Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Always the Quiet One

by Sandra Parshall

All my life I’ve been criticized, scolded, and occasionally ridiculed for being too introverted, too shy, too sensitive. Too quiet.

I was the despair of teachers because I never raised my hand in class, and if they asked me a question my response was barely audible. I had friends, but they eventually gave up trying to include me in their good times. In a triumph of casting against type, I became a newspaper reporter, and while I was fine (after the first few minutes, anyway) in one-on-one interviews, I could not make myself ask a question at a news conference.

I felt – and still feel – everything keenly, including the ridicule, but I’ve always been drawn away from others and toward the sidelines, where I could blend into the wallpaper.

All my life, I have believed something was terribly wrong with me. 

Of course, I knew I wasn’t the only one who was like this, but rather than taking comfort in that knowledge and making those others my friends, I dismissed them as being somehow damaged, like me. As most people are, I was attracted to those who shone in company, thrived on attention, always came up with something fascinating to say. I felt apologetic and ashamed of my lack of social skills.

But now, at this late date, I’ve decided to accept myself as I am and stop apologizing because I’m not the one who dances on tables at parties. A book by Susan Cain, titled Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Won’t Stop Talking, made me realize that I’m perfectly normal.

Like approximately 40% of the population, Susan Cain is a introvert. She’s been through all the things I’ve endured, and she has accepted that she will never change. Her careful and extensive research for her book turned up ample proof that she and I and all those like us are just fine as we are. I’ve never met her, but upon finishing her book I felt grateful: here, at last, is somebody who understands me.

Every introvert should read this book. Every teacher, every parent, every spouse of an introvert should read it. Parents should buy it for their older children and teens who hate themselves because they’re too withdrawn to ever be popular.

They will learn what no psychologist will dispute: we are born this way. Humans are hardwired from the beginning to be either introverts or extroverts. Children who are born introverts can’t be badgered, cajoled, or shamed into being more outgoing. Some might learn to pretend, just to get some relief from the pressure, but they can’t change their basic natures and they won’t be happy when faking it.

Cain’s descriptions of introverted behavior all rang true to me because she was describing my life. A long day at school with others can be emotionally exhausting for an introverted child, and the last thing she or he wants to do when the last bell rings is move straight into a boisterous extra-curricular activity with a group. The introverted child needs quiet time alone to decompress after being with others for hours. Reading, writing, walking the dog, pursuing a hobby – whatever the activity, it allows the introvert’s batteries to recharge for the next extended encounter with other people.

Introverted children may be smart, they might be doing well with their assignments and tests, but teachers often don’t appreciate them because they are so quiet in class. Introversion and shyness are two different traits, and not all introverts are shy. But relentless pressure to participate can destroy a child’s sense of self-worth and create shyness.

This inevitably carries over into adulthood, where the introverted person may not do well in professional life. Studies indicate that the majority of successful leaders in business and politics are extroverts. They aren’t always the smartest, or the most capable and well-informed, but they’re the ones who demand and revel in attention, while a more qualified introvert sits unnoticed on the sidelines.

In science and the arts, though, introverts have the edge. They don’t mind working alone day after day, year after year, in pursuit of a goal. They enjoy retreating into their own worlds and shutting out everything and everybody around them. Most would say they can’t do their work any other way.

As Cain points out, nearly half the human population is made up of introverts, and they won’t produce to their full potential if they’re forced to work in a group. Businesses that once used open floor plans in their offices, and encouraged everyone to work together, are discovering that many employees need their own space, where they can think and work alone. Open floor plans in some companies are being divided into cubicles or private offices, and productivity is rising as a result.

For myself, as for all introverted writers (and that’s probably most of us), the greatest challenge is switching from the blissful solitude of work to the noise of the marketplace, where we must put ourselves forward and sell what we’ve published. When my first book came out, I dreaded making appearances because my shyness was almost crippling. Two hours in a bookstore, talking to one stranger after another, completely wore me out for days afterward. I was terrified the first time I attended a mystery conference and had to speak in front of a crowd.

After nearly seven years, though, I’ve worked through a lot of my shyness. I still have a touch of stage fright, but I’ve realized that it’s not possible to actually die from embarrassment, and if I stumble over a word, the audience won’t notice, much less care.

I’m still introverted, though, and always will be. At conferences I begin to feel desperate to get away from the crush of other humans, and I retreat to my room, feeling like a failure because I can’t work the crowd the way an extrovert can. Although I enjoy meeting readers, appearances still drain me.

After reading Susan Cain’s book, I’ve decided it’s okay to be this way. From now on I’m going to put myself first. I’m giving myself permission to be the quiet one. 


Tina said...

Amen! Say it again, sister! I wish I could hire a stunt double for book signings, but workshops and presentation panels engage me. Introvert, yes, but like you, I am learning what that looks like for me and honoring my instincts. Good for you!

Alan Orloff said...

Nice post, Sandy! Maybe us introverts should form a union. But who would be the spokesperson?

Patricia Winton said...

I, too, am an introvert. My body needs extensive time alone after I spend time with people. I recharge my batteries in solitude. I've worked as a teacher and in other arenas that put me in the public eye. I learned how to adopt another persona for those occasions. For writers dragged into the marketplace, as you put it, I really recommend developing such a persona with the skill you use in craft a fictional character. Then let the character make those public appearances.

Sandra Parshall said...

Alan, I think introverts could take over the world if only we could bear to be in each other's company long enough.

Tina, I've learned to enjoy meeting with small groups, like book clubs, where we sit together and have a conversation. For larger groups, I prefer to be on a panel with other writers, preferably people I know and feel comfortable with.

Patricia, something similar happens with me. People tell me I come across as sincere and authentic when I speak, but the truth is that I'm channeling an alternate persona. I don't think I could do it otherwise.

Kath Marsh said...

OH, Sandra!! Thank you a thousand times. I've kicked myself all my life for not being the extroverted person my sister is. That there was something wrong with me that I hated crowds and was never the star of any group.
I Have to have time alone, and that drives my now retired husband crazy. But I'm normal? Hallelujah!

Thank you. I'm going to get the book!

Bev Myers said...

Sandy--This really resonates. Today, on a social media site, I was called a vulgar name I won't repeat because of what I had for breakfast. Right. Breakfast. I shared the info in the first place as part of that public persona we authors must create--I'm trying a new eating plan. Not surprised that people disagree--just dismayed that I'm still wasting time thinking about the comment. I'm also most comfortable being very private person. Think I'll read the book you suggest. I need to develop better boundaries.

Leslie Budewitz said...

My understanding of the difference between intro and extro version is in how and where we get our energy -- from our own company, or that of others. So a person can be comfortable in public, or even talkative, and still need a lot of time alone. I call myself "a noisy introvert." :)

Here's a YouTube video of Cain a friend sent me, giving a TED lecture, IIRC, presenting the thesis Sandy summarizes:

Barb Goffman said...

I could be the spokesperson, Alan. Send me to a large group with some specific information to get or give, I have no problem talking with people. (Being a newspaper reporter was easy for me.) But send me to a party without a purpose, and I'm tongue-tied and itching to get home.

Terry Shames said...

Leslie, I'm with you. I love to be with people and am very outgoing--to a point. Suddenly, I've had enough and need to flee to solitude. Yesterday after our house guests left I said to my husband, "Don't talk to me the rest of the day." He knew exactly what I meant. It will take me a few days to recharge--at my desk!

Sandra de Helen said...

There is a difference between being an introvert and being shy, though a person can be both. I once was shy. I was an am an introvert. Thanks for this important post, Sandy. I look forward to reading the book!

JJM said...

There's a heck of a lot of us out here, Sandra. You are far, far, far from being alone. I never felt ashamed of being introverted and shy, though -- I may not have been the person dancing on the table, but I was definitely the one sitting on the sidelines observing the dancers on tables, and ... taking notes, sometimes literally. In college, I was known as the quiet one in the corner, always scribbling away in my vade mecum.

And it would not surprise me if a hefty subset of us have the same coping mechanism as Patricia Winton has. I know I certainly do!

What your excellent essay does not address, however, and perhaps neither does the Cain (I'll have to rustle up a copy of that book), is the effect of the Internet. As the famous New Yorker cartoon said: "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog." This is where so many of us come into our own, a world where the word rules and we are, on the whole, not forced into social situations we can't handle comfortably. On the Internet, nobody can read from your body language and quavering voice that you're a social maladroit. It's also a very useful training ground for developing the personae that help us cope with face-to-face interactions.--Mario R.

Sandra Parshall said...

Yes, there is a difference between being shy and being introverted. Leslie, for example, is an introvert but she isn't shy -- meeting new people doesn't make her nervous, and she has a visible self-confidence. Shy people lack self-esteem. I've always been shy, but since becoming a published writer (late in life), I've gotten over a lot of my fear of meeting people and public speaking. But I will always be an introvert.

Sandra Parshall said...

Mario, the internet is a godsend for writers and other introverts. We can interact with people without being overwhelmed, and we can control the degree of interaction. It keeps us in touch with the world without straining our capacity for socializing.

Alyx Morgan said...

Great blog, Sandra! I actually have a similar one scheduled soon, so it must be time for us introverts to be accepted. :o)

Many people wouldn't think I am an introvert, but I too find it rather exhausting to spend a lot of time with a crowd of people. I have no problem going out to eat by myself, & quite enjoy solitary activities (or other "group" activities done by myself). I'm glad you've finally come to a place where you're able to accept yourself, & I'll definitely pick up this book, because I would love to understand myself a little better.

Again, great blog!

Dru said...

thank you! I'm the one that is comfortable among my friends but put me in a crowd and I'm going tune into myself and block everyone else out.

I'm definitely going to check this book out.

Jess * Jessie * Jessy said...

Can't wait to get my hands on this book. I'm an introvert too. I haven't been out of my house for three days and do enjoy my solitude, just me, my laptop and books and TV. Hate social settings but at times, NEED them, even if I don't socialize. Once I say hello to you, there's not another thing I can think to say. Thanks for posting!

Kaye George said...

Sandy, you're perfect the way you are! I like you tremendously just like that.

I was born an extremely shy introvert, but somehow morphed, at least to all outward appearances. I do get my energy from groups of people, but I think it (the old me) comes out in my stage fright. Maybe I'm a hybrid.

Patricia Winton said...

I spent the New Year's holiday with a friend who is not necessarily an extrovert. We have wonderful times together as we pursue our different interests. Alone, I read or write; she reads or does various hobbies. We come together for meals and excursions.

Two things happened during our excursions this time that caught my attention and made me want to follow her lead. First, we were in a tiny hill town. Looking for a place for coffee, we opened the door of what we thought was a bar. "Can we get a cup of coffee," M asked. "No this is a "circolo," a type of club (not a night club). Instead of taking the no as a dismissal, M began asking questions: What kind of circolo? Are you political? Then questions about the town: What's it like in winter? How many people live here? I stood back. My introvert self enthralled. When the cat came out through the door M. held open, the proprietor came out to get the cat and invited us in for coffee.

Later, when we found a neighborhood bar for a sandwich and coffee, M. began asking the barista, a kid of 17, about his life. She discovered that he attends school with a boy she knows. They had a great talk about how the financial crisis has diminished his academic experiences.

I really want to try to emulate M's skill. It's not really being an extrovert, I think. But if I had been alone, I would have excused myself from the circolo with an apology for disturbing them. M's approach opened doorways.

Kaye George said...

How fun, Patricia. I always, always try to get people's info, their life story if possible. As writers, we need to do that!

Nancy Adams said...

Seeing this belatedly, Sandy, but I've read Susan Cain's book, too, and like you completely identify with it. Being with a group totally drains my energy, plus I am also super-sensitive to everything and overreact, internally at least. I was really glad to read about this last trait especially, and to see that it may be biologically based. I always felt comfortable with my preference for solitude, but the sensitivity thing has always made me feel that there was something wrong with me, so that was especially liberating to read about.

thanks for this post!

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