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How to understand introverts (part two: socially)

Who wouldn’t like going to a lively, energetic, fun-filled party? Introverts, that’s who. You may have heard the old joke: someone once organized a party just for introverts so that they would be comfortable with their own kind, but no one showed up…

Last week I introduced this short series on introversion by offering a short summary of what it is. As writer Jonathan Rauch put it many years ago, introversion is ‘not a choice. It’s not a lifestyle. It’s an orientation.’

In other words, introverts are not playing up their faults; nor are they choosing to be snooty or aloof as an insignia. Introversion is part of their personality, and they have to be allowed to be what they are.

Since extroverts outnumber them, however, and since group socializing is what extroverts live for, introverts are forced to suck it up and like it. They are maligned for being anti-social, viewed with suspicion for being quiet, and labelled boring for not being the life of the party. They are placed under great pressure to conform to the extroverted ideal.

It pays to understand what is going on more deeply. Rauch again, referring to introverts’ desire for frequent solitude: ‘This isn’t antisocial. It isn’t a sign of depression. It does not call for medication. For introverts, to be alone with our thoughts is as restorative as sleeping, as nourishing as eating.’

Once you realize that introverts need their alone time for their own health, you learn how to deal with them. Let me offer some tips to make it easier.

Don’t be offended if an introvert declines to come to your party. It’s not personal. For some of us, being in a noisy place surrounded by multitudes of people trying to make meaningless small talk is akin to being assailed by a swarm of bees. Don’t make us do that. And if we do come to your party (as once in a while, we do), please accept that it’s OK to be present and observe the fun and games without being forced to partake. Don’t drag introverts onto the dance floor or make them play inane games with you. They will resent it. Let them choose. They might really surprise you if you just let them be.

Don’t pop in unexpectedly on introverts and expect gushing welcomes. Call ahead. Arrange a time. Most introverts package their time carefully, simply because their alone time is so precious to them. Respect this. Don’t impose your own norms and patterns of behaviour. The only time introverts might enjoy the unexpected social call is when they are teenagers or when they are courting – and there too the novelty wears off quickly. Even if you think an introvert is actually lonely, take it easy on the unplanned encounters. Ask permission. As for surprise birthday parties…no. Just no.

If you’re an extrovert, you may already be straining to understand this. Your intentions are good, after all – so why are your efforts not appreciated? Just remember this: if you really care about someone, you think about their needs and norms, not just yours. Introverts, when understood, may be your longest-lived and most sincere friends. But not if you want it all on your terms.

So don’t take umbrage when they fail to honour what you think of as cast-iron social norms. Don’t keep saying things like ‘are you OK?’ and ‘why are you so quiet?’ Don’t be offended if they call you back later rather than take your call immediately. Don’t take their lack of social etiquette as a sign of they don’t care (perhaps they don’t, but lack of enthusiastic decorum is not the giveaway). Extroverts are not warm because they’re gregarious; introverts are not cold because they’re reserved.

Engage an introvert on a subject he or she really cares about, though, and you may find some remarkable passion and insights emerging. Chit-chat, however? For us, that’s not fun. It’s work.

In closing: here’s a shoutout to extroverts. We love you guys. Really. We appreciate the need for you. A planet consisting only of introverts is not actually great for introverts. We like your zest and energy. We like the fact that you keep the conversation going, so we don’t have to. We respect your spontaneity and your buzz. If only you would respect us too, life would be great.

In the final part of this series, right here, next week: managing introverts and extroverts in the workplace.

(Sunday Nation, 22 April 2018)

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