Friday, January 24, 2014

The Omnivert's Dilemma

One of my most confounding teenage moments happened when I made a church youth leader cry. I didn’t mean to make her cry. She’d simply chosen, as her leadership mission, the goal of making me extroverted. When I didn’t choose to participate in every moment of spontaneous group silliness, like singing madrigal versions of Top-40 songs or re-enacting scenes from Pauly Shore movies, she took it as a judgment on her leadership.

It didn’t help that this “adult” leader only had about seven years on her oldest youth charge. But her entire leadership model hinged on keeping everybody active, vocal, and engaged in everything, no matter how flippant or how far outside particular group members’ wheelhouse. The fact that I might dislike small talk, focus on actually exchanging or testing ideas, or prefer to converse in my “indoor voice,” never penetrated this woman’s leadership paradigm.

I recalled that woman when reading PR professional Brigitte Lyons’ essay 5 Myths About Extroverts That Need To Die. I remembered that woman because the “myths” Lyons cites simply didn’t exist fifteen years ago, before the read-write Web 2.0 created an environment where introverts could communicate. And I assert they don’t really exist now, outside Lyons’ head, and perhaps a few other people who feel aggrieved because extroverts no longer monopolize social etiquette.

When I finished high school, the terms “extrovert” and “introvert” chiefly belonged to mental health professionals and scholarly researchers. In ordinary discourse, we said “outgoing” and “shy,” words that contain moral judgments beyond their dictionary definitions. The schools I attended clearly considered it their mission to break shyness habits, forcing students to spend time milling in noisy, echoing common areas which, considering the large urban schools I attended, often devolved into zoo-like conditions.

(Don’t get me started on what that means for education. My opinions are already well documented.)

This attitude wasn’t exclusive to schools. As Anneli Rufus writes in her book Party of One: The Loners' Manifesto—one of the first on its topic—mass media openly depicted people who enjoyed their own company as masturbating perverts. The medical profession treated introversion as mental illness. Corporate recruiters believed introverts were stupid. And military culture treated (and, to a lesser degree, still treats) introversion as a form of cowardice.

As advancing technology made the Internet a two-way conversation in the late 1990s and into the New Millenium, however, natural introverts found a venue where they flourished. Because introverts prefer to ruminate before they speak, the Web’s asynchronous conversations let us look quick-witted and debonair. We prefer to avoid even accidentally looking ignorant, and Google lets us fact-check our assertions before voicing them, so we don’t shoot our mouths off. And the physical distance lets us speak deeply without the overstimulation of public conversation venues, like bars or city streets.

In this new milieu, people who prefer to pause before speaking suddenly had the upper hand. In offline communications, rules of etiquette have always favored extroverts. Emily Post openly opposed “air in the conversation,” requiring people to keep speaking without regard for what they had to say. And though we teach children to take turns, introverts quickly learn that, in open, unmoderated conversation, primacy goes to whoever speaks first, regardless of whether they actually have anything to contribute.

While introverts quickly found themselves running online conversations, new popular awareness of mental health was changing how we considered ourselves. The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), first published in 1947, remained a medical oddity until around 2003, when newly unified introverts online discovered that this approach to psychology proved they weren’t abnormal. (Yes, I actually had an authority figure, a school counselor, tell me, pre-Internet, that preference for solitude was “abnormal.”)

When Brigitte Lyons complains about feeling “hurt,” “burned,” and “at war” with introverts, she’s discussing pop concepts newer than a chihuahua's lifespan. Just in the two decades since I attended high school, I remember classmates who got good grades because they dominated discussions, even when they were flat damn wrong; co-workers who got promotions for which they were unprepared because they’d befriended the managers; and politicians whose skillful gladhanding got them elected to offices for which they proved supremely unqualified. Non-digital life still caters to extroverts.

Online, however, introverts flip the script. And not surprisingly, too. The Web rewards people who pause before they speak, behavior that realtime conversation punishes. And I concede, a few introverts have claimed Introversion as an identity issue, engaging in harmful in-group behavior. But even most introverts don’t want to keep company with those people. In the main, we’ve simply found an atmosphere that honors the way introverts prefer to communicate.

The myths that Lyons purports to demolish sound weird to me. “Extroverts don’t have feelings,” she refutes. “Extroverts aren’t introspective.” “Extroverts are heartless bastards.” I never said any of those things. Importantly, the three articles Lyons links and claims to rebut don’t say those things, either. They simply assert that another way of thinking exists, one which contradicts established modes of etiquette. Considering that the established etiquette was mainly written by extroverts, the other way will naturally incline toward introversion.

We live in a society where one word, “dumb,” connotes two meanings: stupid and unable (or unwilling) to speak. Within living memory, psychologists, educators, and clergy considered introversion an illness that needed curing. That youth leader put me off church so badly that, religious as I am, I still struggle with volunteerism and activities. An acknowledged leader, backed by the administration, told me I had serious personality flaws because I’d rather listen than speak. I can’t shake that like water off a duck.

I don’t kid about these things. A therapist once put me on psychotropic medications that caused severe side effects, impeding my work life and (I contend) pausing my social and educational development for years, because my “social anxiety” was a medical illness. The DSM-IV, the standard diagnostic manual of mental health professionals, sets the bar for “Social Anxiety Disorder” so low that patients, especially children, can still be clinically diagnosed for getting the jitters in crowded rooms.

Again, I’d be ignorant if I pretended a minority of introverts haven’t engaged in petty feuds and other nasty behavior. But no opinion, philosophy, or disposition should ever be defined by its most unpleasant outliers. Most introverts, especially those of us who grew up before the Internet, simply want to ratify that our preference for quiet, occasional solitude, and fewer, more intimate friendships is normal. Because for years extroverts told us we were maladjusted, cold, or deranged.

Introverts, like extroverts, simply want our earned place at society’s table. And if Lyons, and others like her, feel she’s being attacked, that says more about her than it does about introvert subculture.

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