Atlantic Unbound | February 14, 2006
Introverts of the World, Unite!
A conversation with Jonathan Rauch, the author who—thanks to an astonishingly popular essay in the March 2003 Atlantic—may have unwittingly touched off an Introverts' Rights revolution.
Sage Stossel writes:
M ost magazine articles do not, as a general rule, inspire impassioned responses. But in 2003, when The Atlantic published a short essay by correspondent Jonathan Rauch on the trials of introversion in an extroverts' world, the reaction was overwhelming. Rauch was inundated with more enthusiastic mail about the piece than for anything else he'd ever written. And on The Atlantic's Web site, it drew (and has continued to draw) more traffic than any other piece we've posted.
"I am an introvert," Rauch declared in the piece. And as such, he contended, he is a member of one of the "most misunderstood and aggrieved groups in America, possibly the world." By definition, he explained, introverts are those who find other people's company tiring. Yet the uncomprehending extrovert majority imposes its own gregarious expectations on extroverts and introverts alike—compelling incessant socializing, enthusiastic party-going, and easy shooting of the breeze as norms. Introverts, Rauch pointed out—though an oppressed minority—comprise a significant portion of the population. Their quiet, introspective ways, he argued, should therefore be viewed not as a deviation from standard, but as a different kind of normal.
He addressed extroverts, admonishing them to be more sensitive to their introvert peers: after all, "someone you know, respect, and interact with every day," he explained, "is an introvert, and you are probably driving this person nuts." As for introverts, he wrote, "we can only dream that someday, when our condition is more widely understood, when perhaps an Introverts' Rights movement has blossomed and borne fruit, it will not be impolite to say, 'I'm an introvert.... Now please shush.'"
If the groundswell of support for these sentiments is any indication, Rauch may soon find himself the unwitting figurehead for an Introverts' Rights Revolution. We decided to have a few words with this author, who has clearly tapped into something important.
Rauch is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution. His book, Gay Marriage: Why It Is Good for Gays, Good for Straights, and Good for America, was published in 2004.
I spoke with him in early January.
Interview with Jonathan Rauch by Sage Stossel:
Did anything in particular inspire you to write an article about this? An especially trying plane ride seated next to an extrovert, for example?
I don't think it was any specific incident. The idea was rolling around in my head for a while. To some extent, it was the result of being partnered with an extrovert and realizing that this was a daily source of tension. So I started organizing my thoughts on the subject. Another motivation was, basically, that I thought it would be funny.
It's interesting that you've found it a source of tension to be paired with an extrovert. I've read that introvert-extrovert pairings work well because the person who doesn't like to make small talk can just let the other person do it for them.
That's true. It does work very well in some situations. But for an introvert it also makes for a constant—I guess you might call it "brain pressure." That's a better phrase than "tension," because tension implies conflict and it's not that. It's just that my partner Michael's default mode of being is to talk and interact all the time, whereas mine is to talk as little as possible. We've been together since 1996 and we've spent much of that time just learning how not to drive each other completely insane. Part of my motivation for writing this piece was to pass along some of what I've learned. I was also hoping Michael would read it, which he did.
Did it help?
By the time the piece was published he'd probably heard it all from me before. But it doesn't hurt to go on the record.
If he were a writer he could do the companion piece—"How to Care for Your Extrovert."
Exactly. But of course my view, as I say in the article, is that it's much easier for introverts to understand these things than extroverts. Extroverts really have a hard time "getting" it. And even when they do get it, they still have a hard time modifying their behavior.
You wrote that for a long time you didn't even realize you were an introvert. What caused it to finally dawn on you?
From about the age of eighteen or nineteen, when I went to college, I realized that it was just not my idea of fun to party. In fact, I couldn't see why anyone would want to—I get so monumentally bored at parties. So I realized that I had this fundamental difference with a lot of other people. I didn't put a name on it until a few years ago when a friend of mine, who reads a lot of Jung, informed me that he's an introvert and that, "by the way, Jonathan, you're an introvert, too." He explained what that means and suddenly a lightbulb went on and things fell into place.
Now that you're tuned into it, can you usually tell when you meet someone whether or not they're also an introvert?
No. There's no introvert "gay-dar" that I can tell. One reason is that a lot of introverts are actually very good at being social. It just takes a lot of work for them. I'm like that. I'm not great at small talk, but I can seem quite outgoing for spells of up to an hour or so before I completely run out of gas. So I have to kind of get to know someone before I can figure out whether they're an introvert. Not that it takes all that much getting to know. If you notice that someone's getting tired out by a long conversation, they're probably an introvert. But it's not a first impression kind of thing.
I was surprised to read in your article that it's not typical for introverts to also be anxious or shy in social settings, because I'm both.
I was wondering whether you were an introvert. When did you realize that about yourself?
I'm not sure. I guess it probably hit me in seventh grade when somebody told my older brother, "You know, Sage could be popular if she talked more." Of course, he reported this to me, and I started to brood over it.
That is so unjust. Isn't it?
Yeah—chattiness suddenly seemed like the key to social success and happiness.
That story so sums up the kind of extrovert hegemony that can make life miserable. I think it's particularly hard for girls and women. "You'd be so much more popular if you'd talk more." It seems to me that the world would be a much better place, and that people would be much more rightly popular, if they talked less. Because so little of what most people say is actually worth hearing.
True. Although sometimes it's interesting to listen to other people talk. It's too bad it's not more acceptable to go to a party and just kind of soak things up.
Yeah. They should sell skybox seats at parties for people like us.
You asked about shyness versus introversion. My limited reading on the subject suggests that, psychologically speaking, they're regarded as different things. That reflects my own experience; I'm not particularly shy myself. To me, shyness implies a real reluctance to be socially aggressive or assertive. It's very difficult for shy people to put themselves out there if they need to. For introverts, it's never easy to do, but it's more a matter of reluctance to expend the energy, because it tires us out. That's what I feel most strongly. If I have to go to a party and then a dinner afterwards, I'm completely ruined for the evening. But if I'm called upon to run a business meeting or something, I don't feel any reluctance or anxiety about it. So, in my mind there's always been a fairly clear distinction between introversion and shyness.
You also mention in the article that studies have shown that introverts process information differently from other people.
Yeah, that's something I read back when I was reporting the piece. I can't remember the details now, but it involved brain scans.
It sounds right to me that the process is different. When there's a conversation flowing around me and everyone else is so quick with their responses, I almost imagine that other people's brains are endowed with some kind of fast-acting comment-generating engine.
Yeah, I marvel at Michael who can always somehow turn the conversation right over effortlessly and keep it going even when what he says is not necessarily profound or interesting. What he comes up with is perfectly tuned to the sense and flow of the conversation. But it's not words that are particularly intended to convey ideas or mean things. It's words that socialize—that simply continue the conversation. It's chit-chat. I have no gift for that. I have to think about what to say next, and sometimes I can't think fast enough and end up saying something stupid. Or sometimes I just come up dry and the conversation kind of ends for while until I can think of another topic. This is why it's work for me. It takes positive cognition on my part. I think that's probably a core introvert characteristic that you and I have in common and which can probably be distinguished from shyness per se—that small talk takes conscious effort and is very hard work. There's nothing small about small talk if you're an introvert. But we're good at big talk. Are you good at big talk?
If I get onto a topic I'm interested in and feel strongly about then it's true that I can get animated and engaged. But I'm not so good at chatting about things like the weather.
Right. The weather's not interesting. But once an introvert gets on a subject that they know about or care about or that intrigues them intellectually, the opposite often takes hold. They get passionately engaged and turned on by the conversation. But it's not socializing that's going on there. It's learning or teaching or analyzing, which involves, I'm convinced, a whole different part of the brain from the socializing part.
Do you ever wish you were an extrovert?
Not really. That may be because my "faking it" skills are pretty good. But I do think a lot of us are tired of being told that there's something wrong with us—of this lazy assumption that if you're not an extrovert, there's something wrong with you. I think my article may speak to people in part because of its defiant message. It says, "No, I don't wish to be an extrovert. Not everyone has to be one. And why don't you people get it?"
Your article made me think of that book The Lonely Crowd by David Riesman from the 1950s. He argued that the dominant economic model of each era in a sense "creates"—or privileges—the character type that's best suited to it. So, for example, in the agricultural and industrial eras, what he called the "inner-directed" type was best suited to getting work done and transmitting certain moral and cultural values. And then, with the rise of a more consumer-oriented economy, it became beneficial for people to be gregarious and affable. So teachers started to care more about whether their students were popular and cooperative than if they were interested in the subject matter and doing well academically.
I've never thought about it in those terms. It's true that in a lot of the social jobs that require leadership—whether in politics or in corporations—being energized by dealing with people all day long is a plus. And it's also probably true that, in an urban corporate economic structure, those skills are more important than in a rural peasant economy. But I wouldn't say that it changes the character of the people particularly. I do think that there's been, in the last ten years or so, a major economic resurgence for introversion—the "geek" economy. The prototypical geek is really good at thinking, has superb powers of concentration (which tends to be an introvert trait), and works very well independently. They're often pretty awesomely brilliant people, and they're fairly defiant about being geeks. They've turned this word "geek" into a term that's almost romantic in some ways, and through the Silicon economy, they've been massively innovative and economically important. A lot of them are running circles around the extroverts who are selling shoes. So I think part of what's happened lately is that the digital economy is giving introverts a new place in the sun.
You've gotten more reader response to this article than for anything else you've written. What do you think accounts for that?
Well, I can tell you that I never saw it coming. I thought I wrote this almost for my own fun and so that I would have something to hand people to get them to understand. Part of the problem with being an introvert is that it's hard to explain yourself. You can't say to your friends, "Hey guys, I'm an introvert," and have them know how to deal with you. So I thought it would be pretty darn handy to have something on paper.
Then I got this overwhelming reaction in the mail. It's been a bigger reaction than to anything else I've written. I think it suggests that a lot of people have the same experiences you and I do, and that they haven't had a name for it or a way of understanding it. Having that is very valuable. It tells you how to understand yourself and—maybe even more importantly—it tells you that you're fine and that, in fact, a lot of the problem is with the rest of the world.
People really do seem to be having a real "eureka" reaction to this. At some level, it reminds me of what it's like to discover that you're gay. Obviously there's no structural similarity between introversion and homosexuality, but there is this sense of realizing that you're different in a way that's very meaningful. Understanding introversion as a concept kind of makes the pieces fit together. A number of people have told me that they've Xeroxed the article and given it to their friends, their families, their significant others, and so on, as a communication device.
You jokingly talk about an Introverts' Rights Movement. It seems as though, given the dramatic response to this article, there must be a lot of people out there who are just now realizing that they're introverts and that the dominant culture doesn't really take their characteristics into account in terms of what it expects of them.
Well, that's exactly right. Part of the thrill of this article is that it seems to be helping introverts discover each other. It never occurred to me when I wrote it that there would be so many other people out there with whom this would resonate so strongly. But one of the main points I see over and over again in the mail I've been getting is, "I'm not alone! There are others like me." This sense of empowerment because of not being alone is very important to people. That in itself, to the extent that that takes hold, would be a very important part of correcting the introvert/extrovert imbalance.
Your article has also been one of the most popular pages on our Web site. We posted it three years ago, and it still gets more hits than practically anything else on the site.
Yes. The Internet is the perfect medium for introverts. You could almost call it the Intronet. You know the old New Yorker cartoon with a dog sitting at a computer saying to another dog, "On the Internet, no one knows you're a dog." Well, on the Internet, no one knows you're an introvert. So it's kind of a natural that when The Atlantic put this piece online, introverts beat a path to it; it's the ideal distribution mechanism by which introverts can reach other introverts and spread the word.
Are you aware of anybody else writing about these things today?
I'm not. Some people who wrote in sent me some of their own writings on the subject. But if there are other articles I haven't seen them. We'll see over time.
So if you were to spearhead an Introverts' Rights movement what would be some of the things you'd advocate?
Massive subsidies. I think people like us should have twice as much Social Security.
I like that.
Yeah that's pretty good.
Maybe Greta Garbo could be the mascot.
Good idea. Though she may have just been shy. Did she really say, "I vant to be alone"?
That's what I've heard.
I think that was a line from her movie The Grand Hotel, though, in which case it was just her character who said that. But she could still be the patron saint. Actually, my favorite line is from Waiting for Godot. I can quote it to you exactly: "Don't talk to me. Don't speak to me. Stay with me."
To me those words sum up the introvert impulse. We love people—we're not misanthropic for the most part. We just can't socialize with them all the time. We want to hold their hand or hug them or just sit quietly and read a book with them.
I was tongue-in-cheek about the introverts' rights movement, but the main principle would just be that it should be as respectable for introverts to be who they are socially as it is for extroverts. We ought to be trying to make extroverts conscious and not uncomfortable about the fact that we're here. Extroverts should understand that if someone is being quiet it doesn't mean they're having a bad time; it doesn't mean they're depressed; it doesn't mean they're lonely or need psychiatric help or medication. A lot of the battle is making the extrovert world more aware. The onus is on us to do that. Maybe this article is a start. One thing you'll notice about the article, by the way, is that it addresses extroverts. I think that's very much the strategy; we need to tell the world who we are. The first step is to understand who we are ourselves, but the second step is to educate extroverts. This is stuff extroverts need to know. They're driving us crazy. We need to tell them.
Sage Stossel is senior editor for The Atlantic Online and the books editor of the Radcliffe Quarterly. She draws the weekly cartoon feature "Sage, Ink." Her children's book, We're Off to Harvard Square, was published in September 2004. Copyright © 2006 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.