Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Care and Feeding of Your Extrovert

Over the last few years, I've seen a lot of "How to Understand an Introvert," and "Things You Need To Know about Introverts" essays, but I find that I don’t see similar ones talking about what it's *really* like to be an extrovert.  People assume that because extroverts appear to be the dominant paradigm, everyone knows what we want and how to deal with us.  They roll their eyes when we suggest that maybe, possibly, "You all just want to be worshiped and adored and listened to as you talk CONSTANTLY about NOTHING," is not actually what is going on inside the mind of the extrovert.  An ex once sent me a 'care and feeding of introverts' explanation that included things like, "you need to understand that unlike extroverts, we're not yappy dogs just spewing whatever trivial thoughts happen through our shallow brains.  We're usually thinking about what we say before we say it."  He genuinely did not understand why that was hurtful.

So, without further ado, for those of you frustrated or fascinated by the extroverts in your lives, I present my own guide to the care and feeding of your extrovert.

1.  Human contact is a need for us.  It's not as intense as food or water; it's more like the need for sleep.  We won't necessarily die outright if we don't get it on a regular basis, but we'll be unfocused, unhappy, and emotionally unstable.  If I go too long without substantive human contact, without touch or conversation or genuine interaction, I get listless, then depressed.  If it goes on even longer, my form of depression can turn suicidal.

Other possibilities are the development of severe social anxiety because we are so dependent on being welcome in a social group, and a whole range of socially inappropriate acting out.  Years ago another extrovert friend suggested going to the mall when it started to get bad, and that works somewhat because it's a lot of low-stakes interactions in a short time.  It's like eating fast food when you really want a home-grilled steak, but it keeps the worst of it at bay.

2.  There are fewer of us than you think there are.  Most people are neither clearly extroverted nor introverted, though society works pretty hard to make everyone feel like they're at one extreme or the other.  There's a huge middle range of "I like people pretty well in medium-sized doses," but because the world is hell-bent on quantifying and classifying everyone to make sure they feel as unwelcome as possible, most of those folks in the middle get shoved to one side or the other instead of being allowed to just go on enjoying occasional moderately-sized parties and spending occasional afternoons reading alone in the library.  Just like getting overwhelmed by the holiday shopping crowds doesn't necessarily make you a true introvert, enjoying a large party once in a while doesn't make you a true extrovert.
3.  We need alone time, just much less of it than other people.  Every so often, I need to spend a day without talking to anyone.  As an extrovert, you're constantly taking in data from interactions, and sometimes all that input hits a critical mass and you're overwhelmed by it.  Two or three times a year, I take a day at home, relax, stay off IM and social media, and watch movies in my fuzzy polar bear jammies.  Every few years, I like to do something big by myself, to have a set of experiences and time to think that I don't have to share with anyone else.

4.  Because we need alone time, we actually do understand and respect introverts when they tell us they need to be alone.  By the time an extrovert with any sort of self-awareness reaches adulthood, she understands that 'Social Butterfly' is not a lifestyle for everyone, and that other people do not feel the same way about human contact.  As noted above, people seem to assume that the world is divided into only introverts and extroverts, and what springs from that is an expectation that people who talk to people -- and especially the people who urge others to talk more -- are all extroverts bent on making everyone else conform to their behaviour.  This isn't true, and the same Aunt Whoever that tells an introverted niece, "You shouldn't be so quiet all the time.  No one will notice you.  You need to be outgoing," tells her extroverted niece, "You talk too much, monopolize people's attention.  You should learn to be quieter, more modest, not so outgoing."

To an introvert, Aunt Whoever looks like the tyranny of extroverts as the dominant social paradigm, but she's actually just a nosy, bullying busybody who likes to tell other people what's wrong with them.  The dark secret of Aunt Whoever?  She's not an extrovert at all.  She doesn't like people or enjoy social interaction; she just considers it a necessary and unpleasant duty she should make sure everyone is equally miserable performing.  She doesn't respect your need to refrain, any more than she respects my need to participate, because she simply can't fathom a world that isn't full of miserable people faking sincerity in social situations they resent with people they don't really like.

5.  Contrary to popular belief, it's not an extrovert-friendly world, and it's becoming less so.  When I am among people, I make eye contact, smile, maybe chat if there's an opportunity (like being stuck in a long grocery store line).  As an extrovert, that's a small 'ping' of energy, a little positive moment in the day.  Now, though, more often than not people don't meet one another's eyes, they don't smile or shake hands, they keep iPod ear buds or Bluetooth headsets in their ears at all times, eschewing human contact.  Sometimes I look around, and I'm in a wasteland of empty stares and deaf ears.  Even surrounded by people, I can't make any sort of contact or connection, and that's like a constant diet of fast food for an extrovert.

As Americans become less and less inclined to have real interactions with one another, more inclined to interact online, extroverts have fewer opportunities for the social interactions they need.  We need our friends and family to understand us more than ever now, as the world gets more hostile.  I'm terrified of the way the world is going.  Most people don't know their neighbors, more and more shopping is done online without human interaction, and an increasing number of people are working jobs where they never have to interact with another person.  The rise of social media *seems* like it would be a blessing to extroverts, except that it only mimics genuine interaction; it doesn't provide it.

6.  Many people think it’s easier professionally to be an extrovert, but it comes with its own pitfalls.  People often assume that an extrovert’s career advancement is more due to ‘politicking and sucking up’ than to competence or skill, and we’re often frustrated by resentment directed at what others perceive as un-earned rewards or promotions.  The other big problem is that because we have those social tendencies, we tend to be the people co-workers stop to chat with.  It’s nice to have the social contact, but it can make it hard to do complex work, and if you’re chatting every time the boss walks by, you can kiss your promotion good-bye, earned or not.

I was the receptionist at a former workplace, and was terribly embarrassed when an e-mail went out to the entire office admonishing everyone for ‘stopping to talk to Rowan, because it distracts her from her duties and interrupts the flow of work in the office’.  I hadn’t complained, and it wasn’t affecting my ability to do my job, but it cooled several friendships with co-workers who were justifiably upset by the thought that I’d gone to management instead of telling them when I didn’t have time to talk.  The manager, an introvert, was genuinely surprised that I didn’t consider it a favor for her to cut down on what she considered unwelcome and useless distractions.  She couldn’t fathom that I actually wanted to hear how people’s days were going.

7.  We may make this look easy, but it's not.  Many extroverts suffer from various forms of social anxiety, compounded by the knowledge that if we do or say the wrong things, if we are perceived to be thoughtless or undesirable in a social setting, we'll be unwelcome in the group.  If that happens often enough, a necessary part of our psyche will starve and fail.  When I walk into a roomful of people, the stakes are higher for me than they are for non-extroverts, because I *need* to be welcome there.  When I walk out of a roomful of people, you can rest assured that I am rehashing every single conversation I had, going over everything I said, second-guessing every word and gesture.  I am acutely aware of every mistake I made, even the ones I only imagine to have occurred.  I still remember the dumb things I said or did long after everyone else has forgotten them.  I can recall social faux pas as far back as middle school, and though by and large I've stopped beating myself up for things, the ghosts still paralyse me sometimes.

8.  We’re not shallow, and we’re not empty-headed.  We don’t just ‘say everything that goes through our heads’.  I’d love it if every conversation I have could be a deep, nourishing, interesting interaction instead of light small talk, but the world doesn’t work that way.  Many people recoil from you when you attempt to engage them on any level but the superficial, and because we are creatures of social necessity, we learn early on to master the expected patter about weather and jobs and how are the kids – not because that’s all we can come up with, but because initiating real conversations is a pretty big risk to take, and it usually pays off in awkward silence.  When your emotional health depends on social interaction, you can’t afford to be the weird girl in the corner everyone avoids because she’s talking about gender theory and social engineering at happy hour.  If you think we’re shallow, challenge us.  You’ll find out that a lifetime of taking in other people’s data combined with the analytical skills necessary to navigate social minefields usually leaves us with some pretty interesting perspectives.

9.  When you see us moving through a crowd at a party, talking to fifteen or twenty people in the span of your one conversation, don’t assume we’re being insincere or flighty.  It’s likely we are quite interested in every one of those people and every one of those conversations.  But most of us, in addition to needing human contact, have very vibrant and outgoing personalities.  Years of interaction have taught us that in a social setting, our intensity can start to wear on people after too long, so (especially when first arriving at a gathering) we tend to float from group to group, in order to not burn out any one person’s tolerance.

10.  We know what we are and we know it’s not going to change.  We’re aware, for the most part, that everyone is not like us, and we’re trying to get essential needs met in the way that is least intrusive and invasive to people we recognize as very different from ourselves.  As confident or self-assured as we may seem, most of us are laboring under a constant worry that we’re annoying everyone around us, that we’re wearing on everyone’s last nerve, and that we’ll be sent away to wither alone.  We depend on you, our friends and loved ones, for something we know we can’t do without.  Your extrovert will understand if you come home from a long day at work and say, “Hey, hon, I need a little down time before dinner,” but if you just shut the door to your office or workshop without communicating the all-important “this is not about YOU and it is only for a couple of hours,” it can be a deeper rejection than you could possibly imagine.  Some people will find that request for reassurance completely unreasonable.  Those people are probably not well-suited to being closely involved (either as friends or romantic partners) with extroverts, which is a loss on their part because we’re a lot of fun to know, and we tend to be genuinely warm, loving, loyal and compassionate people.