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and silent type; introverted women, lacking that alternative, are even more likely than men to be perceived as timid, withdrawn, haughty.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.

Susan Cain Article: The New Groupthink

by David Mein

I want to use this post to draw your attention to this (kind of old) opinion piece by Susan Cain, the author who has become somewhat of a star among introverts* with her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts. Much of what she covers in her piece, called The New Groupthink, can be found in Quiet, and basically documents how the modern obsession with group work is harmful to creativity.

She begins with the work of two researchers who have found that creative people are often introverts. This is related to the fact that they see themselves as independent and individualistic, not as “joiners.” In Cain’s words, making a reference to the very introverted Isaac Newton, “a person sitting quietly under a tree in the backyard, while everyone else is clinking glasses on the patio, is more likely to have an apple land on his head.”

To bring home the point of the connection between solitude and creativity, she first uses examples of famous religious figures, like Moses, Jesus, or Buddha, who went off by themselves and came back with wonderful insights. She goes on to use the example of Steve Wozniak, aka the other guy who invented Apple Computers, who was often overshadowed by the more outgoing Steve Jobs. For Wozniak, the hard work of creating something from nothing happened when he was alone. He said in his memoire,

Most inventors and engineers I’ve met are like me … they live in their heads. They’re almost like artists. In fact, the very best of them are artists. And artists work best alone …. I’m going to give you some advice that might be hard to take. That advice is: Work alone… Not on a committee. Not on a team.

As for what Cain is referring to when she talks about “groupthink,” she illustrates that with examples from our schools, work life, even religious life. She brings up the new fad of open-plan offices. She mentions one video game development company that found switching from an open-plan office to cubicles increased creativity in their workers. The former creative director of the company even said “it turns out they prefer having nooks and crannies they can hide away in and just be away from everybody.”

I graduated high school in 2004, and I haven’t had a real job since then, so if this new group think really does exist, I’ve been kind of sheltered from it. But, even if I can’t vouch for the veracity of what Susan Cain is writing about in her piece, I can appreciate the message. In her closing paragraph she says,

To harness the energy that fuels both these drives, we need to move beyond the New Groupthink and embrace a more nuanced approach to creativity and learning. Our offices should encourage casual, cafe-style interactions, but allow people to disappear into personalized, private spaces when they want to be alone. Our schools should teach children to work with others, but also to work on their own for sustained periods of time. And we must recognize that introverts like Steve Wozniak need extra quiet and privacy to do their best work.

She recognizes the need for group work along with individual work. Her point is not to get rid of group work, but that it is over-emphasized, and we need to find a balance that brings about the most creative environment. In other words, we need to recognize that not only is it okay to be alone, but a state of solitude is where some of our best work is done.

*In case you happened to have read my last post, There’s no such thing as an introvert, I want to assure you I’m not being hypocritical by continuing to use the word**. The point of my last post was that there is no one is completely introverted or extroverted. That doesn’t change the fact that there are many people who find themselves more on the introvert side of the introvert-extrovert scale and who call themselves introverts.

**Okay, maybe I’m being a little hypocritical.

Introverts and the Be Gretchen Principle

– Alexia Larcher

One of the things that struck me about David’s last post was that many people, for whatever reason, believe that introversion actively hinders their lives. Actively. Hinders.

Now of course it depends what you want out of life. Introverts can very well become rich and famous. Or popular. We have Audrey Hepburn in our ranks, Grace Kelly, and Guy Kawasaki. (Here’s a nice, diverse list.) We can end up changing a lot of lives with our work. We can travel the world. But most of us end up having a hard time with a simple concept, which Gretchen Rubin of The Happiness Project calls “Be Gretchen.”

Several years ago, Gretchen Rubin found herself on a bus wondering what she wanted out of life and she realized she wanted to be happy. So she took a year-long sabbatical from her job as a lawyer to test out every single hypothesis she’d heard about happiness. She published her results in the book The Happiness Project and posted the 12 most important happiness-inducing principles for her life on her blog, which she calls the 12 Personal Commandments. The first one is “Be Gretchen” on that list for a reason. Here’s what she has to say about it:

But being Gretchen, and accepting my true likes and dislikes, also means that I have to face the fact that I will never visit a jazz club at midnight, or hang out in artists’ studios, or jet off to Paris for the weekend, or pack up to go fly-fishing on a spring dawn. I won’t be admired for my chic wardrobe or be appointed to a high government office. I love fortune cookies and refuse to try foie gras.

Now, you might think – “Well, okay, but why does that make you sad? You don’t want to visit a jazz club at midnight anyway, so why does it make you sad to know that you don’t want to do that? If you wanted to, of course you could.”

It makes me sad for two reasons. First, it makes me sad to realize my limitations. The world offers so much!–and I am too small to appreciate it. The joke in law school was: “The curse of Yale Law School is to try to die with your options open.” Which means — at some point, you have to pursue one option, which means foreclosing other options, and to try to avoid that is crazy. Similarly, to be Gretchen means to let go of all the things that I am not — to acknowledge what I don’t encompass.

But it also makes me sad because, in many ways, I wish I were different. One of my Secrets of Adulthood is “You can choose what you do, but you can’t choose what you like to do.” I have a lot of notions about what I wish I liked to do, of the subjects and occupations that I wish interested me. But it doesn’t matter what I wish I were like. I am Gretchen.
Once I realized this, I saw that this problem is quite more widespread. A person wants to teach high school, but wishes he wanted to be a banker. Or vice versa. A person has a service heart but doesn’t want to put it to use. Someone wants to be a stay-at-home mother but wishes she wanted to work; another person wants to work but wishes she wanted to be a stay-at-home mother. And it’s possible — in fact quite easy — to construct a life quite unrelated to our nature.

This is the problem many introverts face too. Many of us wish we were extroverts because we believe it would make our lives significantly easier. We look at extroverts and they look like they’re enjoying their lives. They look as if they are always surrounded by people who love them and it’s tempting to compare these situations to our own lives and wonder what’s wrong with us.

But honestly, we’re using the wrong measuring stick. We’re wondering why we are not someone other than ourselves and then get frustrated because we can only be ourselves. We don’t think about the downsides of being extroverted: regularly seeking a higher amount of stimulation, getting bored if others aren’t around, to name a few possible ones. It only looks easier to be an extrovert because our society is built for us to join crowds. It’s ridiculously easy to text someone and meet up at a popular restaurant or a packed club, compared to a time when telephones and cars didn’t exist. We can still build our own lives so that we don’t burn ourselves out on socializing. And then we can go out and conquer the world if we want to.

More on applying the Be Gretchen principle here. It’s not easy, for sure.

There’s no such thing as an introvert

-by David Mein

If you call yourself an introvert, what do you mean? Do you mean that you prefer to stay home and watch a movie over going to a party? Do you mean that you find small talk tedious? Do you mean that you and all other introverts belong to one camp and all extroverts to another? Do you mean that extroverts are the enemy?

That might be taking it a bit far, but that’s certainly how it can sound when “introverts” get into a group (particularly on internet message boards or *ahem* blogs) and start complaining about extroverts. This is why I think it’s important to remind ourselves that there is no such thing as an introvert or an extrovert. Of course, there is such a thing as introversion and extroversion, but these exist on a continuum, and no one is entirely one or the other. To quote Carl Jung, the psychologist who coined the terms introversion and extraversion*, “there is no such things as a pure extravert or a pure introvert. Such a man would be in the lunatic asylum.”

That’s not to say that such terms are useless. “Introvert” and “extrovert” are perfectly fine words to describe another person or yourself. Of course, it would be more correct to say that someone is “more introverted” or “more extroverted,” but there’s no problem as long as everyone is on the same page.

“Introvert” as an identity, is also a useful way of understanding yourself. If you prefer quiet nights at home to parties, it’s great to be able to find other people like yourself. It’s particularly useful to have an alternative to extroversion. If you prefer quiet nights in to loud nights out, it’s a good thing to know that you’re just introverted, not that there’s something wrong with you.

This becomes a problem, however, when people start using introversion not to understand themselves, but to define themselves and, in particular, when they use it to divide themselves from extroverts. There’s no harm in complaining every now and then about little everyday annoyances, including annoying people, but it should be clear why a statement like “I can’t stand extroverts” is completely ridiculous. Since no one is either one or the other, the complainer, of course, has their own extroverted tendencies. The complainer is also assuming that the person being complained about acts the same way all the time. In fact, we can imagine a scenario in which there is some other “introvert” out there who happened to meet the original complainer at a moment when they were being more extroverted, complaining about the “extrovert” they ran in to.

At the same time, defining yourself as an introvert becomes a problem when you use it as a reason to limit yourself. As I explained in an earlier post, introversion should never be used as an excuse for why you can’t do something.

Understanding introversion is a great way to understand ourselves, enabling us to grow as who we are, rather than trying to be someone we’re not. There’s no need for introversion to become another dividing line among people. We already have enough as it is.

*Throughout this blog, and even in this post, I intentionally use the spelling “extrovert,” something that Susan Cain does, too, and even makes a special note about in her book Quiet. I am using the difference in spelling to differentiate between the actual scientific term “extraversion” and “extroversion” as it’s popularly understood and used.

Introvert Character Tropes

– Alexia M. Larcher

Two days ago, I started coughing every few minutes at work, to the point where I was getting seriously worried. It’s not unusual for me to catch a cold at this time of the year; I discovered several years ago that I can’t handle sudden changes in the weather. It doesn’t bode well for me, considering climate change has already arrived in Canada as it has in the rest of the world. Anywho. I’ve been doping myself with extra-strength decongestant syrup to survive the weekend and I spent most of my free time in the past two days sleeping, which is why I’m late with this post. My apologies.

Every once in a while I end up on TvTropes and play a game I called “If I were to summarize my life into one trope, what trope would it be?” The last time I played it, I wondered if they had an Introversion section. They do! So how to introvert tropes compare to extrovert tropes?

Introvert tropes seem to center around the quiet sidekick. If the introvert is a positive addition to the team, they are often violent and quietly dispatching enemies left, right, and center. They are never quite considered as part of the team (Beware the Quiet Ones) or they are outright loopy (Absent-Minded Professor or Mad Mathematician). The inner lives of introverts are depicted as generally scary and negative (Rant-Inducing Slight or Ice Queen) and explain their silence to the audience. Does silence have to be explained? Apparently. Of course, you will find introvert characters who do not have these issues, but aside from the strong, silent hero, a generally male trope that David mentioned in an earlier post, they are nowhere near as common.

In contrast, extrovert tropes seem to center around their being loveable or hateful, but generally loveable. They can be the Life of the Party (loveable), the Manic Pixie Dream Girl (loveable), the Perky Female Minion (loveable) or simply Big Fun (indeed). Sometimes they are the Gossipy Hens or Affably Evil, but overall, extrovert characters seem to revolve on how much other characters love them.

So why don’t we see more positive introverted main characters? Television and movies are, ultimately, visual media. It’s incredibly hard to convey the internal life of a character without “externalizing” it through objects or relationships. To give an example, Kubrick’s 2001: Space Odyssey has a lot of internal subtext, but leaves many people confused simply because Kubrick tried to convey what his main character thought through imagery and not a narrator’s voice. (I realized this when I read the book. Yes, the 2001: Space Odyssey book exists, and it was written by Arthur C. Clarke, who wrote the movie script.) Script writers, for whatever reason, decide that introverted characters are “media boring” if they’re not blowing things up and so they don’t bother spending a lot of time on them. This is also why you’re more likely to find introverted characters in books more than anywhere else.

Some good examples of introverted characters (introverted characters depicted as having large inner worlds):

– Will Farrell’s Harold Crick in Stranger Than Fiction is depicted as an introvert finding his own stride.

– Monsieur Lazhar, from the same movie,  might an introvert, but it’s hard to tell because of the situation he’s been put in.

– Captain Benjamin L. Willard in Apocalypse Now, who you only hear speak through his diaries for 90% of the movie.

– Neo, from The Matrix, disputably. (I feel like putting a Keanu Reeves snark, but I won’t.)

– Amélie Poulain and her boyfriend in Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain.

– Fight Club’s main character, though it manifests as utter insanity.

– Many of Clint Eastwood’s characters are introverted of the I Work Alone type, but they’re still subtly different enough that you can tell that they’re self-sufficient internally as well, a sign of a large inner world.

– Terence Mann from Field of Dreams.

– Could The Doctor be an introvert? It would probably depend on which incarnation, since some have been known to travel alone for hundreds of years on purpose. Inevitably he always comes back for a companion, but how different is it to introvert hanging out with friends on purpose?

– For anime fans, most of the cast of Genshiken could be considered as introverted. So is Shiori from The World God Only Knows (in the picture for The Quiet One). Her only “flaw” is that she takes so long to decide what to say that the other person is gone. Her inner dialogue is quite entertaining.

N.B. – Batman, Spiderman, and Superman are rather introverted by default: if too many people know their superhero identities, it would blow their cover. It’s hard to tell how much of an inner world they actually have considering the nature of serial American comic books, which didn’t spend much time brooding over their characters’ psychology.

Introversion Isn’t an Excuse

I think it’s important to begin this post by pointing out that I’m an introvert. I need time to recharge after being around people, I prefer solitary activities, I’m very quiet, and so on. I’m pointing this out because if I don’t make it clear that I understand what it’s like to be an introvert, comments like these can come off as coming from someone who thinks you should “just get over/deal with it.”

In fact, there’s nothing to “get over.” There’s nothing wrong with being an introvert and it’s entirely possible to live a happy life as one. We may live in a culture biased toward extroverted characteristics, but understanding that you’re an introvert just means understanding that there’s nothing wrong with wanting to spend some time alone, or that you don’t have to measure your happiness by how many friends you have. The type of attitude that I want to address can best be expressed with the sentence “I’m too introverted to _____.”

Being an introvert doesn’t mean you can’t do something. It may mean that you do things differently, or that there are some things you may just not want to do and that it’s ok to not want to do them.

The point is, don’t use your introversion as an excuse for not doing something. Realizing that you’re an introvert is part of understanding who you are, but if you use that to limit yourself, you’re doing it wrong. When you look inside yourself, you should be learning about who you are, how you do things best and what you want to do. If you look inside yourself and expand your possibilities, then you’re doing it right.

-David Mein

Work Generation

– Alexia M. Larcher

Like many other introverts, I am ambitious. I grew up poor and I swore to myself that I would be financially independent as soon as possible and make enough money not to have to worry about simple things like buying clothes and owning a room of my own. I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to finish my bachelor degree and know enough about selling (and I’m prone to get badly nervous when I sell, honestly) to repeatedly use it to get a job. Of course, this means I go out of my way to acquire information about business as a whole and business culture more specifically so I can get through my day so I can keep said job.

At the same time, I recognize that my work experience is not all that different from other members of my generation in North America. I have had a superfluous number of temp jobs. I have been told that I should work for free, also known as gathering internships under my belt, which I could not afford because of the above-mentioned upbringing. I have little job security to speak of. I have little to no seniority too. I can’t expect to ever have either. I have been underemployed all of my working life so far. Due to the lack of seniority, I have had a hard time trying to get jobs which would not underemploy me, but I go out of my way to learn something from every job I’ve been in. I’m eager and impatient to start my “career”, but I don’t know when that will happen because of the way many companies deal with employees. It’s definitely been their market for a while now. I have savings because I’m disciplined in that regard, but I know I can’t expect to retire and I worry that I will never be able to even buy a house. So in many ways, I am not so different than most of my peers.

All that to say that all these changes can hit introverts hard. Work is one of the few not-so-optional life activities asides from dating where we meet so many strangers on a regular basis. You’re always meeting new people if you can’t find an employer that will let you stick around and grow on them for a while. You might be placed into situations where you don’t get a second chance because you have two weeks to persuade people you’re “likeable enough” to hire you permanently. You have to impress more people than before because everyone works in teams and the gods help you if you happen to be put in the same team as someone who spends their 40+ hours a week talking non-stop. At least we know where the washrooms are by now.

So whenever I start a new job, I make checkmark lists. Have I been going out of my way to sleep well, a known mood-booster? Check. Did I meet as many people on the team as possible and did I like them? Check. Do I know the area well enough to spot prime nap places (naps in the sun after dinner make for a great dessert)? Check. Do I know how many people I will be dealing with? Check. Have I decided on a post-first-day introvert activity? Check. It feels a little ridiculous, but the lists make change a little easier for me to deal with.