Introvert in Wonderland

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I can’t, for the life of me, make small talk. And it hinders my social life, earns me labels of ‘socially-awkward’, ‘culturally-backward’ and inundates me in advice about dating, pop-culture and conversation-starters. I take it all in before retiring to my place of Zen with a book. I ponder the futility of comparing analyses of the previous night’s Big Bang Theory and rue the utility of random, mindless chatter.

what i thinkThe truth is that society has passed its judgment on the likes of me and we are the misfits. Likeability, agreeability and popularity may not be bestowed upon those who don’t spew psychobabble like a teenage-girl on crack or make public and complete jackasses of themselves at parties. All this drives me to retreat further inside my own haven. Unknowingly, I’ve stumbled into this Wonderland of a Reality where none of my rules hold true anymore. Welcome to the world of the introvert.

“Why aren’t you enjoying?” meanwhile, the prying continues at a work party. By this, the boss is asking why I’m not drinking like a fish, prancing around like a mantis and singing along to ‘Who let the dogs out’ like a tone-deaf caveman who should’ve long been locked right up with the dogs. But by now, cavemen and dogs are both out, blitzing up the dance-floor in a prehistoric frenzy. I do enjoy the occasional rowdiness, but I don’t join in. Not because I frown upon such behavior – but because it’s not something I like to do: just like some people don’t like peanut butter. But society isn’t questioning their choice: what is wrong with you, boy? Why! Haven’t you read that peanut butter is what the Free-World runs on? Unlike hatred-of-peanut-butter, introversion has been made to take the witness-stand and a jury of extrovert peers has deemed it outlandish and plain off-putting; “Off with his head,” is the summary verdict.

Photo: stellamaesplace.com
Photo: stellamaesplace.com

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Chances are that we think one-third of the people around us are shy, timid or just spineless. There’s the child in class who remains uninvited to birthday parties and eats her tiffin/snack alone. There’s the gawky teenager who simply cannot be pried out of his shell and who runs away at the mention of the debating club; the girl in braces who’s always hurrying back home, especially when friends are getting a bite to eat together. And there’s the young executive who insists his manager should present to the CEO. Or the weird cousin who masterfully orchestrates escapes from social chatter at family parties.

“On the surface, introversion looks a lot like shyness. Both limit social interaction, but for differing reasons. The shy want desperately to connect but find socialising difficult,” says Bernardo J. Carducci, Professor of Psychology at Indiana University.

Introverts seek time alone because they want time alone. They prefer less stimulating environments, tend to enjoy quiet concentration, listen more than they talk and think before they speak. Preferring writing to speaking, avoiding excessive body-contact and nurturing a dislike of conflict may also be signs of introversion.

“All this talking, this rather liquid confessing, was something I didn’t think I could ever bring myself to do. It seemed foolhardy to me, like an uncooked egg deciding to come out of its shell: there would be a risk of spreading out too far, turning into a formless puddle.” – Margaret Atwood

Research suggests introversion has a lot to do with ‘Dopamine’ – an organic neurotransmitter that creates feelings of reward and happiness in our brains. Introverts are very sensitive to, and hence can efficiently use, Dopamine. Too much external stimulation overdoses and exhausts them. Studies claim they will actually salivate more in response to a drop of lemon juice on the tongue. Extroverts, on the other hand, need constant excitement and stimulation to create Dopamine. In short, extroverts have to work harder for their Dopamine.

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From very early on, our children are encouraged to speak up. In schools, talkativeness has been accepted as a proxy indicator for intelligence and attentiveness. ‘Substance’ is a secondary concern. If your child is the quiet type, chances are his teacher has already had a quick meeting with you: aww …you know he’s just moody and gloomy and really a bad influence on the class! Because of early training in extroversion, parents often feel embarrassed when a child doesn’t answer relatives’ or murubbis’ (elders’) question with a spring in her step.

The introverts’ wonderland has gotten stranger as corporate culture has taken root over the past two decades in Bangladesh. Starting from job-interviews to presentations, to meetings to CEO’s speeches – brazen confidence and visible extroversion hold the keys to success: speak up! Or get left behind. We’ve all met someone outgoing and thought to ourselves, “Wow! I love her energy!” What, we are really conditioned to respond to, is extroversion. Ours is a fast-paced culture where people don’t have the time to cultivate real conversations. In our superficial, perfunctory assessments – which seldom last beyond ten minutes – talkers are considered smarter. It is this social stereotype that drives us to employ politically-correct words like ‘people-skills’ and ‘outgoing’ are used to attract talkers to companies.

Think about the endless TV reality shows that we have: every single one judges contestants based on their degree of extroversion. And I don’t only mean talking – but body language, willingness to display themselves (in addition to their talent) and the crowd-favourite, candor about family and romantic troubles. Moreover, our society also actively discourages introversion without knowing it. Consider why the word ‘loner’ is now an insult. Think about any killer, bomber, terrorist you read about recently: did the media describe him/her as an extrovert or an introvert? Enough said.

Think about it: who wouldn't hire ribbon-guy here?
Think about it: who wouldn’t hire fist-briefcase-ribbon-guy here?

Introverts, in the real world, will speak to audiences, perform on stages, whip up a gossip-session and chat up prospective clients. But they treat these as roles fit for certain social situations. Given the option, they will retire to environments with limited stimuli of their choosing. But in a world that’s constantly communicating, sharing and arguing – the introvert’s choices may seem eccentric.

In our society, the introvert is seen as retreating to a self-fashioned cocoon – maybe even with imaginary friends! Many take this for a sign of weakness. Some think it plain rude. But, ever notice that the dignified-looking uncle or the grey-haired CEO is never judged for their quiet demeanour? In fact, they are revered for it. Why does this double-standard exist?

Susan Cain, author of ‘Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking’.
Susan Cain, author of ‘Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking’.

Meet Susan Cain an American writer, lecturer and author of the book ‘Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking’. “It was over the last century,” says Cain, “that society began reshaping itself as an extrovert’s paradise—to the introvert’s demise.” She explains that before the twentieth century, we lived in what historians called a ‘culture of character’, when you were expected to conduct yourself morally with quiet integrity. But when people starting flocking to the cities and working for big businesses the question became, how do I stand out in a crowd? We morphed into a ‘culture of personality’, which she says sparked a fascination with “glittering movie stars, bubbly employees and outgoing leadership.”

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There’s no denying that the Extroverts’ wonderland is real and introverts must go down the rabbit hole. Our families, schools and offices prefer people who are bold, entertaining and gregarious. Magazines print articles titled ‘How to Become an Extrovert in 7 Easy Steps’. The first step, for introverts like me, is to recognize that a social bias exists. That, of course, does not mean that introversion needs a cure. Experts suggest that introverted children should be allowed ‘alone time’ and activities that let their minds wander. We must recognize that they may not want to talk everything out or perform social roles on command.

Psychological studies, and anecdotal evidence, show that introverts learn to fake extroversion when needed and can later slip back to their own pace. Thankfully, research also suggests that introverts perform better academically, exhibit higher creativity and innovation (perhaps because they spend so much time alone, reflecting), take better financial decisions and more tenacious problem-solvers. If nothing else can console you, remember that introverts – with their power of reticence – can make the best politicians. Politics or not, remember that there is no correlation between the most talkative person in the room and the best ideas.

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