How to Treat Your Introvert

I ran across this link called How to Care for Introverts today and realized I’ve never written about being an introvert, although I’ve mentioned it in passing a couple times. That link goes to a very crummy scanned image, so I thought I’d type it in here, and then add my own thoughts.

First of all, for those who don’t know what an introvert is, the best definition I know is: “someone for whom spending time with other people is tiring.” An extrovert is just the opposite: someone who gets a charge from being around people, who finds long periods alone boring and tiring. An introvert expends energy in dealing with other people, and needs downtime alone to recharge from it. There are other aspects to it, but that’s the main difference.

It doesn’t matter whether we have fun and like the people at the party, either, which is the part extroverts usually have trouble understanding. One time I mentioned to someone how I wasn’t looking forward to a string of family Christmas parties one right after the other, and she asked, “Why, don’t you like your family?” She couldn’t understand how going to a fun party with people I really like could wear me out. If anything, those occasions are the most tiring of all, because instead of sitting in the corner and waiting for it to be over, I actually talk to people and get involved, which takes more energy.

Being introverted isn’t the same thing as being shy, although there are certainly shy introverts. I was very shy as a kid, and I’m much less so now, but I’m just as introverted as ever. I think shyness is partly about fear, while introversion is simply about energy and what increases or decreases it for you.

So, here’s the list from the link. Some of these seem to assume you’re in charge of the person, so they mostly apply to the parents of introverted kids, but others could apply to anyone.

  • Respect their need for privacy.
  • Never embarrass them in public.
  • Reprimand them privately.
  • Teach them new skills privately rather than in public.

I never thought of this as an introvert thing, but I do like my privacy. Being embarrassed in public doesn’t bother me as much now, but it certainly did when I was a kid. I don’t mind opening up to a certain extent now, but there’s a limit. I also definitely prefer to learn things in private, rather than stumbling through them in public. (Like spending a year learning to play bridge before playing with people.)

  • Let them observe first in new situations.
  • Give them time to think. Don’t demand instant answers.
  • Don’t interrupt them.
  • Give them advanced notice of expected changes in their lives.
  • Give them 15-minute warnings to finish whatever they are doing before calling them to dinner or moving on to the next activity.

This kind of makes us sound slow, which isn’t the point. It’s just that we like to think before we speak, observe before acting. Introverts rarely blurt things out, and when we do, we often regret it. When I’m in a normal conversation, I don’t say anything without thinking over the sentence to myself first, considering how it will be received, and editing until I’m happy with it. That takes time.

This also makes me think that constant multitasking isn’t a good plan for introverts, and I see that in my own work. When I’m working on project A and getting instant messages about project B and a phone call comes about project C, I tend to not be very productive at any of them for a while. If you’re smart and good at what you do, you can cover for that to some extent, but there’s no way to be as productive as if you could focus on one thing for a few hours. I never thought of that as an introvert thing either, but it makes sense, since each new interruption requires a complete shift of thinking so the introvert can focus on the new thing before acting on it.

That 15-minute warning before switching tasks sounds really good. Maybe I should try to implement that with my work schedule, setting a 15-minute warning alarm that goes off before each appointment or task on my schedule.

  • Enable them to find one best friend who has similar interests and abilities, encourage this relationship even if the friend moves.
  • Do not push them to make lots of friends.

I’d certainly agree with the second one. Introverts take conversations slowly, and a friendship is essentially an extended and complicated conversation. Since conversations require energy, having lots of friends would wear us out and not leave enough time to recharge. It probably is better for us to have one very good friend than a bunch of casual ones, and we’re okay with long-distance friends because we can get away from them when we need time alone.

  • Respect their introversion. Don’t try to remake them into extroverts.

This is the biggest one. I’m sure every introvert has been told at least once to “open up,” as if it’s a personality defect we need to get over, like swearing too much. I’m so glad my parents never pushed that way; an introvert with extroverted parents who didn’t understand would have a rough time. Telling an introvert to “open up” is like telling someone with bad knees to run a marathon: it’ll be painful and won’t help.

Now for one of my own:

  • When an introvert isn’t talking, it doesn’t mean he’s mad about something or doesn’t like you. An introvert enjoys companionable silence.

If I had a nickel for every time someone asked me what was wrong just because I was being quiet, I’d be a rich man. If I don’t talk for a while, it could mean I’m thinking about what to say, or I just don’t have anything to say. An introvert won’t just babble to fill silence, so sometimes that leaves lulls in the conversation that make extroverts nervous.

All this might make it seem like introverts are natural hermits who don’t like people, but that’s not the case at all. When I lived by myself in Barry, I’d find an excuse to go to the store or somewhere every couple days, for the human contact. I didn’t need a lot of it, but I did need it, just in small doses on my terms.