So I sit in the corner at parties, eat lunch by myself, and keep my nose in a book. That doesn’t mean I’m an introvert or unworthy of human company. I just prefer socialization on my own terms.
Introverts have gotten a bad rap over the years. They’re said to be shy, uncommunicative, anxiety-prone, fearful of crowds, friendless, and alone (except for the occasional cat). They don’t go out much or talk much. They have boring hobbies like knitting and reading and stamp collecting. Some people even believe introverts are suffering from a mental illness.
Extroversion is touted as the norm. Extroverts, it’s said, have more friends and better conversations. They go out more and have social calendars, or in some cases, social secretaries. They have exciting careers in business or law or politics. (They’re also known to have “Type A” personalities, prone to stress-related illnesses – or giving them to others.) Extroverts are widely admired for their accomplishments. They “blow their own horn” instead of fading into the background. They’re people-persons (though not always people-pleasers).
There are lots of books about overcoming introversion, as if it’s a thing to be conquered or cured. They purport to change introverts’ communication styles so they can get along with “normal” people or even with extroverts.
I’m not saying that it’s bad to be an extrovert. I’m just asking why introverts are so discounted in society. Where are the books that teach extroverts to be more introverted? Where are the seminars? The podcasts?
Introversion doesn’t mean the person is a hermit. It doesn’t mean introverts are unhappy being the way they are. It doesn’t mean a person is lacking in intelligence or afraid of relationships or dull to speak to. In fact, those are qualities that can be found in extroverts as well. Extroverts can be unhappy if their relationships are superficial. They can have trouble toning down their enthusiasm in order to have a private, meaningful conversation. And they can certainly be dull to listen to.
Get inside an introvert’s head, however, and you may find a rich and interesting place. Those hobbies and interests that extroverts consider boring have subtleties that an introvert can unlock. An introvert can be extremely knowledgeable on a variety of topics – some seemingly useless, like the complexities of poetry. Others may be more broadly interesting, such as how language affects business or political behavior. And some of their hidden interests can just be fun, like which amusement parks have the best rollercoasters.
Introverts may seem hard to get to know, especially at parties. But there are secret passwords that can unlock their vitality. Read any good books lately? is a good, reliable one. What’s the weirdest movie you’ve ever seen? Are cats better than dogs and why? What’s your idea of the perfect vacation? If you’re an extrovert, you can probably think of ways to work these into conversations – for example, when you’re talking about your recent fabulous vacation or when your kids want to get a dog.
When you hit on a topic that an introvert knows or cares about, you can see their eyes light up and their faces become more animated. Their voices change from dull and quiet to enthusiastic and interested. They may even venture a question about your favorite author or childhood pet or dream vacation. Once you get an introvert started on a conversation, it can be as interesting, vibrant, and knowledgeable as anyone else’s.
You may even make a friend or find a resource. If you ever need to know something about journalism or psychology or model trains, you have a person to turn to – and maybe even a budding friendship.
The trick is not to automatically assume that an introvert is dull or has a one-track mind. An introvert may be into both gardening and archaeology, or both blues music and what the best restaurants in town are. Include an introvert in a group outing. He or she may say nothing at first, but can really open up with a few well-chosen questions or comments and follow-ups. (I studied that in college, but I never really understood XYZ. My friend says that movies are all about superheroes these days – why is that? My kids want me to take them hiking. What’s a good place to do that? What should I wear to a winter wedding? Which should I get – a PC or a Mac?)
Above all, do not assume that introverts are all alike. They’re as varied as extroverts. They may take a little more time to get to know, but in the end, it’s worth it.
And if you are an introvert, don’t despair. You don’t have to turn yourself into an extrovert to be worthwhile. You’re fine just the way you are!
This is my maternal grandmother, Winnie Rose.
We visited her less often than my Kentucky relatives because she lived in Florida. In fact, my first airplane flight was a trip to see her. To give you an idea how long ago that was, DisneyWorld was not yet built, though there was a Visitor Center with a 3D model of how it might look someday. (I didn’t make it to DisneyWorld until I was an adult, when I went with some friends. But I digress.)
Grandma Rose loved fishing and handed down her love of it to my mother. In her old age, my mother took to fishing at local ponds with her church friends or at the city’s recreational center’s pond. She brought home her catch and fried it, unless the pond was labeled “catch and release.” These fresh fish meals disturbed my husband who, despite his occasional desire to be a mountain man, hated to eat any animal that he saw caught or killed.
Once when we visited Grandma, we all went deep-sea fishing. I don’t remember catching anything, but Grandma caught a red snapper, which of course we ate, my husband not being on the scene yet. I wasn’t seasick while I was on the boat, but after I got back to land I was definitely woozy and wobbly.
Grandma also fished from a rowboat, and this solved a family argument. When we kids were teens, we desperately wanted go-go boots. (Remember those?) Our parents wouldn’t get them for us, claiming that they didn’t give enough ankle support, which we thought was just a pretext. Then we learned that Grandma had go-go boots for fishing, as they were exactly the right height to keep water from sloshing inside. Needless to say, we got our go-go boots after all.
Once while we were visiting Grandma Rose, I dipped into her library. There I found mystery books – I particularly remember Nero Wolfe and Agatha Christie. My fascination with these books turned into a lifelong love of mysteries, from Robert Parker to Aaron Elkins to Sue Grafton to Sara Paretsky and many, many others. If there’s a mystery gene, I got it, though it skipped a generation. I also got the crossword and Scrabble genes from Grandma.
One of Grandma’s other hobbies was knitting. She knit fabulous sweaters for the family, all with a little tag inside that said “Made especially for you by Grandma Rose.” There the gene bred true. My mother took up crochet and I did needlepoint and Bargello, plus those awful hooked rug kits.
And lest you think that she was sedentary, in her youth she rode horses. Her other love was bowling. On bowling days, she ate a hearty breakfast of Rice Krispies over vanilla ice cream. It must have worked, because she had dozens of bowling trophies, patches, and other memorabilia. In fact, she went bowling in her 90s, the week before she died.
As you can see from the picture, Grandma Rose had gorgeous, snow-white hair, which used to be naturally red, until her husband died, killed by a drunk driver. After he died, she no longer kept up the red color that he had loved. If I had been born with red hair, instead of acquiring it later, I would have been named Winnie.
Occasionally, Grandma would visit us in Ohio. There was a spare bedroom that we always referred to as Grandma’s room (though it would have made more sense to use it so my sister and I could sleep in separate rooms, at least when we got old enough to fight).
I wish we had lived closer together so that I could have spent more time with her, sharing our mutual hobbies. But I’m glad this picture survived so that I can remember her as I knew her – an active, creative woman who raised lovely flowers, plus three boys and one girl, my mother.
The university I went to had something called “distribution requirements.” That meant that everyone had to take at least two courses that were outside their major. I was an English major, so I took History of Science in Western Civilization and Beekeeping (which turned out to be a horrible mistake).
I think Cornell had the right idea. It’s a good idea to step outside your comfort zone and expand your mind. Of course, many students side-stepped the requirement, choosing a course that most resembled their major. Science students took economics, on the theory, I guess, that they both dealt with numbers. Same with architecture students and life drawing. Or English majors and French literature.
However, one of my friends was a civil engineering student, and she took sculpture. She didn’t get the greatest grade, but I admired that she valued exercising her mind and exploring her talents more than pumping up her GPA.
I love people who have diverse interests. We all know people who have a single-minded fixation on a topic, vocation, or hobby. And that’s okay. The world needs specialists. But the world also needs generalists.
I enjoy the science fiction fans who also love Gilbert and Sullivan. I admire lawyers who also play a stringed instrument. I applaud nuns who also enjoy South Park. Microbiologists who participate in community theater. Artists who are big fans of the space program. Gardeners who study comparative religions. Police officers who explore photography. (I really know all these people.) And we all know about the astronaut who plays guitar and sings in space.
As for me, everybody knows I’m a word nerd. My hobbies include crossword puzzles. My spare time is spent writing blogs and novels. But I am also a closet science geek. I have been known to ask friends in the sciences things like, “Explain to me how epigenetics is different from Lamarckian evolution.” And mostly understood the (probably simplified) explanation. Apart from science (and reading about it), I also love travel and semiprecious stones.
I would have to say that most of friends are people who explore different areas of their personalities and different areas of interest. I seem to be drawn to them. One of my oldest friends, a restaurant manager at the time, spent his off hours learning how to scuba dive, developing his own photos, and reading science fiction. I know an aerospace engineer who practices yoga. A writer who loves trains and old postcards. An office worker who decorates elaborate birthday cakes. The combinations are nearly endless.
People argue which is better to use, the left brain or the right brain. The left brain is the rational, logical side, exemplified by scientists and mathematicians. The right brain is said to be the seat of creativity, non-logical thinking, and artistic expression. It has been argued that our world today is skewed toward the left-brained, leaving out those who function mostly on the right side of the brain. There are a lot of right-brained people who are stuck in a left-brained world, where business executives and doctors and people in other high-paying occupations rule. Right-brained people are too often looked down on as hippie-dippy, touchy-feely new-agers who don’t really contribute to society.
(I would seriously disagree with that characterization. Right-brained pursuits make life worth living. Who can live in a world without music, film and television, stories, and the decorative and performing arts? But I digress.)
I don’t know how many people remember Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences. It was all the rage in education a while back. It posited that there are many kinds of IQ, and that children learn best when taught in harmony with whatever their special style of intelligence is – visual-spatial or musical or bodily-kinesthetic learning or others, in addition to verbal-linguistic and logical-mathematical.
Of course, the theory can be applied ridiculously and made fun of (suggesting that the McCarthy hearings be presented in interpretive dance). But it had some remarkable successes – children who learned their alphabet better when tracing letters in a sand tray instead of reciting them.
What I mean to say is that no one operates totally on one side of the brain or the other, or learns things in the same way. My husband, for example, is a more visual learner, while I’m more verbal. But I can’t count the number of times when we’ve explored the same content, him from a documentary and me from a book – an archaeological discovery, for example.
No one way of learning or experiencing the world is better than another. No one way of expressing oneself is intrinsically better than another. And while single-minded devotion is good in some respects, so is diversity of mind. And, in my experience, it makes for more interesting people, not to mention more interesting conversationalists.
Lately I’ve been taken to task for writing about “me, me, me.” So I felt compelled to introspect, and I’ve decided to write more about me. Here’s why.
I’ve tried to live an interesting life. I’ve always admired and enjoyed people who have tried many different things and talk about them. Once I realized that, I set out to try new experiences – travel, hobbies, friends, music, education.
I’ve traveled to the Caribbean, England, Ireland, Croatia, Montenegro, Rio de Janeiro, and other destinations (“Travels With Mom” http://wp.me/p4e9wS-dM). I’ve studied French, Spanish, and Russian, and taken a college course on beekeeping (“How I Faced My Fear – And Failed” http://wp.me/p4e9wS-7H). I’ve taken up archery (“I Arched Before Arching Was Cool” http://wp.me/p4e9wS-6E), ninjitsu (“I Was a Teenage Ninja” http://wp.me/p4e9wS-49), spelunking, and geocaching, and tried horseback riding, cross country skiing (“Whoa!” http://wp.me/s4e9wS-whoa), writing a novel, guitar and banjo, and reloading bullets (“The Day I Brought Bullets to School” http://wp.me/p4e9wS-50). I’ve written for I Love Cats, Black Belt, Today’s Catholic Teacher, and Technology and Learning. I’ve drunk with Tom Paxton, met the Archbishop of Jamaica, taken Carl Sagan’s class, and interviewed Captain Kangaroo. I’ve eaten snails, octopus, goat, and sashimi. That’s plenty of material for blog posts.
I have a blog called Bipolar Me (bipolarjan.wordpress.com). Inevitably, that involves talking about myself. While I try to include posts about news and events regarding bipolar disorder, the person whose case I know best is my own. I can’t generalize my experience to encompass everyone, or even most, people with bipolar disorder, but I hope my readers can see some of themselves in my writing.
My personal writing is what most people seem to be interested in. When I write about politics (“Political Noise” http://wp.me/p4e9wS-ol) or books (“Zombie Novels That Aren’t About Zombies” http://wp.me/p4e9wS-ry) or social issues (“Whitewashing: Where’s the Line?” http://wp.me/p4e9wS-5a) or music (“Owed to Songwriters” http://wp.me/p4e9wS-mr), the response is underwhelming. (I write about them anyway, because sometimes I need to. I’m not doing this for the numbers.)
But when I write about things I’ve seen and done, especially humorous pieces (“Seven Reasons I Hate the Bloggess” http://wp.me/p4e9wS-56, “Butt Check” http://wp.me/p4e9wS-2U)), I get more reactions and comments.
I don’t know a lot about any particular subject. (Except bipolar disorder, I mean.) Some people know all there is to know about medieval Scottish armor or the works of Tolstoy or Hungarian cooking. I’m more of a generalist. My education has been broad, rather than deep. If that means I’m full of useless trivia, so be it. I can write about what I know about Shakespeare or astronomy or getting rid of possums (“How to Get Rid of a Possum” http://wp.me/p4e9wS-46), but if you want detailed, expert knowledge, you’ll have to go somewhere else.
I write a lot about cats, too. My cats, in particular, so in a way that’s still about me. (“Stupid Cat Tricks” http://wp.me/p4e9wS-8I, “Sir Boinks-a-Lot” http://wp.me/p4e9wS-8A, “I Blame the Cats. Always.” http://wp.me/p4e9wS-1B)
So, although I’ll try to keep the posts about other topics coming, I have a feeling I’ll continue to mine my own life for material. After all, it’s the subject I know best.