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Amused Muse

Inspiring dissent and debate and the love of dissonance

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Master's Degree holder, telecommuting from the hot tub, proud Darwinian Dawkobot, and pirate librarian belly-dancer bohemian secret agent scribe on a mission to rescue bloggers from the wholesome clutches of the pious backstabbing girl fridays of the world.



Monday, February 25, 2008

Introvert Versus Shy

Many introverts get the message all our lives from the dominant culture that there is something “wrong with us.” And yet, ironically, introverts are the ones who seem to have the most adventurous social lives – traveling the world, enjoying the arts, engaging in creative work, displaying curiosity and an inquiring mind, talking ebulliently about literature and politics, eschewing passivity and traditional roles, refusing to be hemmed in by routine, and bucking “the system.” Why this contradiction?

People confuse introverts with being shy. However, there is a difference.

The introvert needs to be alone to recharge, to think, to create; we enjoy parties and other social events on our own terms; we are apparently more sensitive and attentive to detail than the average person and can get easily bored with small talk, and quickly overwhelmed by stimuli. We cannot take too much noise, people’s rowdy children, flashing lights, arrogant displays of ignorance, “joining in” with the other kids in some stupid activity or sport, meaningless chatter, and emotional dramas.

We prefer short but sincere interactions with people, and meaningful discussions. Liars, boasters, gossipers and chatterboxes, puritanical finger-wavers, people who engage in irrational thinking, and the unimaginative will get the cold shoulder because, no offense, introverts like people but these kinds of people are a living hell for the introvert to be around.

Previous MRI studies have shown that during social situations, specific areas in the brains of loners experience especially lively blood flow, indicating a sort of overstimulation, which explains why they find parties so wearying. But Guyer's results suggest that introverts may be more attuned to all sorts of positive experiences as well. This added sensitivity, she speculates, could mean that people who are reserved have an ability to respond quickly to situations—such as coming to your aid in a moment of need—or show unusual empathy to a friend, due to their strong emotional antennae.

Research by psychotherapist Elaine Aron bears out Guyer's hunch, demonstrating that withdrawn people typically have very high sensory acuity. Because loners are good at noticing subtleties that other people miss, Aron says, they are well-suited for careers that require close observation, like writing and scientific research. It's no surprise that famous historical loners include Emily Dickinson, Stanley Kubrick, and Isaac Newton.

From Psychology Today: Field Guide to the Loner

Shy people, on the other hand, long to reach out to other people but are prevented from doing so by their fear.

Those who remain "enforced loners" long to spend time with people, but shyness and anxiety inhibit them from doing so. "Introverts are people who like to be alone," says Paula Montgomery, an accountant from St. Louis. "I prefer to be around other people, but because of my shyness, it's difficult for me to join groups and make friends."

Such loners have several stress-inducing strikes against them: They may get butterflies whenever they have to face in-person encounters, and they are subject to outside pressure to be sociable. When major life problems crop up, loners are also less likely to seek out social support.

Being shy has nothing to do with how quiet or talkative one is – I have discovered that jovial chatterboxes are often quite shy. But being shy also depends on the situation. There are times when I am more quiet than others, particularly when the conversation is superficial.

Usually in these circumstances, when I am finally asked what I do and what I enjoy, I dread letting this out because I know that after the litany of women bragging about their children, their church, their knitting, craft fairs, shopping, and various other activities that I don’t care for, what I have to say about myself will cause the room to fall silent. This has happened over and over to me.

There is immense pressure on introverts, particularly those who are women, to be more outgoing in a shallow way, when in fact we seem to be better able to handle the unknown than the conventional person who chats easily, but doesn’t really stray beyond the confines of family, church, community, work, or nation. I have no idea if these people are frustrated by their lives; I know I would be.

Introverts are frequently alone but rarely lonely. More often than not we are lonely in a crowd. I have mixed feelings about the usefulness of Carl Jung’s work, but one of the best things he ever said was, when one is an introvert, in order to be well-balanced and happy one must become more, not less, of an introvert.

UPDATED: A reader writes to Dr. Joyce Brothers that she feels is upset by the morning news because 1) there is so much less news being reported (morning television is just a wasteland), and 2) she can't identify with the people who scream and yell outside the station windows, and in her own words feels "like a fool."

I don’t know why she feels so bad, because certainly I think these people are the fools, but Dr. Brothers says something interesting. She assures the writer that, of course, there is nothing “wrong” with her, and remarks, “One of the reasons you might feel a bit lonely is because our country is considered one of the more extroverted nations.” She also states that introverts tend to be “early birds” whereas extraverts are “night owls.” I agree with the former, but disagree with the latter. I am most definitely a “night owl.”

As for America being one of the more extraverted nations, I do believe this is true. However, that does not mean that an introvert does not suffer in other cultures. My experience with other cultures is that in cultures that are more “introverted,” e.g. Muslim societies, women are still expected to be chatty with each other. Middle Eastern societies tend to center social life around the dinner party – more sitting around and talking – and particularly in a group segregated by gender the stifling, chit-chatty, passive sitting around is as much torture for the independent introvert as is a football game or the church coffee klatch.

I have experienced many different religious rituals and to put it bluntly, after the novelty wears off, they are just as boring as one’s own religious tradition. I am glad that I got to know diverse types of people, but in the end, most of the world is bourgeois, concerned with conformity and conventionality.

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23 Comments:

Blogger Brian said...

You speak my heart. I find myself constantly explaining the difference between introversion and shyness. I feel a bond with anyone who has to endure the same thing.

February 25, 2008 10:38 AM  
Blogger Kristine said...

Why explain yourself? You don’t have anything to apologize for. You’re not breaking the law, you’re not hurting anyone. It’s none of their business.

February 25, 2008 12:02 PM  
Blogger Josh said...

I agree with most of this. I'm very introverted, but have a strong desire for meaningful interpersonal contact. If that can't be located, strong feelings of loneliness emerge.

If there is one thing I'm not, it's shy.

February 25, 2008 1:55 PM  
Anonymous Janine said...

In all these years, I never could get small talk down. I get bored and I do a poor job of hiding it. My little trick is this, I twist around everyday social encounters. When asked how I am, I answer that I am exquisite. I like to judge the reaction. Some people do not know the word. Some people are put off that I would use a big word. Some people take me at face value. Some people catch on that I am being playful and sarcastic. Guess which group I will spend time with.

I happen to like parties. But there better be good talk or interesting actions going on so that I may drown out the background noise. (Yes, I find it distracting and if I cannot get focused on something, overwhelming.) If the party is full of people with whom I have nothing converse with, I will pass and spend my time alone. So, yeah, I am seen as being rather aloof.

February 25, 2008 2:00 PM  
Blogger Joshua said...

This totally rings true for me, as well. Despite being quite introverted, I love parties... of a certain kind. If the music's too loud to carry on a conversation, I end up taking a bye more often than not. I'd rather catch up on blogging or gaming than flail like an idiot on a "dance" floor. (Ballroom dance is different, but one of the things I like about it is that, once you get confident enough in your skills, you can actually carry on a conversation while dancing. Not something you can say for the typical club crap that people always play.) But honestly I'd rather be out talking to people than doing either of those other things, as long as it's a good conversation.

I don't know if this is common for the other introverts here, but I also much prefer to listen to others speak about stuff than to go on about myself. Although anybody who's talked to me for more than thirty minutes -- and shown an interest; I'm not one of those boors who rants at someone who isn't listening -- or so has got at least one extended lecture about parasites (thanks, Carl Zimmer!) or information theory (no thanks, Dembski) or something, but nonetheless I find it far more interesting to have other people tell me about what interests them.

February 25, 2008 2:16 PM  
Blogger Kristine said...

I get tired of listening to others speak, unless it’s a lecture on an interesting topic. I have a great attention span for lectures and always have*, but I get annoyed with people who talk about themselves too much. I like to argue, but I also like to dance. I do like to drink and get silly – but people have to have a sense of humor, they can’t get shocked at what I say, or I’ll avoid them in the future. Schoolmarms piss me off.

(*The exception is sermons that have no logic. I will listen to William Dembski talk even though I don’t agree with him because he actually has an introduction, a body, and a conclusion. He takes the time to support what he says with allusions and quotes and I, the Englist Lit nerd, expect that. Because Rev. Barky hates her so much I tried to listen to Krista Tippet. Holy shit, she’s no better than Rick Warren or Joel Orstein! Meandering chatter all over the place – what a mess – she obviously just loves the sound of her own voice!)

February 25, 2008 3:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post! I just happened upon your blog and am glad I did! I have two children, one more extraverted, one a definite introvert. The biggest difference I see is that the extravert will spend time with kids he doesn't really care that much for, just to spend time with other people. You know, if you can't be with the one you love, love the one you're with. The other child, however, would much rather spend time at home alone, than spend an evening with a bunch of kids she doesn't care for and has little in common with. She's in college this year and her biggest complaint is that people keep bugging her about "going out" more and that, when living in the dorm, "there are people everywhere! All the time!"
I think it's so true that the introvert is much much more sensitive to the moods and feelings of others. I was always amazed as my kids went through their school years, that the most popular kids seemed to just run through life like a Mack truck, oblivious to what others felt or needed. So why were they so popular? I never could figure that out.

February 26, 2008 8:25 PM  
Blogger ouini said...

I can't say I agree completley with your description of introvertedness, though it seems many identify with it.

A similar article about introvertedness vs. shyness is at

http://www.csmonitor.com/2008/0102/p09s02-coop.html

March 04, 2008 4:13 PM  
Blogger MetalSpark said...

Well it is very interesting to see how you define an introvert. I'm very shy so I wasn't sure for ages if I was just shy or also introverted. I am both. I don't like meaningless conversations, I don't like parties where it is too noisy to talk and everyone is just trying "to score" with someone cos I have a bf and am very happy with him, and also I just think it's so sleazy and boring. I love being "arty", finding out about the world, reading good novels etc.
I'm not a hugely social person, but often I want to be social (eg when coversation gets interesting) but shyness can hold me back.

Anyway now I'm fairly confident that I'm both shy and introverted, I certainly fit both your descriptions!

March 10, 2008 6:48 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am introverted as well as shy. I like parties, dance parties. Cocktail parties where the focus is on me and mixing and performing small talk is often terrifying and dull to me. There's no way to make meaningful (to me) connections or have meaningful conversations in parties like these.

I never read much about people who are intoverts who happen to be shy as well.

November 10, 2008 10:17 PM  
Anonymous ViniVidiVici said...

Good post. I am one of those so called shy people in a neverending battle to become outgoing. I know it's the result of the people I grew up with and I think it manifested because of my introverted idiosyncrasies. I just wasnt interested in small talk and high school drama and I did like being alone to recharge my batteries. Although, eventually, my interests pushed me away from others and I developed my state of shyness. I have always thought that shyness and introversion were synonymous, but it's good to realize that there is a difference. I don't have to go from shyness to outgoing, which is something I'm not. I'll just go from shyness to introversion, which is who I am. Thanks for the epiphany.

February 20, 2009 12:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow, that was an incredible essay and I so totally identify with everything you say, it's like you are describing me.. .
But I have some questions to any introverts reading this:
is it possible to become introverted as a result of an event? (I'm an immigrant in America, and when I first came here everything was so foreign and hostile, I turned inward)
A lot of people say they were extroverted in childhood but turned introverted as they grew up. Any truth in that?
Is it touch to have a relationship with someone if you're introverted?

Cheers,
^____^

March 26, 2009 11:58 PM  
Anonymous Deeman said...

Pretty interesting article. I guees as a person, I am introverted and shy as well. As someone said in a previous post, it is interesting to note when people say they have been extroverts in childhood, but grow up to be introverts. I guess in childhood we are still trying to figure ourselves out, and are not entirely in tune with our real selves until we see more of the world and meet more people to realise the dominant trait in our character i.e. being an introvert or extrovert. Also, in childhood we are thrown into a melee of people like teachers, peers, relatives, etc etc. with whom interaction is necessary and sometimes a certain amount of pressure. As we grow older, we have more control of the people we want to be with and spend time with, somewhat at least. Small talk bores me too, but an interesting conversation can make me lively and animated, surprising some people whi have never seen me that way before. More power to the introvert!

June 06, 2009 11:06 PM  
Anonymous Nicole said...

Insightful article; I bore easily from nonsensical conversation and I prefer short meaningful interactions to superficial connections. I scare people with my independent attitude and what can appear as disrespect for common social interaction. People think I'm arrogant. People think so many things of me with negative associations.

I do enjoy my own company, reading, looking at movies. but I also like sharing my company and connecting with people on a meaningful level, sharing life experiences.

I think my introverted nature has made me shy - I get tired of people thinking I'm strange so I become apprehensive in any new social situation.

September 13, 2009 8:31 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh, yes. I do find it a bit more lonely when I'm in a crowd. And I feel a lot "ME" when I'm alone. I do my self-reflecting almost everyday and everynight, just lying there and thinking of some things here and there.

December 31, 2009 10:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I guess I'm part of the minority of the minority! I'm very introverted, and very, very shy!
It can be annoying to be not only different from the extraverts, but from my own introverted people as well.
And then there's how I feel that I should want to go do (etraverted) things, but of course I don't. Like I sort of want to go to a dance, but not really, adn when i get there, it's horrible, but I feel I have to, and when it's over, I feel sick! It's really confusing. Consider yourselves lucky!

February 10, 2010 11:12 PM  
Blogger Kristine said...

Oh, I don't think you're that different. How could you be?

I know what you mean about wanting to go to a function, such as a dance, and when I get there, or when the time comes to leave the house, I suddenly don't feel like doing it. It helps if you go with someone that you really enjoy being with (although sometimes I would still bail). I've decided that 1)I force myself to go and to put on a big smile, knowing that I'll feel like running away, because once I'm over that hump, I do start to enjoy myself, and 2)I no longer feel like we have to stay the whole evening - just leave when we've had enough. There's a lot to be said for just "popping in."

You're not so different; you just feel isolated. Every single human being on this planet is an anxiety-ridden, awkward-feeling dork (I don't care how obnoxious, overbearing, and "confident" many of them are), and every single person is also capable of more than he or she believes possible. You are a pillar of strength. Do what you feel like doing, and when you don't feel like it, keep doing it for another hour - if you then feel like quitting, quit. And don't be down on yourself for who you are.

February 11, 2010 9:25 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Shy introverts have a tough time of it no doubt. To be anxious and unskilled in social situations as well as drained by them is tough. But there are ways to be true to your nature but get along. The Shytrovert blog talks a lot about it. I don't remember url you can google it. I love the post with one liners to How Come You're So Quiet?! That's the most annoying question in the world, isn't it?

April 21, 2010 5:40 PM  
Blogger Kristine said...

"Why are you so quiet?" Yes, that ranks up there with, "Why aren't you flirting with that guy/girl," "When are you going to tie the knot/have a BABEE," and "Do you know what?" ;-)

Thanks, I'll look for that blog.

April 21, 2010 7:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Although I hate to label myself as an introvert, I guess that's what I am. But I wont glorify myself with the traits many of you have displayed; Yes, I do like to just be alone and think, but I mostly think about me myself and I. For years I thought I was really shy and weird and this made me really self-concious. I wish I could think about the "big questions" but it's all about me.... Sometimes I even forget important things about my friends. I try tell people it's just because I'm so absent-minded but really I think it's because I'm so used to be concerned about my own little world that I've become self-obsessed.

June 20, 2010 8:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I liked the post, less so the term 'loner'. People who have a rich inner life do not necessarily avoid others. But it can be tricky to interact and to be accepted. Can introverts have fun? How? I am friendly, but I am finding it difficult to reveal my true self. I would like to learn how to come across as less intense and scary and still be true to myself.

July 18, 2010 12:24 PM  
Blogger Caramel Pocky said...

Wow, the anonymous comment about how they thought about me, myself and I. I really thought I was the only one that thought like that and I was self centered for thinking about myself. I always worry about what I should be doing and if people are thinking of me weird. And then I get hard on myself because I think I'm a selfish person for thinking about myself so much though in reality I care about my loved ones a lot. It's really confusing >_<

May 19, 2012 2:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

thanks! I think both are different but inseparable =)
I'm an introvert, I prefer being alone..I'm a private person but I'm not shy because I think I'm just happier being alone and don't need the company of others...shy people want to be with others but they are anxious that is why they ended up being alone.but introvert like me chose to be alone rather.. Some people think that I'm weird but they don't know that I'm really aware of what they are thinking most of the time. I find extrovert people time waster and conformist.

August 31, 2012 1:25 PM  

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