If you asked most people who know me, they’d describe me as an extrovert.
I’m known as friendly and approachable. Since I’m naturally curious about others, I find it (relatively) easy to start a conversation. And although I always strive to think before I speak, I view discussion as a way to help shape my perspective and inform my opinions.
But that’s not the whole story.
I also enjoy having time to myself. I much prefer a quite evening at home to even the most enjoyable party. And although I’m happy to discuss a topic, I’m much more comfortable sitting in complete silence and thinking things out.
So you can imagine why I was naturally drawn to KJ Dell’Antonia’s New York Times essay, Am I Introverted, or Just Rude? Here, Dell’Antonia thoughtfully describes the effects of the recent “introversion explosion,” where being introverted has suddenly became hip.
“Suddenly, a resistance to social intercourse became, not just acceptable, but cool,” explained Dell’Antonia. She references Susan Cain’s best-seller Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, which seemed to lead the renewed interest in introversion. As renowned psychologists and various leaders felt comfortable declaring their need for alone time, introverts everywhere felt empowered.
In a probably inevitable extension of nerd culture, the Dale Carnegie image of gregarious success was shattered by stories of powerful, successful people sitting quietly in meetings and substituting controlled online interactions for draining real world encounters.
If they could do it, why not me?
But Dell’Antonia next describes the slippery slope this thinking led her down. Avoiding conversation with others and skipping out on events she would have previously attended was no longer neglecting her friends and avoiding her peers. It was “preserving energy” and “engaging in self-care.”
“I’d spent so long accommodating the world’s demand that I get out there and participate,” she says. “Finally, the world seemed willing to accommodate me.”
But was the world right? As the author discovers, the line between natural and acceptable introverted behavior, and plain old-fashioned rudeness, is a fine one. But it doesn’t end there.
“Extending ourselves can actually be good for us,” Dell’Antonio continues. “We forget that we don’t always know what makes us happy. We predict that we prefer solitude on our commute, for example, but consistently report a more positive experience when we connect with a stranger. That doesn’t have to mean we abandon our book to an hourlong discussion of the merits of our seatmate’s grandchildren.”
“We can embrace both the graceful brief conversation and the retreat into headphones.”
As Donne so aptly put it centuries ago: “No man is an island.”
We need those casual interactions, just as much as we need to spend meaningful time with others. At most, they lead to long-lasting, invaluable relationships that we would have completely missed otherwise. At least, they help us to broaden our perspective, to better understand opposite opinions, and to root our own thoughts in reality–as opposed to our imagined reality.
Of course, extroverts have their own challenges in this regard.
The ease with which they open up to others can cause them to completely dominate a conversation. Or by appearing overly intrusive too quickly, they may cause others to clam up or withdraw. In these cases, an extrovert can easily become guilty of the same offense: putting his or her own needs before others.
Over the years, I’ve witnessed my own transformation–in many ways–from extrovert to introvert. Marriage had a profound effect on my personality. And a few years ago, I all but stopped working as a consultant, where I was around people for most of the day, to pursue a writing career, with which I’ve drastically reduced my interactions with others.
From both sides, I’ve had to fight the tendency to be (unwittingly) rude to others.
That’s not easy, of course. But growth means stretching out of your comfort zone.
And introvert or extrovert, that requires effort.
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