My friend Karen recommended a book she loved: Quiet: The Power of Introverts in A World That Can't Stop Talking, by Susan Cain
I really liked this book a lot. Oh, sure: I did hate the focus on the business model, which I gritched about when I first starting reading the book. But even with that, it made me think about stuff. I'm not a deeply introspective person, I don't think. Or maybe I'm not insightful. Or maybe I *am* but I just can't remember stuff I figure out. Whatever. I'd always just thought of "shyness" and "introversion" as being more or less the same. Maybe introversion didn't have the blushing and sweaty-palm-ness of shyness, but they were linked together inextricably. So imagine how interesting it was to consider that you can be an introvert and not be shy. Whoa. That explains a lot.
Personally, I've always assumed there was something wrong with me. I think introverts do, and Cain explains why: we live in a society that rewards the hale-fellow-well-met glad-handing extrovert, the hearty, back-slapping schmoozer, the baby-kissing, hand-squeezing politician, the poised cheerleaders and student council presidents and class clowns. And we pity the quiet nerdy types with their noses buried in books. So if you grow up not being that out-going popular kid, you feel like there's something wrong with you, that somehow you're failing to be All That You Can Be.
I've written about this before: I don't remember a lot about my childhood because 1) I don't remember stuff generally and 2) childhood wasn't really all that interesting, I don't think. I was a fairly boring kid who lived in my imagination, peopled with dragons and peasants and animals that could fly.
But from what I've pieced together and what it seems I remember, I was an outgoing, confident kid until I was about 5 or 6, and then I turned into this horribly, painfully shy child. By the time I was in 9th grade, I would miss a week of school rather than stand up in front of the class and give an oral book report, and this lasted pretty much until I was in my 20s, when I worked at Animal Control and started doing public relations stuff for them. The first time I stood up in front of a group of officers wearing sidearms and gave a lecture, I was petrified--I hadn't slept a wink the night before. By the time I left AC and went back to school, I could pretty much stand in front of any group and talk about anything I knew well, from dog breeds to rabies to semicolons.
I assumed that, having married into a family of extroverts and living with one (although he wouldn't label himself that way), I'd somehow become one myself. But that didn't explain why I didn't really like having conversations with people and why I needed hours every day when I was completely alone and why I would almost always choose to be home working on something rather than going somewhere and being around other people. I figured it was some personality flaw I could fix if only I could pin it down.
Now I see it: I'm no longer shy, but I'm always going to be an introvert. I love talking to groups of people about stuff I love, but I have trouble having conversations because there are too many cues to monitor: what people are saying, sure, but also their body languages and facial expressions, word choices and inflection. In a group conversation, I get lost about what's just been said because I'm noticing who's copying whose body language and who else is distracted and who else seems hostile or sad. It's exhausting, and now I understand why. I understand why when we're at an art retreat or the international quilt show, I'm exhausted at the end of the day, even though I've had a fabulous time and I haven't really done any work, whereas The EGE is energized. After a day of talking and having fun, I need to go sit in a quiet room with a book, while he likes to have all the new people he's met that day all gathered around talking and laughing and getting to know each other. (Now I see that having handwork with me allows me to participate more comfortably in such situations, and so it all works out. Now I know why.)
I think it's an important book, not because it makes earth-shattering proclamations but because it argues something that should be self-evident--that there's nothing wrong with introverts--but that society doesn't really support.
It explains why some people you talk to seem to start some random conversation in the middle, and you have no idea where it came from. It came from where they were inside their own head. Introverts, I think, are in their own world, thinking about something that interests them. Some of them can switch from that into social intercourse easily, picking up cues and engaging in normal conversation. Others have trouble doing that and may just start in with whatever they were thinking. Perhaps many of the people we find eccentric are just introverts who don't bother with the veneer of social smoothness.
So I've been thinking a lot about this since I read this book. There's this guy we run into every so often. He's very nice but very, very awkward. He's the kind of person who seems to have read an instruction manual for Talking to People and seems to be following the rules, but as a robot would. He smiles and does the one-armed hug thing and will respond to questions and seems really glad to see you, but he always seems as if he's going through the list in his head:
--nod and smile
--hug if appropriate
--ask after their health
--make eye contact
Sometimes, too, the list gets jumbled up and out of order, and you can tell it's painful but that he wants to make the effort to be friendly. (This is not a person with serious issues; he has a white-collar job, a family, social activities.) He doesn't really seem shy; just awkward. When you realize that someone can be an introvert and not be painfully shy, more things make sense.
It's a book I'd definitely recommend. Not a perfect book, but a good one that will make you think, especially if you're an introvert, or if you know one or maybe--yikes!--live with one.