I recently had an Archimedian flash of insight into what I’d thought was a contradiction plaguing me and those who know me best.
In public, I’m outgoing, friendly and know something personal about nearly everybody I greet. But in meetings and social gatherings, I’m a wallflower who stiffly sits, is content to listen and rarely speaks.
I have a Michigan State University faculty card from a couple of decades of teaching medical ethics and professionalism to medical students. One benefit of the card is free tickets to a university lecture series.
Susan Cain, who wrote the best-selling book, “Quiet,” was a recent speaker. The book’s subtitle is “The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking.” She’s an introvert who was a not-all-that comfortable but successful Wall Street attorney.
She left that world to research, write and speak on introversion and how society’s focus changed from honoring personal character in the 19th century to rewarding personality, charisma and image today.
In her book she describes more than a third of us as having enough characteristics of introverts to be classified as such.
Those traits include being comfortable with solitude and preferring to turn inwardly to mull over thoughts and ideas before discussing them with trusted others. Introverts are generally good listeners, prefer writing to talking, uncomfortable talking about themselves, and easily overwhelmed by what they consider excessive environmental stimuli.
Cain described research showing that many introverts were highly reactive as infants. I thought about granddaughter Maya who, at the age of 1 month, went for a checkup at the doctor’s office. She kicked and screamed from entering the door until after leaving. They weren’t able to even weigh or measure her.
A couple of months later, one of the first times I saw her after she was born, she looked at me, clouded up and began to cry. She did that every time I was anywhere nearby for nearly two years. I wrote about the breakthrough in our relationship, Courting Miss Maya, available on my website, agingswisdom.com.
Now, at 8, she does well in school, has friends, warms up slowly to new people and avoids group games. With good imaginations, she and I are the best of friends. We connect readily to play pretend.
The games have changed as she’s grown, starting with multiple variations of caring for babies. The latest is restaurant. I’ve added spelling and doing math problems in the head to challenge her. We’re planning on doing creative cooking-for-real on her next visit.
I was born at home and don’t know of any reports about my reactivity as an infant.
But I have lots of embarrassing tales to tell about social and environmental discomfort. For instance, when I was 9 I panicked and ran the half-mile home from the first day of school meeting in the gym at a new school. I’ve gone to medium-sized parties, paced back and forth and, outside of saying hello, not spoken to anyone.
When I meet someone new, if they ask for information about me, I deflect the question by saying I’d like to know more about them. I have a reservoir of questions. Most people are happy to talk about themselves.
My eureka moment came after a weekend visit from my youngest brother and during the day and a half it took me to read “Quiet.” I came to realize that I’m not really a contradictory mixture of eccentric introvert and socially successful extrovert.
My brother and I went to the gym and I wowed him with introductions to at least 25 friends. There were warm greetings, smiles, and even a hug. Thinking about it later, I didn’t know any of their last names. I would never see them socially away from the gym.
The experience was an example of useful extrovert-like behavior I learned working in the public square.
Reading Cain’s book, I identified, more or less, with most of the introvert’s characteristics.
I like the relative quiet of soft classical background music, reading, or thoughtful conversation with a friend or two. I enjoyed sitting on a bench outside Mozart’s Salzburg birthplace in 1756, wondering what it was like being there in 1756. I didn’t go inside the spectacular cathedral.
I came to appreciate that it’s OK being a normal introvert and stopped disparaging myself for believing I was a socially awkward, semi-invalid in an extrovert-dominated society.