When V was little, her dad and I often took her to the playground to play. Invariably, we would get there and get settled, and then her dad would tell her to go ahead and go up to the other kids and start playing with them. This is something parents seem to do all of the time – out of habit or just a desire not to have to play themselves – expecting that kids will be able to just automatically talk and play with each other, just because they are kids.
As a reserved little girl who spent most of her time with adults, V didn’t have much exposure to other children and she just didn’t feel comfortable going up and playing with kids she didn’t know. She lived in an apartment complex filled with older people and had only one friend until she started school. Her mom and grandma are from the Ukraine, don’t much like people, and they are pretty insular, and her father, though an extrovert, also doesn’t like people.
One day, V just told her dad that she didn’t know those kids and didn’t want to just go play with them; pointing out that just because they were all children, it didn’t mean they would automatically get along – she preferred to play alone. I always feel a little sorry for the kids who are either odd men out, or are too shy or solitary – unfamiliar with how to make that first conversation. Not all kids – in fact, not that many kids – are good at just joining a group, and parents tend to forget their own problems in this department as children.
I was reminded of this the other day when I went to a play with my husband. The performance featured some of his friends and he told me as we approached the theater that more of them would be attending the show. My husband has a large circle of friends, which I married into when I married him. Although I know and like all of my husband’s friends and they have all been welcoming and lovely to me, I expressed my apprehension at seeing them and making small talk to my husband, which I could tell he didn’t really understand.
As an introvert married to an extrovert, I can tell you extroverts have difficulty understanding us! As adults, we’re not really supposed to be shy or reluctant to approach the other kids on the playground and my husband is definitely well-able to interact with people he doesn’t know. He likes both being around and talking to people, is gregarious and outgoing, and has never met a stranger. He derives energy from being around large groups of people. Fortunately for me, he isn’t always looking for company and can be quiet along with me.
Like V, I am an introverted soul who can find it difficult being in groups or with people who I don’t know well. It’s not that I don’t like people – I’m not a complete misanthrope – I actually find people and what they do fascinating. (It’s why I’m such a fan of reality shows.) I just get a little uncomfortable at the prospect of talking to anyone with whom I’m not intimate; in fact, I sometimes have difficulty talking to people with whom I am intimate.
I enjoy being with people but spend most of my time alone, which is how I rebuild my energy stores. I find interacting with people tiring at the best of times because of my illness; talking can be a huge use of resources, as can being around others’ energy. When the occasion calls for it, I’m quite good at chat and small talk, I ask thoughtful questions, and I’m a good listener. I come by my introversion honestly, springing as I do from a long line of introverts and insular family experiences.
My mom preferred to be alone with a book and my father spent hours alone in his shop downstairs. They had few friends, didn’t really like going out or having parties, and dictated that holidays were family-only. They found all the socializing they needed within our family. Lately, I’ve been spending a lot of time with my good friends Alex and Sig, and I keep asking whether they’re sure they want me there – certain that they are enduring the presence of another person until they can go back with relief to just their family unit – because that’s how my mother was when I had friends over. I am gradually realizing that they are sincere in their generosity and that not all families are like mine.
For a long time, introverts have been put down, misunderstood, and pushed to be something they’re not. Fortunately, there is a growing population of introverts who are putting themselves out there and fighting for respect. In her book, Quiet, Susan Cain says that our country lives with a value system that she calls the Extrovert Ideal – the belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha, and comfortable in the spotlight, while introversion is now a second-class personality trait. http://www.quietrev.com/I tend to agree with her on this. It appears, however, that some of that tide might be changing and introverts are being more valued for their ability to work well with others and tune into an inner, creative world, sparking both scientific insight and amazing art.
Although I support her being exactly who she is, I am glad to say that V is much more social and outgoing and has a circle of friends at school. I was relieved when she started bringing friends home to her apartment and staying at other friends’. She is still something of an introvert, though; she doesn’t exactly prefer her own company, but she is comfortable being alone. She still doesn’t seem overly comfortable with people she doesn’t know, however.
Over the years, I have consciously worked on building what extroverted capabilities I have. I like to refer to myself as an extroverted introvert. When I was a massage therapist, I learned how to act in a professional capacity with many different people during the day. As a support group facilitator, I have found ways to interact with others in a friendly, caring, and sometimes firm, way. As the wife of an extrovert, I have learned how to sit at the table at a Bed and Breakfast inn and strike up fascinating conversations with perfect strangers.
Although it appears to be an extroverted world, and I’m just living in it, I think both personality types, with their own strengths and skills, are equally important. I think we can all get along just fine with a little respect for what makes each of us – us! Although I still prefer to be alone and will probably always be an introvert, I do enjoy these forays into a world – and personality – unlike my own. Don’t expect to see me out on the playground with the other kids, though; I’ll be the one with the book.