When I was in high school, I was part of an extraordinary choral program. Six choirs in the department, all run by the same charismatic teacher, performing difficult music at a professional level. This was no Glee. Twice a year, the upper-level choirs went on a weekend-long retreat to get an intense head start on the season’s music. The music part was difficult and stressful, but in a good way. After a while I sometimes felt like I got a singer’s equivalent of the “runner’s high” one hears about so much.
The rest of the weekend, though, was always dreadful. The choir director seemed to believe that ever spare second should be dedicated to group activities to promote bonding, trust, and so on, and probably had an eye to booking up every moment in the hopes of keeping two hundred exuberant teenagers at least mostly within-bounds. I hated the extracurriculars. Passionately. Inevitably there was at least one, and usually two, participation-mandatory group volleyball games. Nobody was allowed to sit out to observe or go lie down in the cabins or even just take a walk. Also, heaven forbid the teacher lose. He can be like an overgrown teenager himself, sometimes, and was not good at losing. Or, come to think of it, winning. But I digress. The worst part was always the Saturday night. Every time, the director started the conversation about how we wanted to spend that night as though there was an actual choice in the matter. And every time it ended up the same: a dance.
I hated dances. I still hate the high school/middle school dance. Loud music, loud talk, teenage hormones going haywire, “dancing” which is more like dry-humping… I hated everything about it. Furthermore, after a day of singing, listening to others sing, and forced group fun, the last place I wanted to be was a loud, crowded, hot room. Like the volleyball, attendance was mandatory. This probably had two reasons – one, it kept us all in one place, easy to keep an eye on, and two, the director assumed everyone would like it. Everyone loves a party, right?
I’m an introvert, which means that I get overstimulated easily and prefer small, quiet groups or solitary time to loud, crowded situations. First and foremost, introvert is a descriptive, not a derogatory term. I am not antisocial. While I have occasional attacks of social anxiety, I am not cripplingly shy. Speaking up in class or at dinner parties is not difficult (the problem is rather being introduced in the first place… or the second time I meet someone, when I don’t want to make use of the social persona I inhabit when around people I’m meeting for the first time). Shyness only cripples me when I *like* someone. Social blather is one thing, but if I have a moment that would otherwise be opportune, I am paralyzed inside my own head. Turns out telepathy doesn’t work, by the way. I hate being the center of attention, so if possible I tend to avoid situations that would lead to me being the focus of all eyes, from delivering presentations to singing solos. I can do it, and I know I can do it. I just really don’t like to – and if I don’t have to, I won’t. I call the combination of occasional shyness, neuroses, and (officially diagnosed) anxiety my Crazy. Everyone has some form of the Crazy. This is mine.
Tonight I finished reading a book that has prompted me to think and self-analyze with every passing page. Susan Cain’s fascinating and insightful Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking could be written about me, in spite of my not being as shy as many of the examples used. Much of the book focuses on ways introverts and extroverts can better understand each other and play to each other’s strengths. Being an introvert does not disqualify you for leadership, socializing, or being an engaging and effective person. Cain argues for a better balance in the world. She sees that the world, especially in places like America, are far too geared towards an “Extrovert Ideal” which pervades our lives from the start. Schools and classrooms increasingly assign group projects rather than solo work, sit students in desk “pods” rather than individually, and penalize students who don’t speak up.
Cain argues that we, the introverts, are a devastatingly under-utilized portion of the national brainpower. I can’t say she’s wrong, though my experiences are perhaps atypical. Never bullied, able to speak up in class – but it’s also true that I was never a social superstar. It’s almost as though my friends forgot about me when it came time to issue invitations. Just because I sit quietly or talk with one or two people rather than the group doesn’t mean I’m not enjoying myself. I still want to be part of the circle. My primary social event these days is dance – real dance, not high school dance. I do social dance weekly at a local church, and most of my partners and friends there seem to consider me an oddity for sitting out at least half of the dances. Partly it’s that I don’t particularly enjoy doing some dances, but I like watching them. And partly I just need the three minutes to calm my overstimulated senses in order to maintain emotional equilibrium.
Everyone should read this book, whether they identify as an introvert or not. As Cain says, there needs to be greater understanding and collaboration between the two personality types. It is also true that many introverts, having been taught by word and example from early childhood that their quieter preferences are socially unacceptable or evidence of something chemically wrong with them, train themselves to mimic extroversion. Studies show that a third to half of the population is introverted. That’s one of every two or three people you know. It’s almost guaranteed that you are related to, friends with, or work for an introvert. Or, if you identify as an introvert, it’s almost guaranteed that you are related to, friends with, or work for an extrovert. Each group finds the other intensely confusing. Heaven knows I still don’t understand what my peers found fun about the high school dances.
At those high school choir dances, I usually ended up sitting in a corner, staring out the window and daydreaming until it was allowed to go back to the cabins. Well-intentioned extroverts came over to me whenever they noticed I was alone to inquire if I was okay, in those deeply-concerned voices that teenagers use when they don’t actually care. When I blinked at them, trying to reorient myself to the noisy room after inhabiting the complex and glorious dreamland of my blue castle, and replied in genuine puzzlement that of course I was okay, they retreated with eye-rolls and didn’t bother me again.
Senior year, I dated for the first time. He knows who he is – no need for names or identification of any kind. I’d known him for years, but he only truly attracted my attention at one of those choir dances, midway through my senior year.
Like the others, he came over to my quiet corner as I sat and stared out the window at the stars, letting my mind wander at will. But instead of standing over me and acting concerned for my well-being, he sat down next to me and quietly asked, “What are you thinking about?”
That right there. That is how to relate to an introvert.