Party of One

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It’s a great time to be an introvert. I can do almost anything from behind my computer screen. What Amazon doesn’t have, I don’t need. There is no need to fight the crowds, germs, and teenagers at the mall. It is my opinion that the mall is in a state of socio-economic decline and those with computer access do not need to spend an afternoon under its artificial lights. I am happy at home and I do not apologize for it.

It hasn’t always been this way though. I haven’t always been comfortable with my introverted self. I knew I was an introvert from a very young age when I was the happiest alone with a book or scribbling in a notepad. In school, I didn’t talk much and became known as “soft-spoken”. (This term is still used to describe me.) High school completely drained me and the thought of extracurricular activities was not an option. I tried to be more outgoing. My best friends were outgoing and they carried the conversations and social obligations. Perhaps, I thought hanging out with extroverts would rub off on me, like it was something I could change about myself, a habit that would become a part of me if practiced on a regular basis. It never happened. As I’ve aged, I’ve become more efficient at adopting an external persona that I use professionally. I have good social skills and I’m not morose or misanthropic. A casual acquaintance may not necessarily view me as an introvert but it lurks behind a tired smile at the end of the day.

Extroverts dominate social and public life though and that tends to make me a little bitter. In our society, being an extrovert is considered desirable and a mark of confidence and leadership. Being a “people person” is a compliment and happiness is too often associated with gregariousness. Extroverts come fully to life around other people. I think about Bill Clinton and his success in politics. The man could talk his way out of anything and make lifelong friends in the process.

So what does it mean to be an introvert? In its modern sense, the concept goes back to the 1920s and the psychologist Carl Jung. Today it is a mainstay of personality tests, including the widely used Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. Introversion does not automatically mean that you are shy. It merely means that you find people tiring.

In contrast, other people energize extroverts. My mother is your typical extrovert. If she’s left alone for over ten minutes, she is reaching for her cell phone. I don’t think she’s ever had a thought that she hasn’t shared. I, on the other hand, need time to recharge after being “on”. If I don’t have that time then my body reacts through exhaustion, anxiety, and sleeplessness. And as awesome as it is to be able to order books online, there are plenty of negatives in today’s digitally connected world that makes it difficult to be an introvert. As Nancy Baym writes, “The continuous relational accessibility enabled by mobile phones thus keeps local peers and families more tightly independent, but can also come to feel overwhelming and imprisoning for that very reason.” Between my cell phone, (calls and texting), my iPad (instant messaging), and my laptop (email, work and personal), I am continuously connected. Just knowing that my “alone” time is prone to interruption is not as relaxing as pre-technology days. Yet, I stay connected for my grandmother is 98, my daughter is pregnant, my sister is widowed, my son lives in Florida, the reasons are many for not unplugging. Part of today’s brave new world is learning to balance the good and the bad and finding more time and opportunity for unconnected solitude. And for introverts, this is not a choice but a necessity.