The taxi ride to the hotel three days earlier was fine. After some small talk about Kansas City and the best places to get barbecue, I excused myself to finish some reading, and the cab driver gladly disappeared into his own world. On the return trip I wanted to save some money, but I couldn’t chance getting a chatty cab driver, the kind who thinks he’s doing me a favor by forcing a conversation. So I made a reservation on the 7:00 a.m. airport shuttle. The other passengers would provide a buffer between the driver and me. I would put my ear buds in and fall asleep to music.
No such luck. My buffers boarded the shuttle, and although they shielded me from the driver they were no protection from themselves. Delighted to discover that they had all been at the same conference, they began to exchange information and anecdotes. Not content with what they were learning from one another, the tallest one asked the figure slumped against the window, “Were you at the conference too?” I heard her clearly, but to make a show of things I removed one of my ear buds and asked her to repeat the question. I smiled and said “yes.” But before I could put the ear bud back in she asked where I was going and what college I taught at and what my area of specialization was. Again, I answered with a smile but volunteered no other information. I closed my eyes and listened to an audio book for the remainder of the drive.
Upon arrival at the airport, I pretended to wake and removed my ear buds. To my dismay, the tall one peppered me with some of the same questions as before. What flight was I on, where did I teach, and so on. Although I had involuntarily overheard plenty about her already, I was obliged to feign curiosity by returning the questions. All the pretending made me more uncomfortable. With an eye on the door, I looked forward to the anonymity of the security line and the groping hands of the TSA.
My fellow travelers on the shuttle were perfectly nice, just a little insensitive to my earbuds and slumbering posture. It was clear that I did not want to talk, and it would have been appreciated if they simply recognized and respected that. On the flight to Kansas City three days earlier I sat next to an older woman. We exchanged polite and impersonal pleasantries when I sat down, and then we moved into a comfortable silence. From our reading materials each of us could have guessed that we were going to the central division meeting of the American Philosophical Association, and it would not have been inappropriate to call attention to the coincidence. But it was not necessary, and so neither of us did. For my part, I did not expect that this person would share my particular interests or that we would enjoy conversation. Quite the opposite was possible, and the prospects of awkward discussion and polite disagreement were enough for me to ignore the evidence of our shared profession and destination. Mercifully my momentary companion made the same calculation. I suspect that she, too, was an introvert, but even if she was not, she at least recognized and respected that I was.
I can’t blame anyone for not immediately recognizing me as an introvert. We don’t wear a letter “I” to mark us. But it would be great if we could say to someone, “I’m an introvert” and need no further explanation. Well, if you need more of an explanation than that, here it is.
Extroverts find social interactions energizing. They feed off them and look for more when they are done. Just think of Bill Clinton working a room and then stopping to talk to more people later while out jogging. By contrast, introverts find social interactions enervating; they leave the introvert feeling exhausted and seeking solitude to recharge. This is why I was slumped against the window of the airport shuttle with my earbuds in. The conference had drained me.
To be an introvert is not necessarily to be shy, though the two often go together. To be shy is to be diffident and unassertive, to be reluctant and later regret it. The introvert may be none of these things, especially in certain social interactions. Introverts are not agoraphobes; we do not fear or avoid all societal interaction. In fact, introverts are not loners or misanthropes, not necessarily. The comedian Amy Schumer, for example, loves performing on stage and spending time with friends but is a self-described introvert who really needs time alone.
Introversion is a minority orientation like being left-handed. It is not a disorder, but it does occur on a spectrum. At one end of the spectrum are people who are obviously and extremely introverted, and at the other end are people who easily pass for extroverts and are only mildly introverted. Introverts are certainly not a persecuted minority, but they are a minority—often a mistreated and closeted minority.
Though an introvert may sometimes be mistaken for an autistic, the introvert is in one sense the opposite of the autistic. Whereas the autistic has great difficulty in understanding what other people are thinking, the introvert is flooded with awareness of what other people are thinking. As a result, the introvert may be unusually introspective and self-aware in the sense of following the Delphic injunction to “know thyself.” Yet while there is security in self-knowledge and self-definition, the introvert knows how fragile self-definition can be. It does not require the full agreement or validation of others, but it does require some interpersonal validation. This does not mean that the introvert is particularly insecure or weak, only aware.
While the extrovert wants to talk to other people, the introvert constantly talks to herself about what other people are thinking. The internal monologue of the introvert does the play-by-play commentary on every social interaction. By contrast, extroverts seem able to shut off the play-by-play or at least turn down its volume in social interactions. Indeed, they seem to enter a kind of flow state in social interactions where they speak and act effortlessly without much hesitation or second-guessing.
“Hell is other people.” You don’t need to be an introvert to agree, nor would all introverts give an unqualified assent to this statement. No one likes to feel judged, but the introvert is keenly aware of the extent to which he is being judged all the time. In Sartrean terms, the introvert may find the constant judging of others as objectifying, as imposing “the look” that regards us as things, as “being in-itself.” This is the way in which “hell is other people.” We are constantly judging one another and yet we need to be judged. Our sense of self requires validation from others. “Other people, can’t live with ‘em, can’t live without ‘em.”
Many introverts manage to “pass” as extroverts, at least in certain situations. When an introvert is a successful teacher, actor, or public speaker she is not lying or deceiving so much as she is playing a role. She is reverse engineering the performance of an extrovert and putting it on for her audience. The introvert is not deceiving herself as to who she is. Rather, she is channeling her talent and energy to give an appropriate performance.
Playing a role might seem to come at the cost of authenticity, however. Because the introvert may be highly concerned with being a genuine person, we may wonder whether there is anything wrong with an introvert passing as an extrovert. In short, the answer is no. It is not necessarily fake or inauthentic for introverts to act the part of extroverts. Introverts need to resist taking the advice to “just be yourself” as permission not to try in social situations. If we can find a flow in an activity that mutes our internal play-by-play we can come to understand how extroverts do it.
On the other hand, introverts should not feel forced to perform roles that do not suit them. An introvert could play the role a of a waitress at a steakhouse, as Amy Schumer did successfully before making it as a comedian, but this role will not work for all introverts. If one simply acts the part and loses oneself, then one is inauthentic, or as Sartre says in “bad faith.”
It would be fake or inauthentic for an introvert to pretend to herself or others that she is not an introvert, that, for example, she is, and should be, comfortable at a party populated by strangers. While there is no harm in doing her best in such a situation to be friendly and sociable, and she may even have some success in acting her way into the part, it would be unrealistic to expect to experience and enjoy the gathering in the same way an extrovert would.
Moving beyond their difficulties, introverts should take pride in their strengths. As Susan Cain suggests in the subtitle of her bestselling Quiet, we need to harness “the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking.” For example, introverts may be particularly good listeners and may be especially helpful to others in one-on-one conversation. Introverts may be highly sensitive, perceiving others’ pain and responding to it. Because introverts find themselves marginalized and faced with obstacles, they may be more sympathetic to the plights of others who find themselves marginalized or challenged.
Although introverts need to take pride in themselves, they also need to be careful not to take the pride too far and become smug. Introverts may be tempted ala Holden Caulfield to see extroverts as phony, shallow airheads and to see themselves as genuine, deep intellectuals. This is not fair, of course; extroverts can be self-reflective too, and they can be every bit as authentic as introverts. Clearly, we need mutual understanding to foster acceptance.
Reciprocity is the key to happy and successful social interaction, but reciprocity is misguided when it takes the form of treating others the way you would like to be treated. When a child buys his mother a toy truck for her birthday he practices this kind of misguided reciprocity. Likewise when an extrovert peppers an introvert with questions and small talk, the intentions are good but misdirected. We need to understand who we are dealing with and treat people how they want to be treated rather than how we would like to be treated. Of course the child who gives the toy truck is easily forgiven for not being able to see things from his mother’s point of view, and so too is the extrovert easily forgiven in most circumstances for not realizing that he is dealing with an introvert who would prefer quiet. However, with growing awareness, this does not excuse the extrovert from understanding that some people are introverts who prefer to interact differently.
Introverts are obliged to accept that most other people are extroverts, but extroverts are obliged to recognize that they have a statistical majority and not a monopoly on normalcy. Such mutual recognition can only enhance and enrich the lives of all. Thus, I call on introverts of the world to unite (quietly, at home, alone). You have nothing to lose but your discomfort.
William Irwin is the author of The Free Market Existentialist: Capitalism without Consumerism.