is cheaper to do monoculture, excluding the long-term damages to ecosystems. In other words, introverts can’t be bulked in with everyone else without getting burned out and so are seen as having “more selfish” desires than everyone else.

Unfortunately, both of these seem like long-term trends that are unlikely to stabilize anytime soon. Either way, you will have a hard time doing anything if you don’t acknowledge your own strengths and you cannot create long-lasting changes if you don’t build on your strengths first. I will address possible changes (both to enforce introvert boundaries and learn extrovert behaviours) in future posts.

Some more thoughts about using your strengths as an introvert:

Sometimes I can hold a conversation

-David Mein

I live in a basement apartment with one window at the same level as the sidewalk, giving me a nice view of the legs of passers-by. During the summer this window is open nearly every moment I’m at home. This past summer, I was working at a job which I had to get up really early for. So early, in fact, that it would still be dark as I drank my coffee and watched videos on my laptop, all part of my everyday morning routine. One particular morning, however, I was following this routine, when it was interrupted by someone standing outside my window, staring at me.

I don’t remember which one of us said “hello” first, but I soon found myself in the middle of an annoying conversation. It was early enough in the morning that others would consider it late at night, and the person I was talking to was clearly someone coming home late from a party or some event where he had been drinking a lot.

It was, of course, a very unusual conversation, made all the more unusual by the fact that I wasn’t finding it at all difficult. Conversations, especially unexpected ones, are normally very awkward for me, filled with stuttering and awkward pauses where I’m trying to think of something to say. This time, however, none of those problems came up.

I assume it’s because the conversation was so unusual that I had no trouble with it. Typically, conversations are very formulaic and my problem is that I don’t know the formula. If the other person says something and my reply deviates too far from what is expected, the result is simply awkwardness for everybody. Therefore, every conversation is rife with the peril of saying the wrong thing and turning it into uncomfortable silence.

In the conversation I had that morning, however, I didn’t have to worry about any of that. Since the conversation was so out-of-the-ordinary, I didn’t have to worry about following the formula, because there was none.

This may be more of a story about social anxiety than introversion, but it’s only natural that someone who often prefers to avoid socializing isn’t as practiced at it. Don’t get the wrong picture of me, I may not be the best conversationalist, but I get along fine with other people. Also, don’t think I wasn’t freaked out to see a face in my window, peering at me out of the dark. I know I wasn’t in any real danger, but, once it was over, I still got up to close the window and draw the curtain.

What does an introvert look like?

-Alexia M. Larcher

Everybody knows how to spot an introvert, right? If you paid any attention to cultural depictions of introverts, you would say that introverts:

  • wear glasses
  • are clumsy
  • are thin
  • are pasty white
  • wear plain and unfashionable clothes
  • have skin problems
  • have bad posture
  • look boring

In short, you are looking out for some sort of version of Bill Gates. Dr. Laurie Helgoe, author of Introvert Power: Why Your Inner Life Is Your Hidden Strength, found that both introverts and extroverts consistently described the physical appearance of introverts using some of the terms listed above. However, she also found out that introverts used much more colourful words when they were simply asked to describe themselves.

We think that some people are more likely to be introverts because of how they look; however, introversion and extroversion relate to how the brain processes information. When scientists compared PET scans between extroverts and introverts, they realized that normal thinking, for introverts, involved more areas of the brain and included the frontal cortex, which is responsible for long-term memory and planning. It’s one explanation for why introverts get so tired when they socialize: they become quickly overstimulated with all the cues needed to sustain face-to-face conversations. And if we can define modern life in one word, it would be “overstimulating”: public transit commutes, loud music in coffee shops, heavy traffic, crowds, parties, shopping malls, cubicle parks and meetings all day, constant chatter, music festivals in parks, flashing advertising, apartment block neighbors, packed restaurants, construction noise and neighbors renovating in their backyards.

Eventually, we all have to leave our homes to mingle, to work, or to see our families and friends. We’ll share some tips and tricks on how to use your strengths as an introvert to be able to handle the more common situations you might face.