This post will eventually be about introversion. Specifically, it will be about a marvelous book about introversion: Quiet, by Susan Cain. It has a subtitle too—The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking—but the subtitle doesn’t represent the book. Mostly, the book is about three things that matter to me. The first is society’s consistent, but largely unconscious preference for extroverts. Extroversion is the default value and if you do not or can not act like an extrovert, you have some explaining to do. The second is about fundamental condition introverts share. You will be surprised. The third is what we—we introverts—can do about it.
“We introverts.” OK, so I’m an introvert. I’m not shy; I just like social environments with not too much buzz in them. And when I do things that are best done in an extroverted mode—like lecturing to my university classes or making a social phone call— I need to take some time to get back in touch with myself afterwards.
Let’s look at society’s preference for extroverts. This is society’s default standard. It is not preached as a virtue; it is presumed. When you plan a party with what “people like to do” in mind, you are going to plan a party where extroverts will thrive. This is exactly the kind of rule it is important to know about, because it’s not hard to make it through a party designed for extroverts. You find someone else who looks uncomfortable, strike up a conversation, and find a quiet corner of the room. What’s hard is not knowing what’s the matter with me. Everybody else looks OK.
I ran into this problem of the “default style” after my wife, Marilyn, died in 2003. I was grieving. I felt bad, of course, but I wasn’t confused. I felt just about the way I thought I should feel under the circumstances. But it turns out that there is a “right way” to grieve. It is a style Doka and Martin call the “intuitive” style, rather than the “instrumental” style. The instrumental style which is more natural to me. Their research shows that this style is the gold standard in the field of mental health professionals. For them, it is the default style of mourning, as extroversion is the default style of social interaction. It is when you are grieving in the expressive style that the counselors know you are doing it right. Failing to do it in that style means you are doing it wrong. And if the expressive style makes things worse, you need to work harder at it. Hm.
So I get it now: people expect you to be extroverted. If you don’t know that, you fail a lot and wonder what is wrong with you. If you do know it, you find a way around it—as in retiring to the quiet corner of a party for a conversation—and everything is fine.
So what is this “fundamental condition” that introverts share? It is a preference for “low buzz” environments. Here’s an interesting experiment, which, after I describe it, I am going to use as a metaphor. Introverts and extroverts were asked to play a challenging word game in which they had to learn, through trial and error, the governing principles of the game. While playing, they wore headphones that emitted random burst of noise. They were asked to adjust the volume of their headsets up or down to the level that was “just right.” On average, the extroverts chose a noise level of 72 decibels, while introverts selected only 55 decibels. When each group played at the noise level they had chosen—their “sweet spot”—they played equally well. When each played at the level the other group had chosen, both played worse.
This isn’t just a personal preference either; this is the way the temperamental blueprint is drawn. Here’s an experiment that catches how fundamental this is. In 1989, Jerome Kagan gathered five hundred four-month-old infants in his laboratory. The infants heard tape-recorded voices and balloons popping, saw colorful mobiles dance before their eyes, and inhaled the scent of alcohol on cotton swabs. About 20% cried lustily and pumped their arms and legs. Kagan called this group “high-reactive.” About 40% stayed quiet and placid, moving their arms or legs occasionally, but without the dramatic limb-pumping.
Introverts and extroverts, right? Yes. The loud, limb-pumping infants mostly became introverts; the placid, unaffected infants became extroverts. It isn’t what I expected, but it makes sense. This one level of stimulation was “just right” for some of the infants and “too much” for others. The stimulus level was set, to use the word game metaphorically, at 72 decibels and the four-month-old babies who would have been comfortable at 55 decibels, hollered and struggled. We can only hope that they were not taught, as they grew up, that 72 was the “right level” of stimulation, the level “real people” preferred. And while we’re hoping, let’s go on and hope that they do not become “low buzz” activists, dedicated to reducing all social environments to 55 decibels. What they need to know is: a) there is nothing weird about preferring 55 decibels to 72 decibels, b) that in most 72 decibel settings, there are 55 decibel corners and it is OK to search them out, and c) that when they really need to perform in the 72 decibel mode, they will need to find a way to get off by themselves and recharge afterward.
That last point introduces topic three, which is what to do about it. Here are some examples. Extroverts are likely to offer casual information about themselves and think of it as establishing some commonality with the other person. You have a new dog? That’s great. A friend of mine has an amazing tank of saltwater fish! To that kind of response, I ordinarily look, dumbfounded, at the person and say, “What?” What the introvert really wants is for me to say that I saw a lot of saltwater fish when I was in the Caribbean last winter and then he can say that he was in Alaska last winter and had a wonderful time climbing a mountain.
That counts as “conversation” for extroverts. Introverts tend to focus on one or two serious subjects of conversation—often problems or conflicts they are experiencing in school or with kids or with friends. Even politics. To my mind—I’m a member of one of these teams, remember, so I’m not being fair—that first tag team “conversation” is a travesty and my partner, the mountain climber whose friend has salt water fish—is a jerk. To my mind, the pair Cain calls “introverts” are just having a conversation. Each listens to the other and each responds to what has been said.
What to do? First, make up your mind that they aren’t doing it wrong. They are interacting the way 72 decibel people like to interact. Second, offer your conversation partner a chance to talk about just one thing. He can choose what the thing is provided we agree to actually talk about it for a while. Probably that won’t work, but it doesn’t hurt (much) to try. Third, find someone who likes to have conversations of the sort you like.
Once you know it isn’t you, it isn’t all that hard to fix.
We talked about the fact that you were going to write this article a couple weeks ago, and we talked about our respective styles. But I’m still not sure if I’m a 72dB or a 55dB guy. When I’m engaged, and when I have a clearly purpose, I tend to behave what I have always called an extrovert.
But the conversation thing confused me. I think I’m more likely to want to connect on a personal level with people, but I’m pretty bad at small talk with strangers. That is to say that I do it, but not well. I can’t imagine myself talking about fish in response to a story about a dog, but I’ve probably said things that weren’t far off. Recently.
Perhaps I’ll wave some alcohol under my nose and see how I react.
There’s no question in my mind that you are an introvert as Susan Cain defines introverts. The “small talk with strangers” line alone establishes that for me. So does your preference for talking more deeply about a given topic. I have had the same experience you have had about a clear task, especially when I have selected the task myself or when it is clearly important to some more general goal I have. I just gear up and I am amazed, sometimes, at the energy I can put out in interpersonal settings and not feel the downdraft I ordinarily do afterwards.
I really think the most important thing 55 decibel people need to know is that they work best in certain kinds of environments and that those are usually available. Certainly that has been a big help to me.