[This was written a few years ago as an AC article, but never actually offered to AC, because my online time was even more limited then than it is now.]
There’s no question that an introverted personality is shaped by healthy hereditary traits. Whether the complete twentieth-century “nerd” stereotype is produced by the effects of a sex-linked “math gene” (or genetic combination) or not, at least two unisex physical traits have been associated with introversion.
1. Quiet “LBS” introverts, whose official web site is here: People who are easily recognized as introverts have longer than average brain stems; their brains also seem to activate more different circuits when they think about an idea than the average brain does, and so, not surprisingly, they tend to talk, act, and react slowly.
2. Highly Sensory-Perceptive “HSP” introverts, whose official web site is here: People who have an “artistic temperament” and may be perceived as “too sensitive” have a built-in tendency to produce more adrenalin than the average person does, and may also have been born with more nerve cells than the average person has. These people may be charismatic speakers, actors, and social leaders, so they’re not always easily recognized as introverts, even among themselves. However, they feel physically tired and “drained” after spending time with other people. Although people who stay active and healthy into their nineties are usually HSPs who have been able to give themselves adequate solitude, HSPs who don’t spend enough time alone often become ill.
It’s estimated that 20 to 30 percent of humankind possess each of these traits, and many people have one trait but not the other, so introverts can’t really be as much of a minority group as we are often made to feel. One explanation for the fact that only about 30% of the U.S. population consider themselves introverts may be that twentieth-century U.S. culture celebrated extroversion and denigrated introversion.
Carl Jung, who first studied and named these personality patterns, believed that the majority of people have a mix of introverted and extroverted traits that can, to some extent, balance each other. It’s possible for someone who has both the HSP and LBS traits also to have a sense of humor, a tendency to feel cheerful, and at least some tolerance for a “leadership” or “center stage” position. When this happened in the twentieth century, older people who should have known better used to tell this person, “You’re not really an introvert, or at least you don’t have to be one.” In fact, this combination of traits would allow the person to “pass” for an extrovert for hours or days at a time...but strain and frustration would eventually set in, because this person’s natural, predominant personality would be introverted.
(Fair disclosure: I know how this dynamic used to operate from personal experience. Fortunately the HSPs in my family helped me avoid some of the depression, frustration, hostility, alcoholism, multiple divorces, abuse of substances, abuse of people, and suicidal tendencies, that plagued so many twentieth-century Americans who thought that they could become or pass for extroverts if they tried.)
Most human societies, other than the twentieth-century European and Euro-American corporate subculture, have valued both of the introvert traits for obvious reasons (discussed at the web sites cited above). However, the corporate subculture actively discriminates against introverts. Regardless of what companies may say about rewarding qualities at which introverts excel, like efficiency, timeliness, frugality, creativity, and focus, many corporate employers are only willing to recognize those traits when they are developed, to a much more limited degree, by extroverted job seekers.
Suppose you want to get the benefit of five people’s different qualifications before launching a project. Each of the five people who have the highest qualifications available lives in a different neighborhood, or even a different city or state. Each agrees, however, to take the project home, consider it in the light of their specialties, and contribute their input. Once a week for three weeks everyone will meet, talk or e-mail or conference-call, and perfect the project.
As an ordinary person with a normal sense of logic, you think this is wonderful. Each person will give the project the amount of attention they think it needs, and deserves, in order to be identified with their professional reputations. You don’t have to worry about the time, expense, or hazards of commuting to one place each day, nor do you have to pay the expense of maintaining that place. You can save a lot of money by hiring five qualified people who have demonstrated the discipline and concentration it takes to do this project at home.
When it really counts—typically when the project involves engineering, construction, computer systems, and/or military defense—this is what our biggest corporations, including our government, do too. However, most of the time, most of our existing corporations will avoid this approach to the project at any cost.
Why pay five people to get a job done in three weeks when there’s any possibility that someone might be made to pay twenty people to get the job done over three months? Why miss the chance to engage in “team building,” share lots of “face time,” have lots of “morale boosting” activities, and possibly even get to watch an office romance (even if everyone in the office is already married to someone outside the company—extroverts aren’t good at monogamy). Everyone needs to commute to an office, develop an elaborate “chain of command,” work to a schedule that builds in plenty of time for idle chatter, “dress up” in overpriced clothes nobody actually enjoys wearing, form relationships with the other people on the job...
Obviously, if this approach to the project appeals to you, you are an extrovert. And you certainly don’t want any introverts in the office, where their very existence would constantly remind you that you’re wasting a lot of the company’s time and the customers’ money. So, when a “human resources manager” with an M.B.A. rather than a B.A. starts hiring people, if there’s any way to get by with it, that manager won’t even look at any applications from introverts. That manager wants to hire only “cheerful, outgoing ‘people persons’ who will boost our morale.”
Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bait and Switch documents how this discrimination operates. In order to expose dysfunctional corporate policies, Ehrenreich attempted to get a corporate job. In order to do this without identifying herself as a journalist writing an exposé, however, she had to use a blurry résumé that may have been discarded by some corporations because of its blurriness alone. Although the plan had allowed for the possibility that she would be hired and could write about ways corporations exploit the white-collar worker, in fact the whole book describes a prolonged, unpaid job-hunting process.
Predictably a lively, sarcastic, entertaining read, the book reveals more to younger readers than Ehrenreich is aware of. Although she had to blur her age for job-hunting purposes, Ehrenreich was in fact over sixty years old. Although it takes an introvert’s “ear for words” to write as well as Ehrenreich does, Ehrenreich has, like most successful older adults, developed social and intellectual skills that balance her personality. Like many HSPs, she’s also aware of the circumstances that make true/false questions such as “I like to relax at home on weekends” seem to demand specific, quantifying answers in order to make sense. “Well...some weekends I like to stay home, and some weekends I like to go out. It depends on what cultural activities are being offered, at what price, and on whether spending the weekend at home with my grandchildren is an option, and on what kind of travel-club deals I’ve been offered lately, and on the weather...”
Ehrenreich admits to having answered several questions at random, feeling that the questions didn’t make sense, and been misidentified as an extrovert. Nobody even tried to conceal from Ehrenreich that the hypothetical possession of hereditary traits (which she does not in fact possess) would be an advantage in job hunting. Not surprisingly, given the insensitivity of the average extrovert’s perceptions, the job coaches and agents who tried to assess Ehrenreich’s mature, complex personality accepted her as a fellow extrovert and sent her out to interview for a lot of jobs for which she was unlikely to be the best qualified candidate. Not surprisingly, when the interviewers looking for a thoughtless, chattery extrovert actually met Ehrenreich, nobody ever called her back for a second interview.
What happens when people whose introverted temperaments and talents are unmistakable apply for this kind of job? Nothing very encouraging. Why is it clear evidence of discrimination when those of us who are also female are told that we should “be smart enough to hide our intelligence” in order to get dates (which isn't true), but acceptable when introverts of both sexes are told the same thing on the job (where it is true)?
Success in most careers depends on some combination of talent, determination, and lucky breaks. HSP introverts typically think they have enough energy to get them through; some are right, some are wrong. LBS introverts typically think they need to “accept” their apparent mediocrity, unpopularity, unattractiveness, etc., when in fact they score higher on most counts than the extroverts who benefit from this blatant hiring preference.
How militant about this do we need to be? Some LBS introverts seem willing to accept the idea that they can and should “be more outgoing” if hired for reasonably low-key jobs. To HSPs who’ve become aware of the extent to which we’ve been discriminated against on account of an hereditary trait, however, the idea of trying to “be more outgoing” seems comparable to trying to “be less female” or “become Japanese.” Trying to “be” something we simply are not seems, at best, equally insulting to ourselves and our ancestors, and to whatever group we might be advised to try to copy.
Is it possible for introverts, having learned to respect ourselves in spite of discrimination, to like extroverts? Evidently some of us do. I don’t. Well, I perceive a continuum between the “normal” or “balanced” personality that can work alone or in a group, the moderately extroverted people who blaze their own trails through life but look back to check on their followers now and then, and the extreme extroverts who can’t stop chattering, calling attention to themselves,and letting the presence of other people distract them from whatever they’ve undertaken to do. Moderate, task-oriented extroverts I can respect. More severely extroverted personalities are a nuisance; I think their unfortunate condition should be recognized as a disability that disqualifies them for any responsible position.
A really militant movement seems incongruous with the basic idea of being introverts, although some HSP introverts can be vocal, charismatic, and aggressive as long as we have adequate quiet time. In any case, the 1960s are over. We can leave the traffic-blocking marches, brick-throwing, "occupying," and similar aggressive demonstrations to movements that appeal to less mature mentalities. A calmer movement toward more self-acceptance, consciousness of kind, and solidarity with other introverts would be more appropriate to the message we have to share with the world.
Where would we begin? Perhaps by reading books by Marti Olsen Laney, Elaine Aron, or both. These books will help some of us identify which type of introversion we’ve inherited. They’ll also help us identify which of the people we know are fellow introverts, which are genuinely unfriendly, and which are shy. Shyness is a different trait than introversion. A positive preference for quiet and solitude can be identified in new babies; fear of strangers appears as a learned behavior in toddlers, and shyness, or fear of one’s own inadequacy, usually appears as a learned behavior in adolescents. Adults who really feel shy, as distinct from being labelled shy because they are quiet, are usually extroverts. HSPs who enjoy creative solitude usually aren’t shy about sharing our creations when we’ve worked them out, and LBS introverts typically seem shy only while slowly processing their long deep thoughts about new ideas. After about age twenty, people who suffer from shyness are likely to be extroverts who have been bullied, abused, or intimidated out of expressing their real feelings.
Most of us already know how to avoid hostile people. Some of us, however, need to practice the arts and skills of setting shy people at ease. Most importantly we can learn to affirm one another. Even if we’ve made frantic efforts to become, or pass for, extroverts many of us may have noticed how delightful the company of a self-accepting introvert feels. Once we’ve made a few friends of our own kind, we can become self-accepting introverts and pass the bliss on to others.
Should introverts ever choose extroverts as partners, in business or in marriage? Actually, each human being is a different mix of genes; some of us inherited extroverted traits along with introverted traits. Moderately extroverted people can become good, strong, patient leaders, if they resist the urge to become dictators, in our homes and businesses. Nevertheless, my feeling is that anyone who is generally recognized as “outgoing, a natural salesman, a great cheerleader, the life of the party,” etc. is a bad risk for anything at all. Generally these people’s attention deficiencies keep their mental age low enough that I don’t think they ever become real adults.
In general, I think we should also start saying no to the harmful pressures extroverts tend to exert. NO, a noisier party is not a better party. NO, we don’t want our conversations interrupted by pushy, annoying waiters or “hostesses,” while travelling or dining or doing anything else. NO, we don’t feel more loyalty toward a company or motivation to do a job after being dragged through pointless, stupid “team-building” time-wasters. NO, we don’t want to “be more outgoing” ourselves. NO, we don’t even like for others to “be outgoing” toward us. By and large we are not haters, but we don’t have to like mindless greetings that don’t lead to conversation, empty chatter that doesn’t communicate anything new or important, or displays of friendship from people who would not in fact divide their last piece of bread with us if we were shipwrecked together.
We can start affirming ourselves even in middle school, whenever some kids decide that they’re a “popular crowd.” Are they “popular”? Are they really? Do we like these people? Studies show that middle-school “popularity” is usually a function of parental indulgence. Everybody wants to play with the kid who has the coolest toys, sit beside the kid who brings the extra desserts, go to the parties that are held at overpriced amusement parks. Being “popular” in middle school usually helps people develop the precocious social skills that impress others in high school...but, do we let ourselves be impressed by social skills, or do we look for friends who actually share our interests?
Do we need a political movement? If there is ever such a thing as a political movement that genuinely reflects the wishes of introverts, it will be very different from almost all the political movements in history, except, arguably, the American Revolution. Introverts are, by nature, likely to agree with much of what Jonah Goldberg observed in Liberal Fascism. The idea of a totalitarian system run by introverts, presumably a monarchy, may have some appeal to introverts (at least as a casual fantasy about identifying all the noisy, obnoxious extroverts and banishing them from the civilized world) but it is fundamentally opposed to our temperament. Although Woodrow Wilson, Adolf Hitler, Ruhollah Khomeini, and more recently the Taliban’s Mullah Omar, suffered and died in attempts to become extroverted totalitarians, usually introverts’ natural instinct is to offer others the respect and courtesy we want them to show us...i.e. leave them alone.
Have we been accustomed to the labels of “liberal” or “conservative”? Which label is most inherently congenial to introverts may depend on which country we live in. The idea of an egalitarian democracy, where government exists primarily to protect the rights of the individual, was always recognized as “liberal” in Europe; it can be considered “conservative” for the United States, as Friedrich Hayek observed, because it was the founding principle of our country; in Israel and the Arab countries it might even be considered “nostalgic” or “traditional,” since it is celebrated in the oldest written literature those countries produced, but has not been practiced in those countries recently. However, although the ideal of a modest, efficient, non-intrusive, democratic government is upheld by some conservatives and Republicans in the United States, it can hardly be confused with the politics of neo-conservative leaders like George W. Bush or John McCain.
As Marshall McLuhan and Neil Postman observed, televised political campaigns guarantee that the party prepared to spend the most money to promote the best showmanship will win. As these writers came along too soon to observe, government by the most appealing TV personalities is effectively guaranteed not to be government of, by, or for introverts, many of whom don’t even enjoy watching television.
However, if the contemporary Republican Party fails to represent introverts, the current left wing serves us even worse. In a right-wing book called Women Who Make the World Worse, the “liberal” “expert” psychologist Sandra Scarr is quoted as expressing contempt for people who received adequate maternal attention in childhood and don’t go around demanding attention from everyone else in the world. “Shyness and exclusive maternal attachment...seem dysfunctional. New treatments will be developed for children with exclusive maternal attachments.”
Because introverts tend to be gentle people, it may be necessary to point out that introverted children need for us to develop “new treatments” for the likes of Ms. Scarr that will last longer than duct tape. Consider the way the brand-new label of “Asperger’s Syndrome” now seems to be pasted on any little boy who’s not been tagged “hyperactive”...and whose parents are too busy, too poor, or too stressed to protest vigorously. Boys who learn to read at six have always been in a minority; it’s normal for girls to start reading at six, but boys typically start reading at eight or ten. Groups of boys tend to fight, so if an early-reading boy’s eyes develop ahead of the rest of him, he is likely to be bullied, and if he matures quickly in most ways, he is likely to be accused of bullying others (even if he can resist the temptation to do that). If boys want to be protected, and parents want to protect them, from this inevitable tendency at school, home schooling is probably the most efficient way.
If they attend public schools, intelligent little boys, even if not conspicuously introverted at home, learn to keep a low profile. Since one of the worst effects of the Americans with Disabilities Act has been secondary legislation that actually pays schools more for having more students with “disabilities,” almost overnight children who used to qualify for special coaching in “leadership skills” have been reclassified as fitting onto a “spectrum” alongside people with extreme, incurable brain damage. I am not suggesting that there’s anything wrong with recognizing that genuinely autistic people, who may or may not be able to cultivate some special talent that uses whatever working synapses they have, are part of humankind and fit onto a “spectrum” that includes each and every one of us. I am suggesting that deliberate confusion between the sensitivity of gifted children and the hypersensitivity of people with brain damage is not supported by the facts, but fits alarmingly well into a discriminatory political agenda.
Although HSP introversion is a physical trait, loosely linked to more visible physical traits like height and complexion, it is not the property of any single ethnic group. Its appearance in the “gifted” minority of all races has done much to break down race prejudice. The presence of a “gifted” minority of HSPs has also acquired special cultural meaning for certain ethnic groups; for example, perceptivity is one of the criteria that determine a person’s role in the Cherokee Nation, and traditionally community leaders (as distinct from leaders of war parties) were required to be HSPs. In contemporary U.S. culture, the case might easily be made that discriminating against HSPs is a form of oldfashioned racial discrimination that penalizes groups that have traditionally prized the HSP trait. However, although this argument might be expedient, a truer statement of the case would be that discrimination against HSPs is the precise modern equivalent of race or gender discrimination, since it penalizes individuals for having a healthy hereditary trait.
Rather than allowing HSP children to be “diagnosed” as fitting onto some hypothetical “autistic spectrum,” we should perhaps demand “sensitivity training” in which non-HSP teachers and social workers spend time crafting elaborate apologies for the “unconscious racism” they have acquired by being born into a temporarily overprivileged group defined by an inherited trait, or the lack of one. We have no more right to oppose the existence of circuses, or flashy low-content magazines, or stupid TV shows, than we would have to oppose the existence of social clubs that celebrate a specific ethnic heritage. We can, however, raise public awareness of the fact that subjecting HSP children to school programs designed for non-HSPs is as discriminatory as subjecting non-White children to school programs that continually and exclusively celebrate “Our Anglo-Saxon Heritage.”
Similar training can also be made available to corporations. We might consider boycotting corporations that are big enough to have more than one vice-president, if one of those vice-presidents is not unmistakably HSP. Many of us have already identified small independent businesses (especially bookstores, theatres, and craft supply stores) that clearly reflect their owners’ temperamental incompatibility with corporate chains; we could profitably identify, support, and even form, more of them. Most of us tend to avoid restaurants painted orange, products advertised by annoying commercials, and stores that pipe in loud music or tiresome ad messages; we could do more to let merchants know that providing quiet, orderly, low-key shopping environments will pay.
What role will LBS introverts have in this movement? Although it’s possible for people to have both HSP and LBS traits (I test positive for both), my observation has been that the HSP trait is more conspicuous; we experience ourselves more as HSP than as LBS introverts. People who identify themselves primarily as LBS introverts probably aren’t HSP. Though not more shy than HSPs, perhaps more intelligent than many HSPs, and equally subject to discrimination, they are likely to become followers in the movement, and probably won’t follow unless care is taken to solicit their input. So I’m asking. What would "real," conspicuous introverts want from a liberation movement?