Monthly Archives: May 2013

Introvert, Interrupted

– Alexia Larcher

Often, in interviews, I tell my future bosses that I have spent most of my life honing my focus and, in doing so, my ability to flit from project to project is dulled. I can’t handle having a million ideas on the go and stay healthy at the same time. Many bosses don’t believe me until they see it, until they see me struggle grimly and quietly under the weight of too many emergencies. I don’t say anything because it’s not in my nature; asking for help on my workload is something that I have recently learned for my own sanity and even then, it’s not my first impulse. If I carry too many counter-balancing ideas in memory for too long, I will topple and break down.

It’s the nature of my work as well. Most of my days are spent thinking or trying to think and interruptions slow me down, which frustrates some. One colleague only talks to me to place large and further disruptions on my entire week’s routine. I spend a lot of energy trying to diplomatically negotiate his interruptions.

“I cannot do X *right now* because I’m doing Y, Z, A, and B for our boss and your X will take up the next few days. However, I can start doing X at *time*.” He frowns. He’s never done my job but believes, for some reason, that he knows my entire schedule. You’ll always meet people like this in life. He comes back days later, having ignored what I told him today. I hold my ground. He’s not trying to pull rank on me, he genuinely chooses not to understand. Every time he interrupts me, it slows me down. It keeps his work from getting done. He chooses to get annoyed at me instead of trying to understand. We can’t help our neural pathways. I have the same problem with strangers.

When I meet strangers, I’m always in the middle of some thought that regularly leads to bizarre What-Ifs like this one or this one. It’s my default mode. I’m well aware that sharing such thoughts off-cue makes for a disconcerting (or negative) impression. For instance, just before I wrote this part of the post, I was thinking about reading a few more pages of a book I’ve borrowed, on the future of wild fish reproduction, and generally pondering whether we could “re-wild” certain areas of the globe for that specific purpose. Now that’s not too strange of a thought for me. Neither is what I thinking about a few hours before that: the general decline in the quality of affordable women’s shoes and how it reflects the ever-growing greed of speculators, of which most of us are unwittingly part of, public pensions et al. And then I wonder whether public pensions could live beyond an era of continuous capitalist growth, followed by wondering how we could possibly sustain modern comforts in a post-consumerist, post-capitalist, non-communist society and what that society would look like if it weren’t The Culture. That’s where it starts getting weird.

The internet has worsened this introvert trait because of the ease with which we can get fast answers to easy questions. When I was younger, I regularly spent most classes daydreaming because I understood the material fast enough to complete my homework in class. Now I spend several hours at my job flipping between 4 or 5 entirely different computer programs with entirely different internal mechanics, adding information to databases and possibly worsening the info glut. It’s the modern datastream workflow combined with as-flat-as-possible hierarchies. After work, I indulge in link-jumping free from the tracking gaze (and potential judgement) of the IT department. Another colleague once asked me the origin of Newfoundland dogs and next thing you know, I’m reading the history of cross-breeding large dogs in the Americas.

This vast, internal, self-sufficient landscape is also a con for introverts in respect to our relationships. We are sometimes so wrapped up with our thread of thought that we give the impression we don’t care about others. Unfortunately, as a rule of thumb, people care less about you if you seem to care little about them when you first meet. (And if you appear laid-back, they start thinking they might be able to take advantage of you.) The pool of people I end up leaving an impression on is much smaller than I’d like because of my relaxed silence. I’m definitely a Canada.



-David Mein

Introvert Files has a Twitter! You can find it here.

Now, if you are one of the many people out there who aren’t quite sure what to do with Twitter, one thing it’s good for is letting out some minor aggravations and finding others who feel the same way. One way of doing that is searching hash tags, and one I enjoy browsing is #IntrovertProblems. I usually find something I can relate to, such as;

Alex seems to be of the generation of introverts that I feel especially sorry for, the one that grew up with cell phones and were expected to be in contact with their friends at all times. Being a tired, old, decrepit twenty-six year old, I’m not expected to answer a text right away. I suppose I’m expected to answer the phone when someone calls, but screw that.

It costs more, but I love living alone.

I dream about stuff like this. I’ve discovered, though, that if I go to Mont-Royal early enough (really early, like 5 AM) and stay off the main paths, it’s almost like I have the whole place to myself.

More proof that nothing good comes from leaving my house. Not that I needed more proof.

I don’t know if this is an actual introvert problem, but it’s one I totally relate to.

Neighborhood Extroverts

– Alexia Larcher

A new bar opened in my neighborhood. It’s a nice bar, a micro-brewery; it’s not as if you could have too many of those at this point. It even has a large back patio and I’m sure it will be crowded and enjoyed by us patrons. Yet I know it will be loud and I can’t help but wonder if the neighbours will enjoy the noise. The location and existence of the bar itself is not a surprise, in fact, this bar was supposed to open last summer. Potential neighbours had not only plenty of warning, but plenty of time to find a new abode.

I will probably head there myself soon. I enjoy some amount of alcohol every once in a while and I can spend some time savouring my glass. Yet like every human being who has ever heard of alcohol, I know bars are a package deal. It’s noisy and crowded and dark, there’s some sort of music, and you’re expected to participate in the general merriment. It’s not like a festival where there’s fresh air and you can drift among the crowd and escape. It’s not like you can step in a bar, order your drink, pull a book from your bag, turn on a reading light, plunk in some earplugs, ignore the crowd, and read. You’re just “asking” for interruption of one sort or another, unless you’re looking at a well-known machine and tinkering with it.

Our interactions in these semi-public areas are scripted to some degree. Our species has always included introverts and extroverts and everyone in between, and we understand that often people do not want to talk to strangers. Some of these social scripts are targeted to men so they can approach women and flirt with them without being told off in public. Some are cultural rules for specific places, such as malls, schools, and churches. Yet all of these scripts address not whether or not you want to be approached, but how you should deal with others when you are approached or when you approach them. The unspoken assumption has always been that you go to these places to meet people. If you didn’t want to deal with people, you stayed at home. It’s only in post-industrial cities that we’ve been able to “enforce” anonymity through the sheer impossibility of meeting everyone in large cities. The default mode for most of our history has been to spend time with others outside of your home.

This is why introverts rarely appreciate the strong loneliness that grips extroverts whenever they are left on their own or with our silences (at least that’s how it’s been described to me). We think to ourselves “Why is Extrovert bothering me now, when I’m burnt out from being in the world all day? There’s a million other people just outside that door who would be glad to talk to Extrovert.” We don’t really think about the conventions that restrain most of these public interactions, all those small barriers that slow down potential conversations and budding friendships. We don’t really think about the time extroverts spend all day talking to people who don’t care because they don’t have the time to care or are too self-absorbed or the extrovert feels self-conscious or shy or anxious about the quality of the interaction. We know the effort it takes to meet people who share our interests but we wrongfully presume that extroverts don’t have that problem.

Some more about an extrovert’s perspective.

Stumbled Upon: Another View of Introverted Men

– David Mein

I just wanted to show you, dear readers, this article, Caring for Your Introvert, which I came across while making use of my recharge time (aka wasting time browsing the internet). It’s by Jonathan Rauch and was published in the Atlantic in March 2003 and I want to point out something he writes under the heading Are introverts oppressed?

Female introverts, I suspect, must suffer especially. In certain circles, particularly in the Midwest, a man can still sometimes get away with being what they used to call a strong and silent type; introverted women, lacking that alternative, are even more likely than men to be perceived as timid, withdrawn, haughty.

This is something I had been thinking about myself, basically that introverted women have it harder than men. Alexia, who also blogs here, also blogged about introvert character tropes and mentioned some characters who would count as the strong silent type, like any Clint Eastwood character, for example.

I don’t know if the strong silent type has anything to do with geography. But Rauch mentioned the Midwest, and the only examples I can think of off the top of my head (Clint Eastwood and Ron Swanson) sort of prove his case. I also think the word oppression is a bit strong for (what I would call) the unfairness introverts have to live with in modern society.

All in all, though, I suggest you read the article. It’s an interesting look back onto the days when people were only beginning to talk about the power of introverts. Susan Cain’s book, Quiet, only came out last year. When Rauch wrote his article, it was when things like open plan offices were all the rage. Since then, the discussion of introversion has picked up.

None of this, of course, means that life is smooth sailing for introverted men (is it for anybody?), it’s just interesting to see there are others out there with the same thoughts as me, even if they wrote about them ten years earlier.

Using “Phatic Speech” to Help with Small Talk

by David Mein

Something introverts often complain about is having to make small talk. It baffles us how people can have long conversations about essentially nothing. And it’s always pointless (I know it’s nice out, we’re outside!). In the end, of course, it’s one of those things we just have to accept and try to do, even if we’re not particularly good at it.

But today I want to add to the usual introvert discussion about small talk the concept of phatic speech. In real life, I’m a student of translation studies and when translating, what is said is often not as important as the function of what is said. That is, it’s not so much the words themselves, but what the words are supposed to make the reader do. With this is mind, linguists have categorized language according to function. The linguists Katharina Reiss and Hans Vermeer, for example, came up with three types of texts; informative, expressive and operative.

The linked table shows how Reiss and Vermeer categorized texts according to function. Informative texts have the function of representing objects and facts, expressive texts have the function of expressing the sender’s attitudes, and operative texts have the function of making an appeal to the text’s receiver.

So what is phatic speech and what does it have to do with introversion? “Phatic” speech is a concept developed by another linguist, Roman Jakobson, and its function is simply, as the wikipedia article puts it, “to perform a social task, as opposed to conveying information.” In other words, a lot of speech, like small talk, has no purpose other than to make a connection with another person. It may seem pointless to let me know what the weather’s like when we’re already outside, but conveying information about the weather wasn’t the purpose of the statement to begin with.

In fact, if you read further down in the wikipedia article, you’ll see that “phatic speech” is sometimes called “verbal grooming.” That’s “grooming” like when monkeys pick nits off of each other and eat them as a means of social bonding. Small talk is just a more evolved version of that.

So how can you use this new information? Knowing that small talk is supposed to be pointless won’t make it any more interesting, but it may help alleviate some of the anxiety around it. Like any introvert, even when I accept that small talk has to happen, I have a hard time coming up with something to say. I’ve realized, however, that I have this difficulty because I feel whatever I say has to be meaningful. Understanding that the function of some speech is just to connect with the other person makes it a little easier to say something inane like “It’s really nice out today.”

The lesson for today, then, is that just because some speech may be meaningless, that doesn’t mean it has no function. Humans are social animals, and they use speech as a way to connect. Like the rest of you introverts, I don’t always enjoy small talk and find it difficult at times, but, in the end, I prefer it to eating the nits off another person.

Letting It Out

by David Mein

I want to start by linking to a video that went viral a few years ago, which I think a lot of introverts can relate to. The important part is the beginning, in which two contestants on the reality show America’s Next Top Model are eliminated. One of them is, quite naturally, brought to tears by the bad news, while the other handles it more stoically. The show’s host, Tyra Banks, however, doesn’t like the quieter reaction. She interprets it as meaning the contestant didn’t care enough about the competition and decides to confront the contestant about this.

This three year old video that I just got around to seeing struck me in particular because it’s an example of something that I’ve sometimes experienced. I’m talking about an entitlement others feel to have me share my feelings with them.

I have to say, first off, that I know nothing about the show or the contestant. Maybe there were other reasons Tyra Banks thought she didn’t care. Maybe she didn’t work very hard at the challenges. This post really has nothing to do with the video; it’s about what I saw in it.

I think this is something other introverts can relate to. Maybe you don’t feel the same entitlement from other people, but I’m sure you’re sometimes made to feel like you’re supposed to “let it out.” Something that is a perfectly natural reaction for extroverts, but introverts are more inclined to want to keep things inside (hence the name).

It’s not that we don’t express our feelings to others; it’s that we want to express them on our own terms, when and to whom we choose. And it’s not that we’re superior beings because we control our emotions “better,” it’s just that we handle emotional situations (like hearing bad news) differently.

The problem is that there is an assumption about how people are “supposed” to react in these kinds of situations, and this assumption is based on how extroverts would react. When we don’t react the way we’re supposed to, people will then go on to assume that it’s because there’s something wrong, i.e., we’re suppressing our feelings, or those feelings weren’t there to begin with, or we don’t really care.

In everyday life, of course, it’s necessary to somehow communicate what’s going on inside your head in the interest of smoother work or personal relationships. There are plenty of times when the other person needs to know what you’re thinking or feeling, though you might not always want to communicate it.

The real challenge is finding the balance between communicating thoughts or feelings that need to be shared in order to maintain a relationship and following your natural inclination of keeping things inside. This is made more complicated by the fact that we sometimes do need to let it out, but doing so isn’t always considered appropriate.

I have no idea where that balance lies, but I would certainly like to know what you think (comment if you have an idea). My only point is there seems to be this idea that the only right way to deal with an emotional situation is to “let it out.” Some people might even take it as a personal offense if you don’t “let it out” to them. In the end, though, your feelings are yours and it’s up to you what you do with them.