“I’m despondent-ish,” my extroverted friend Hillary texted. “Low-energy. I’m finding I don’t pandemic well.”
That wouldn’t do. So instead of the virtual happy hour we planned, I invited Hillary for a socially distant visit. I disinfected a couple of chairs and set them about 12 feet apart in our yard. Hillary arrived toting her own wine, glass, and snacks, and we settled in for a visit. By the end, Hillary said—several times—that she felt tons better.
It’s become a memeworthy observation that introverts are having a much easier time social distancing than extroverts. That’s one reason I want to talk about extroverts today. In addition, I’m weary of the animosity I hear introverts express toward extroverts, whom they accuse of being thoughtless, overbearing, shallow, less creative, less soulful…
I don’t buy any of that.
I understand that introverts feel put down by extroverts, considered the dominant and even healthier personality, especially in the US. Introverts rankle at being told to behave in ways that don’t come naturally, and that our personality is somehow inferior.
But often the “criticism” extroverts direct at introverts is well-meaning. They don’t understand us and project their own feelings onto us. To them, alone = unhappy. They can’t imagine choosing to read over hanging with the gang. They think we feel left out lingering at the edge of the party. And admit it: When they accuse us of overthinking, they’re often right. We do overthink. We joke about it among ourselves.
Extroverts are trying, in a way, to help.
Criticism of extroverts, however, is often genuinely disparaging; there is no kindness in calling someone superficial. Some introverts are as guilty as some extroverts of not respecting another way of being.
Let’s talk about extroverts.
I consulted two women, both of whom fully own their extroversion. Gwen Moran, who has written about extroversion (here and here), says, “My husband and daughter say that I know way too much about the delivery people who come to the front door.” And Jennifer Kahnweiler, speaker and author of The Genius of Opposites: How Introverts and Extroverts Achieve Extraordinary Results Together, says, “My kids always kid me about my best friend, the dry cleaner.”
First, don’t imagine that extrovert bashing goes unnoticed. “When you say … that we have hurt you or said something that made you believe we don’t care about you—it’s painful,” Gwen says. “We ruminate over what we’ve put out in the world.” After all, extroverts need people, it’s not to their benefit to hurt others—when they’re aware of it.
But, as Jennifer points out, they’re not always aware. When she has presented programs about personality balance in the workplace, only introverts show up. “My theory is that extroverts don’t feel the pain. I agree about the well intention, but extroverts aren’t aware and don’t come to learn.”
While we are seeing a more awareness these days, extrovert cluelessness remains a problem. Nevertheless, for full kumbaya, understanding must go both ways.
Gwen says her introverted husband gets irritated when she asks his help with a problem but seems to ignore his advice and come to her own conclusion. “He says, ‘Why did you even ask me? You already knew what you were going to do.’”
But, that’s not how it is, she insists.
“I need to talk things through,” she says. “I process information by talking things out. When I come to him, I’m trying to get a jumping-off point to process.” Then, from his advice she talks her way to a solution.
But, she says, the way extroverts process information makes them “exceedingly vulnerable. We show you our dirty laundry, and that gives people ammunition to use against us.”
Extroverts “talk first, think later,” Jennifer confirms. “They’ll ramble, they wing it.” This both relieves stress, and helps them clarify what they think. We introverts notice the rambling and winging-it, but don’t consider the vulnerability.
Then there’s the “Everybody is a potential friend,” extrovert thing. I’m annoyed when extroverted friends strike up conversations with every waitperson and passerby. It makes me feel like I’m not entertaining enough, akin to their inviting a third party to join us.
Needy, perhaps. But perhaps in a chemical way.
“There is some research about dopamine,” Jennifer explains. “We need more stimulation, even in our brains.”
“There is a sort of endorphin boost when I’ve connected with other people,” Gwen says. “I feel great when I walk into my local Dunkin’ Donuts and know the cashier. I love that when I go to the gas station, I can joke with the attendant. I love those connections; I love the community.
And small talk isn’t small for everyone. “I’m actually really interested in how you are, where you want to go to school, whether you have a cool hobby,” Gwen says. “I’m looking for a connection. And if you want to go off on a tangent, I’m interested in that too.”
But again, this comes with vulnerability.
“There are plenty of people who don’t want to connect with me,” Gwen continues. “I’ll make a joke or say something, and the other person won’t respond. I’ll put myself out there and get smacked down. It can be hurtful sometimes.”
Introverts are also proud of our friendships, which tend to be few and intense. We assume extrovert friendships are quantity over quality.
But maybe they’re just different.
“I never had one best friend until I was well into adulthood,” says Gwen. "I felt bad about that, I thought it was a shortcoming. [Now] I have circles of friends, I have a smaller core in which the friendships are very close and intense, a circle of friends with whom I share specific interests, and a wider circle of friendly acquaintances. The friendships might not look different to the casual observer, but we know who our people are, who we can share our deepest thoughts with.”
Sometimes introvert hostility towards extroverts seems like sour grapes—certainly I envy extroverts’ ease in the world, their ability to make friends from thin air, their endless happyfuntimes photos on Facebook. As I’ve written in the past, envy is my deadly sin.
I wondered if extroverts envy anything about introverts.
“They’re so thoughtful about what people need before they actually engage,” Gwen says. “They’ve thought through what the other party needs, how to interact with them, and have a full-fledged plan because they’ve processed everything. If I see a need, my tendency is to go full force—‘What do you need, what can I do?’—which puts the onus on the other person to rein me in, to come up with a plan for how I can help or engage with them. It makes them responsible for a lot of decisions.”
Jennifer prefers not to use the word envy, but admiration. “When introverts speak, they have something to say,” she says. “I don’t know how else to put it. While everybody else is talking, they nail it.”
And yes, in case you’re wondering, there is such thing as too much go-go-go for extroverts, though they don't always recognize it. Gwen confesses she’s not good at slowing herself down. “I will keep going and going until I get exhausted or sick, or a little crabby. These are signs that I’ve got to sit on the couch for a bit.”
After years of thinking, talking, and writing about personality, Jennifer has learned to self-regulate. Still, she remembers a moment when she was running through a department store, past a counter where she had purchased makeup and, of course, knew the saleswoman.
“She said, ‘Jennifer, you’re always running,’” Jennifer recalls. “That time it somehow hit me—wow this is not so cool, that you’re always running. I love that, being aware of when people are giving you feedback when you’re not fully present.” (Note to introverts: Your beloved extroverts might benefit from help in recognizing when they need couch time.)
Still, as long as they don’t overdo, busy-ness is as necessary to extroverts as quiet is to introverts. And while some extroverts are enjoying exploring their introverted side during social distancing, they’re also struggling with the blues.
The next day, I texted Hillary and asked if she was still feeling better.
“Omg, Yes!” was the response.
That I was able to help a friend enhanced the pleasure I, too, got from our visit. It was one hundred percent kumbaya. With cocktails.
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