Introverts Are Not Shy

A friend passed along this article from The Atlantic about introverts. Shy is not a synonym for introvert.

Do you know someone who needs hours alone every day? Who loves quiet conversations about feelings or ideas, and can give a dynamite presentation to a big audience, but seems awkward in groups and maladroit at small talk? Who has to be dragged to parties and then needs the rest of the day to recuperate? Who growls or scowls or grunts or winces when accosted with pleasantries by people who are just trying to be nice?

I liked the article a lot, although I would definitely caution that not all introverts are actually good at public speaking. Sometimes they really are just awkward anti-social misanthropes. This is one of the reasons I like the OCEAN model of personality. You can drill down and see why a given introvert is the way they are, because the other four dimensions of that model are orthogonal. A introvert can be agreeable or disagreeable, conscientious or not. Each one is independent.

When I first came across the OCEAN model, I was explaining it to my former office mate, who is massively extroverted. She could not believe that I was an introvert because I am so composed and eloquent. I told her that she was extroverted enough for the both of us, but also that extraversion/introversion is really about mental energy. Does interacting with other people energize you or drain you? That is the fundamental question to determine whether someone is an extravert or an introvert. I do like people, but they wear me out.

One of the interesting adaptions I have developed is that I enjoy situations where I can be around people but I don't need to devote a lot of mental energy to personal interactions. A quiet bar on a weekday night or a coffee shop in a bookstore work pretty well. People are around, so I feel more connected, but I don't have to work up the gumption to engage strangers in substantitive conversations. I think this is a major benefit of public spaces in cities: you can be around people while maintaining a comfortable anonymity.

Something else in the article I was cautious about was this statement:

Are introverts oppressed? I would have to say so. For one thing, extroverts are overrepresented in politics, a profession in which only the garrulous are really comfortable. Look at George W. Bush. Look at Bill Clinton. They seem to come fully to life only around other people. To think of the few introverts who did rise to the top in politics—Calvin Coolidge, Richard Nixon—is merely to drive home the point. With the possible exception of Ronald Reagan, whose fabled aloofness and privateness were probably signs of a deep introverted streak (many actors, I've read, are introverts, and many introverts, when socializing, feel like actors), introverts are not considered "naturals" in politics.

Nearly all human cultures value extraversion over introversion. The Japanese are about the only counter-example I can think of. Since I am very data-oriented, the question for me is: why? Since Aristotle famously noted that we are political animals, I think the very clear answer is that extraversion represents a very real natural human good. As political [social] animals, we need interaction with one another to be fully human. We are dependent upon one another to live. Considered in isolation, extraversion is oriented towards this good, while intraversion is oriented against it. In practice, introverts and extraverts both have their places in the sun, but it is not really surprising that extraversion is socially rewarded. Given the kind of interactions necessary in politics, it isn't surprising that extraverts are more common. It is just too hard for most introverts.

Conversely, there are kinds of tasks that extraverts just can't do well. If you need someone to spend large amounts of time alone, an extrovert is a bad choice. Senties, forest fire observers, and other jobs that require a great deal of patience and loneliness require someone who won't go crazy because they are alone for an hour. These jobs are fewer and farther between than jobs that require social interaction, so the predominant preference is for people who can interact well for longer periods.