I know it’s hard to imagine a guy who wears Jeffrey Campbell shadow spiked booties (size 11, if you’re curious) as an introvert, but it’s true. I live for nightlife, live concerts, and going out dancing till the wee hours of the morning. Nothing excites me more than being part of a huge crowd — or performing in front of it for that matter. But I’m not necessarily that social. I talk low, large groups of people can really make me nervous, and in a group setting I often wait to speak until somebody addresses me directly. I guess I let my shoes do all the talking.
For introverts, it’s often a chore to throw ourselves out into an unknown social abyss. As much as I love being out and wearing ridiculous things, I don’t go out of my way to approach new people or to make new friends, and I’m always envious of people who are able to do that.
The challenge of being an introvert is that sometimes people misread our inwardness as being sad or upset about something all the time, or else they think we’re arrogant, elitist, or standoffish which, OK, might still be true for some. I can’t tell you how many people have told me that they expected me to be an elitist prick before they got to know me because I’m so withdrawn or because I seem perpetually disinterested. But just because I’m introverted doesn’t mean I don’t like you, or that I don’t care about what you have to say. It just means I’m slightly awkward and am more interested in experiences and sensations than I am in filling up the silence.
I was always the kid in graduate school who never said anything in class. A graduate seminar is the one place where it’s all about talking, talking, talking, and even more talking, sometimes magically producing words right out of your behind. You’re graded in class by how much you contribute to the class discussion, and if you don’t talk, people think you don’t have any ideas. “How did he get in?” Points get deducted, and you run the risk of getting a B.
I took a seminar with a famous literary scholar and in one class we were talking about a Henry James novel, and I remember this one guy was forever dominating the conversation. Nobody else could get anything in. But it was so obvious that he was saying whatever and a whole lot of nothing. I don’t think I said a single word in that class the whole semester. Whenever the professor called on me, everybody’s faces staring, judging, my blood hot, I’d just go completely blank. It’s not that I wasn’t thinking very deep, earth-shattering thoughts about Henry James: I was just anxious about sharing my ideas with the whole class on-the-spot before I could really think them through.
In her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain shows how the majority of the social world values extroverted people and talking. When people talk a lot we tend to think they’re doing a good job. Our office spaces are created to facilitate talking, and the people who talk the most in high school are also some of the most popular. But these people are often too fast, sloppy, not thought through or consistent. We punish those who are slower, more reflexive, and deliberate, even though slowness of thought leaves space for more ideas to emerge.
My own experience as an introvert is that it’s possible to be withdrawn and do extroverted things — like wearing shoes with little spikes all over them! The thing is, when people are quiet, we are actually more interested in what they have to say. A professor once told me not to apologize for being a low talker because talking low forces people to listen to you that much more carefully.
Silence is power. What’s not said freaks people out because everybody wants to know why you aren’t talking, BECAUSE YOU SHOULD BE TALKING. We need to read people, and if you can’t be read, well then that just makes us go ape shit. When you’re inaccessible, people get scared.