Scene: Basement of church, Tuesday, 7:00 p.m.
Jim, standing: Hi, my name is Jim, and I’m an introvert.
Remainder of group, seated: Hi, Jim.
According to the American Heritage College Dictionary, introversion is defined as “preoccupation with or interest in oneself or one’s own interests”. At first blush, this definition seems a little harsh. Introverts are often misunderstood in this way. I found the definition offered by the 20th-century expert on personality traits Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung to be much more palatable: “the typical introvert is shy, contemplative, and reserved and tends to have difficulty adjusting to social situations. Excessive daydreaming and introspection, careful balancing of considerations before reaching decisions (‘paralysis by analysis’), and withdrawal under stress are also typical of the introverted personality. The extravert, by contrast, is characterized by outgoingness, responsiveness to other persons, activity, aggressiveness, and the ability to make quick decisions.” In other words, when a decision needs to be made, the extravert will employ the “Ready, fire, aim” strategy while the introvert will use the “Ready, aim … aim … aim …” strategy. The introvert will often procrastinate because he feels he never has enough information to make a reasoned decision. I once read a line that proclaimed, “The creative mind is at peace with what it does not know.” The introvert struggles with this concept.
In high school, I was often thought to be stuck-up and aloof, when in fact I was quite shy and attention-averse (except for a brief and failed attempt to be the class clown in the tenth grade). What others saw as arrogance was, in fact, an effort to exclude myself from the activities of the rest of the students because I felt socially inept.
If you see me at a party you will find me mingling, in my own clumsy way: spilling my Diet Coke, tripping over the cat, looking for a dark corner with a large plant in it. If I actually muster up the courage to walk over to a group of people I barely know, I won’t have a clue what to say. I draw a complete blank, even if there is already a subject being discussed. Or, if I do mumble something, I stop the conversation dead in its tracks, drawing stares from the group, having said something inappropriate, irrelevant, or offensive, feeling like a Woody Allen character having a bad day. Forget it. If you want me, I’ll be over in the corner examining the leaves on that philodendron.
Abraham Lincoln said, “It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to speak and remove all doubt.” I’m one of those people who has a secret code worked out with my very extraverted wife to signal her when I’ve reached my limit of loud laughter, riotous commotion, and so much sensory input overload that I need to leave. I don’t often need to use it, as she can tell by the look of distress on my face. While the extravert leaves the party feeling energized and looking for another party, the introvert leaves the party feeling exhausted, drained, and wanting to go home. At such functions, an exchange of energy takes place. The extraverts are like energy sinks, sucking the energy out of the introverts. And since it requires a great deal of energy to keep people at a safe distance, the introverts hit a wall pretty early in the evening.
Speaking of my extraverted spouse, she actually walks right up to total strangers and starts up a conversation. Can you imagine? Several years ago she and I attended a funeral, and many of my “wedding and funeral relatives” were there. While I had latched onto one of my cousins whose name I could remember, my wife was walking around meeting people. On several occasions, she actually ended up introducing me to some of my own cousins. She had assumed that since I was not going around talking to these folks, I must not have known them.
Introverts are easy to spot, much to their dismay. Just look around you. For example, they will be seen in browns, dark greens, and other earth tones in an attempt to blend in with the background. L.L. Bean, yes; Tommy Bahama, no. They shun oral debates, but they write great essays. They will recognize the face of some kid from high school 40 years ago, but will forget the name of someone they were introduced to ten minutes ago. They hate dancing, but love running — alone, of course. They attend movies on weekdays; never on a Friday or Saturday night — too crowded. They appreciate music, but you won’t catch them tapping their feet or playing air guitar. They never ask for substitutions or send things back to the kitchen in restaurants. When they laugh, it’s not a guffaw coming from the belly, but more of a wheezing sound coming from their throats and noses. You may not be able to tell if they are laughing or having an asthma attack. At a party, you are much more likely to spot them off in the corner looking at their watch than sitting at the piano belting out Broadway show tunes.
Here’s an interesting notion. I have not subjected this theory to close scientific scrutiny, but I believe it to be valid nonetheless. Consider: If you placed ten introverts in a room with a couple of hundred chairs and asked each one to choose a seat, they will end up arranging themselves such that they are all the same distance from their closest neighbors, which is, of course, the maximum distance allowed by the geometry of the room. And they will accomplish this without uttering a word or even glancing at one another.
I believe there is a large population of introverts in the community of dentists. The profession attracts them. After all, we dentists are an independent lot, most of us with degrees in the hard sciences, and large numbers of us practicing in solo or small group practices. We want to be our own boss, making clinical and business decisions, taking responsibility for both good and bad outcomes. We may also choose this profession because we do not necessarily play well with others. We work better with things than with people. Before I retired, I would occasionally tell a patient with questions about the treatment plan, “If you were examined by ten different dentists, you’d get eleven different opinions.” I went on to explain that this is not due to inconsistent training among dentists, but is due to these dentists being independent thinkers. We do not thrive in a committee environment, where we may feel taken advantage of. We are often reluctant to speak up and have our opinions heard, not wanting to be considered a squeaky wheel. Because of this quiet demeanor, we are often thought of as acquiescing to others’ ideas because we have no ideas of our own. We may give the impression of not being very bright. Well, this simply is not true. Some of the greatest thinkers in history have been introverts. It’s just that they went largely unnoticed because they didn’t speak loudly enough, so some extravert bellowed over them and their genius was not recognized.
Here’s an example of a clash between introverts and extraverts. Shortly after I bought my practice in Winona, George, the seller, suggested that I join (that word makes me cringe) the Chamber of Commerce Ambassadors. These folks volunteered their time to don bright green blazers and attend office openings, ribbon cutting ceremonies, and ground breaking events. They would gather around the new businessperson and smile for the camera. George thought it would be a way for me to be seen around town and in the inevitable photo that would appear in the Winona Daily News or the Winona Post. After much cajoling, I reluctantly agreed to attend a potential member meeting. There were three candidates and about seven Ambassadors. They explained what our obligations would be as members, the number of events we would be expected to attend each year, and even how much we would have to pay for the blazers. The bright green blazers were worn, obviously, to make them conspicuous, to make them stand out in a crowd — something I had dreaded most of my life, favoring instead neutral colors to help blend in with the wallpaper. Then one of the Ambassadors asked us if we had any questions about what we had heard. Leaning forward, I voiced my concern that I might not be outgoing enough to be an effective Ambassador. Even before I had finished my comment, they started in with, “Aw, we’ll take care of that,” “That won’t be a problem,” and “We’ll fix that”. I smiled, leaned back in my chair, and made my decision about joining the Winona Area Chamber of Commerce Ambassadors right then and there. I did not appreciate the implication that my personality was somehow broken. Besides, that bright green blazer was ridiculously priced and definitely not my color.
We introverts can, however, under the right circumstances, feel quite comfortable and even enjoy being the center of attention. I had many episodes where I got to live out my high school fantasy and be the dental office clown, making “straight men” out of patients and staff alike. Why the difference? Territory. It was my office and my name was on the door. Everyone expected me to be in charge. I felt as though I did not need to prove myself. My credentials as a dentist and as a human being would not be questioned in my office. There were occasional committees, of course, but I was usually the chairperson. Ironically, I was as comfortable in my office as I was uncomfortable in my lawyer’s or banker’s office, or the Christmas party, or any large gathering of people. We introverts are territorial by nature.
So, I had come to the conclusion that I was an introvert, and I had a rudimentary understanding of the implications of this. But there was one more step needed to create a feeling of self- acceptance, and I felt I may have needed help. How was I to make the most of my life laden down by this terrible burden? It was quite serendipitous, therefore, that about that time I bought a book on running by Dr. George Sheehan, being a runner myself at the time. And among the segments of the book on heart rate and stretching and appropriate footwear, I found bits of the philosophy of running. The author used the hour he ran each day for introspection, the conclusions of which he applied to his philosophy of life.
If there was one person who made it possible for me to be comfortable with my introversion and no longer consider it a defect, it was Dr. Sheehan. He was a runner, cardiologist, writer, and philosopher. He had written books on running technique, training, sprinting, and long-distance running. But his most influential and enlightening book, in my opinion, was Running and Being. As the title implies, it was as much about his philosophy of running, and life, as it was about the physical benefits and joys of running. And the gentleman was a cardcarrying introvert. Of himself he said, “My design is thin and linear. I am a nervous, shy non-combatant. I do not hunger and thirst after justice. I find no happiness in carnival, no joy in community.” Of his youth he wrote, “When I was young, I knew who I was and tried to become someone else. [I immediately thought ‘Like the class clown in school, for example?’] I was a born loner. I came into this world with an instinct for privacy, a desire for solitude, and an aversion to loud noises, to slamming doors, and to my fellow man. I was born with the dread that someone would punch me in the nose or, even worse, put his arm around me.” Finally, he described both long-distance runners and introverts this way: “His needs and wants are few, he can be captured in a few strokes. One friend, a few clothes, a meal now and then, some change in his pockets; and, for enjoyment, his thoughts and the elements.” After examining these characteristics at some length, he changed gears and described that it is all right to be this way. This was powerful stuff for someone like me who had gone through life up to that point thinking I was the only soul so afflicted. He was describing himself and, at the same time, describing me. I immediately felt a part of a community — no longer the isolated person who had a difficult time dealing with people. And, most importantly, he gave me permission to be an introvert. He led me to believe that I was not broken and did not need to be fixed. Many introverts live long and happy and productive lives examining that philodendron in the corner every now and then. What liberation! I’m still an introvert, but I no longer think of it as a personality disorder.
A word of caution may be warranted at this point. You extraverts should not read these books. There is nothing in them for you. The material would just confuse you. They are directed at introspective and ruminating people who are struggling to break free from a life of minimal human interaction, failure to make eye contact, excessive daydreaming, and not fitting in. You extraverts, while living with some serious life maladjustments yourselves, are hardly affected by the topics mentioned therein. May I suggest searching for a book with the title How to Fix an Extravert, or, The Muzzle Technique: Its Role in Training Extraverts to Behave. Now before you start writing letters to the editor, you should know that some of my best friends are extraverts. Dr. Sheehan thinks extraverts are “cute” at parties. Further, we enjoy watching fist fights breaking out at Christmas parties between two extraverts attempting to speak at the same time.
So, if you’re walking down the street, whistling and waving hello to every other person you see, and you spy someone approaching you trying his best to avoid making eye contact, you should know some things. First, you are an extravert. Second, the person approaching you is an introvert. Third, introverts hate whistling, so if you get a look at all from him, it may be a dirty look. Fourth, he or she is a human being who bleeds just like you when pricked. He is trying to find his way in the world, and if he needs help, he will ask for it. And though he may act differently from you, he is not broken. He finds a quiet afternoon sitting alone, his back against a tree, staring at a lake lost in thought just as rewarding and fulfilling as you find the Christmas party rewarding and fulfilling.
Lest there be a misunderstanding, I have no animosity toward extraverts. Sure, you’re a little loud, sometimes a little obnoxious, and occasionally violate my personal space, but I can now find it in my heart to allow you to be you. After all, every party needs a few extraverts. There are only so many large plants to go around. Let us learn to laugh at ourselves. We all know that other people are already laughing at us – why not join in? There is room enough here for all of us. And you extraverts, rest assured that if your philodendron should develop some sort of pathology, I, or one of my cohorts, will report the problem to you at the next gathering at your house.
*Dr. Hughes is a retired general dentist with a Masters degree in oral pathology. Formerly from Winona, Minnesota, he now lives on North Padre Island, Texas. Email is firstname.lastname@example.org