April 13, 2010

Bring Out Your Inner Introvert

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Rauch’s March 2003 article, “Caring for Your Introvert: The habits and needs of a little-understood group,” brought more traffic to The Atlantic’s website than any other article before or after it. The article was so popular, in fact, that The Atlantic jokingly (I think) referenced an “Introverts’ Rights Revolution” arising in its aftermath.And indeed, it’s easy to understand its popularity. The piece is a tongue-in-cheek polemic — if such a thing exists — and a blast to read. It’s fun and whimsical, full of playful kvetching. But it’s also serious, out to accomplish something — namely, to identify a subset of people heretofore unidentified (the introverts), explain their preferences (lots of quiet alone time) and plea for a respite from the dominant group in society — the extroverts — who at a loss for understanding, badger introverts for explanations of their behavior.According to Rauch, introverts “are people who find other people tiring.” Unlike extroverts, who thrive on social interaction and “wilt or fade when alone,” introverts depend on solitude for their livelihood. “For introverts,” Rauch writes, “to be alone with our thoughts is as restorative as sleeping, as nourishing as eating.”Further qualities distinguish introverts from other personality types. Introverts are usually not shy; they may bumble small talk, but they can excel at public speaking. In fact, introverts are often skilled negotiators of social scenes, indistinguishable from the most gregarious of extroverts. The difference is, socializing for the introvert is learned rather than innate, always exhausting no matter how skillfully feigned, and thus impossible to sustain for long stretches. “If you notice that someone’s getting tired out by a long conversation,” Rauch said in an interview with The Atlantic, “they’re probably an introvert.”When I serendipitously encountered “Caring for Your Introvert,” I had at first the same “eureka” moment that Rauch credited with the article’s astonishing popularity (i.e., that the piece was speaking for people never before spoken for). I wouldn’t consider myself a prototypical introvert — I’m shy, for one thing, and introverts typically are not — but since Rauch’s diagnosis isn’t clinical, it figures there would be gray areas. Plus, in my case, the hits far outnumber the misses. Like Rauch’s introvert, I’m happiest alone and find most social interaction exhausting. I’m okay at small talk, but I burn out quickly. Out recently at bars and parties, I’ve had to step outside — or simply leave — after a few too many minutes passed exchanging pleasantries. I’ve noticed that when socializing I spend a lot of time observing patterns of conversation or lost in my own thoughts, and consequently lose track of what people are saying.All of which makes me one of Rauch’s introverts, and not at all comfortable with it.There’s a lot troublesome about Rauch’s introvert manifesto that, as far as I can tell, has gone neglected among the outpouring of reader response. My main beef with Rauch is that he makes things far too easy for his introvert readers. Rauch’s talking points — that generally introverts are smarter than their extrovert counterparts; that introverts live oppressed under an “extrovert hegemony”; that extroverts would do well to leave introverts alone — all engender in readers an impulse toward armchair analysis. That is, it’s tempting to read Rauch’s article, with its gushing praise for introverts and their many high-minded qualities, and in turn fancy yourself an introvert, even if you clearly aren’t one.Of course, I should mention again that “Caring for Your Introvert” is first and foremost a piece of satire. Rauch’s writing is purposely sensationalist and overwrought, often comically indignant in its complaints and demands (e.g., introverts are misconstrued as arrogant due to their “being more intelligent, more reflective, more independent, more level-headed, more refined, and more sensitive than extroverts.”).But if I’ve failed to make ample concessions for the satirical nature of Rauch’s article, it’s because 1) while Rauch may be joking, many of his readers don’t seem to get it (see laminated-card guy below), so his intent doesn’t really matter; and 2) Rauch himself seems to be joking only to an extent. In the aforementioned interview with The Atlantic, Rauch grumbles, “they should sell skybox seats at parties for people like us.” It’s funny in a misanthropic way, and a thought, I’ll admit, that’s occurred to me before. But it also embodies the underlying condescension of Rauch’s introvert crowd. Introverts exist, and doubtless they struggle with social minutiae, and doubtless they would be better off left alone — but do we really need, as Rauch suggests (jokingly — but barely), people handing out index-card copies of the article explaining why they can’t be bothered to socialize? (Apparently, this is actually happening).The more I think about “Caring for Your Introvert” and read Rauch’s reaction to the reaction, the more frustrated I become with the piece’s base logic. Small talk may be stifling, but I’d rather make the effort and endure the exhaustion privately than swear off society for good and allow everyone else to do so, too. I may not have much to say beyond “how are you?” — and there may be more awkward silence than anyone will find comfortable — but at least I’ll be trying.


Original Author: Liam Berkowitz