human:KIND – Lonely In A Room Full Of People

Welcome to human:KIND, where we take a quiet moment to think about what it means to be human. We hope that this will become a regular feature where we can discuss the issues important to us in a safe and friendly place.

This time Paul looks at something that many geeks will identify with…

Picture this: I’m in a loud, colourful pub filled with music, dancing and drinking. It’s getting louder and more colourful as the night draws on. I go to the bathroom and find a cubicle. I don’t use the facilities for their assigned purpose. I sit there for a few minutes, on my own, eyes closed, breathing deeply, enjoying the quiet and space. In that room full of noise I feel alone, isolated. In here I can hear myself think and it’s much less lonely. Then I go back into the cacophony to raised glasses and cries of “Where have you been mate?” and “We thought you’d fallen in!” I just laugh, offer to get the next round in and endure the noise and crowds.

I have to point out, that’s not a picture of me, but I can imagine how she feels!

Or: I’m at a lecture on a subject that excites me and I’m enjoying it. That enjoyment drains away when the person with the mic says ten words that I dread: “Turn to a person you don’t know and talk about…” I let all the people around me locate their partners, hoping that everybody will just leave me alone to reflect on what I’ve learned so far until the speaker resumes. Sometimes this works, sometimes I have to talk to a fellow audience member who singles me out for a natter. It’s usually the other person who does most of the talking.

Finally: My wife and I are out for dinner at the home of a couple we’re good friends with. There’s a lot of chatting over dinner, catching up, sharing our news since the last time we saw them, discussing serious stuff, joking about silly stuff. We finish eating and retire to the lounge with a drink. I’ve sunk into the armchair in the corner, having a great time. Then my wife looks at me, cocks her head with a concerned look and mouths “Are you okay?” I nod and smile. Later in the car on the way home she says “You were a bit quiet tonight. What’s wrong?” The thing is, nothing is wrong.

Education experts Jill D. Burruss and Lisa Kaenzig, in their paper Introversion: The Often Forgotten Factor Impacting the Gifted, state that: “It is very difficult for an extrovert to understand an introvert”. And that’s what I am – an introvert. I’d bet that many of you good people reading this are too and will recognise those situations I found myself in.

My wife makes friends easily, will talk to anyone who will listen. She is an extrovert. Extroverts thrive on social interaction and external stimulation. It’s where they get their energy. Social gatherings are fuel and they will become more alive and active as a party progresses. But for people like me, it’s where our energy is spent. Being at a get-together, even one where everyone sits around talking, tires me out the longer I am there.

I am energised by the things I can do on my own: at home watching a film or playing a video game, sat in a café with nothing but a drink and a book for company, going on a long hike with an audiobook or browsing in comic-book and record shops.

Often the extrovert misinterprets my demeanour. I’ve been accused of being withdrawn, aloof, unfriendly, arrogant, secretive, grumpy, uncooperative and even depressed. Anyone who knows me well will attest to the fact I am not any of those things, well not often anyway!

One of the biggest misunderstandings of introverts, however, is that their overriding characteristic is a crippling shyness. I am not shy at all. I’m a guitarist and singer – I’ve performed in front of a thousand people without a hint stage fright. I’m also happy to contribute to a lively discussion, but here’s the caveat – as long as that contribution is valuable to the conversation. Introverts crave meaning. I do not enjoy discussing something with a person who is, what I call, “wasteful with words”. Small talk about inconsequential matters, or someone using a hundred words when only one is needed, are like sharpened fingernails down the blackboard of my psyche.

In a world that is dominated by extroverts (it’s estimated that up to 75% of all people fall into this category), introverts are often viewed in a negative light, as though our personality is at fault. However, there are many advantages to this disposition.

We think things through before contributing, meaning we’re less likely to make a social or professional faux pas. We’re good listeners. We don’t have vast swathes of passing acquaintances, opting for a handful of meaningful friendships. We can also be very self-critical which could be mistaken for negativity but our reflective nature means we can apply that analytical quality to improve ourselves. And we rarely get bored.

I am easily distracted in a room on my own – there are always so many things around to look at and interact with! By contrast, an extrovert may get bored quickly in the same room. In 2009 I broke my leg and was off work for almost six months. I spent the first three of them sporting a full-leg cast meaning it was difficult to leave the house without help. When I went back to work people asked me how I’d coped during my time off.

“Fine,” I said, “I could get around on crutches, carry food and drinks, use our downstairs bathroom and we even set a bed up in the lounge”.

“No. I mean with the boredom”.

“I had plenty to keep me occupied. Books, video games, magazines, films, music, my guitar.”

“I would never cope being cooped up in the house all day. I’d go out of my mind!”

Who’d have thought we could be lovers?

Despite the differences introverts and extroverts need not be natural enemies, in fact, when working together they can often cover many options that the other might not have considered. As I said before, my wife is rather extroverted, proving Paula Abdul and MC Skat Kat’s rather profound theorem correct. We go together. She’s good at the social thing (many of my friends were made through her connections) and I’m good at calming her down and approaching a situation with a level head. We’re so different to each other but people often remark on how we make a good couple!

So I would like to say, on behalf of people like me, please understand that if I am not talking much it’s not because I’m uninterested in what you’re saying. It’s the opposite! I am enjoying our conversation. I’m taking in every word you say and mulling over an appropriate response if one is even necessary.

To end on I’d urge everyone, introverts, extroverts or ambiverts (it’s a sliding scale and these guys are right in the middle) to watch the excellent TED Talk on the subject by Susan Cain, the founder of Quiet Revolution, an organisation that aims to empower introverts to thrive in their personal and professional life.

Thanks for listening. Please join the discussion in the comments below. And remember: Be Human, Be Kind.

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