Confessions of an Introvert

For the past two weeks I’ve been running the gauntlet of one of the major milestones in the experience of many social science graduate students – doing research in the field. For me, that means approaching strangers in public places, armed with a clipboard and a giant smile, and asking them if they’d like to schedule an hour long interview sometime later this week. My first foray into being a real social scientist would occur in my hometown in Upstate N.Y. (pop: 11,900).

I had a few sleepless nights leading up to this trip. I anticipated everything that could go wrong: getting chased away by the managers at the local Walmart, or getting stared down outside the corner store that sells “talk + text” packages (right alongside sub sandwiches and cigarettes, see picture below). But I never anticipated the near crippling attack of introversion I would encounter every time I launched into my recruitment speech.

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I’ve never considered myself a shy person. I was in the drama club in high school and aced a public speaking class in my senior year. But none of these experiences prepared me for approaching strangers on the street to ask them for an hour of their time. After two hours of smiling and speaking to strangers, I was exhausted. I collapsed into bed at 9:30pm convinced that I was doomed as a social scientist.

Recently, one of my closest friends gave me Susan Cain’s best-selling book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. Being that it’s a tradition for us to give each other books, I didn’t question why she thought to gift me this particular book. After reading through the first few chapters, I called her excitedly to report how transformative the book had been to my self-understanding. Below is an exact transcript of the conversation that followed:

Julia: “Natalie…I was reading the book, and I felt like a lot of it was about me! I think I might actually be a little introverted…”

Natalie: “Um, yea. That’s why I gave you the book.”

Julia: “Oh.”

This isn’t the first time that, after a bout of self-discovery, my friends have told me that whatever I’d just discovered was something they’ve known about me all along. But figuring out that I’m a bit of an introvert has already had important consequences for how I go about living my life.

In her book, Cain explains research done by Jerome Kagan that posits that “high reactivity” in infants is correlated with more introverted personality tendencies in adulthood. “Reactivity” refers to the way that the infants in the study processed unfamiliar sensory stimulation. Upon hearing a loud burst of strange music, or seeing the faces of strangers, some babies cried, squirmed in their chairs, and thrashed their arms around, while others sat peacefully and calmly observing these changes in their environment. The “high reactive” infants, Kagan hypothesized, were reacting to being overstimulated by the same stimuli that the “low reactive” infants weren’t bothered by at all. It turns out that these infants had “excitable amygdalae” – the part of the brain that senses unfamiliar things, so when they received the same stimuli as the low reactive babies, their brains were flooded with more sensory information and they reacted strongly*. When followed through to adulthood, Kagan’s high reactive infants developed into grown-ups with quieter, more reserved personalities.

As we grow up, most of us learn not to scream and shout when we’re overwhelmed by new things in our environments and we do a lot of processing internally. Those with introverted tendencies, like me, do so much internal processing when driving in new places, meeting new people, or asking strangers to participate in our research, that after a short time…we’re exhausted!

After my first day of emotional fatigue, I re-designed my recruiting to take advantage of the way that I connect with people best – in small groups. Instead of approaching strangers as they exited the stores, one after the other for hours on end, I got the store manager’s permission to go inside and talk to people who were sitting around at tables or waiting with their families for a salesperson. While this was still exhausting, I was able to strike up a conversation in a more natural way, and most importantly, I didn’t feel like I was holding them up on their way to do more important things than talk to some grinning girl with a clipboard.

As a dyed in the wool social scientist, I’m inherently skeptical of theories that explain complex social phenomenon like introversion solely with references to brain functions and early childhood development…but is it a coincidence that I always turn the car radio off and roll the windows up to minimize outside stimuli while driving in new cities? Are there ways that my experiences as a woman, or as a graduate student shape the fact that I cringe at the idea of a party filled with people I’ve never met? Maybe I’ve been spending too much time at the library…

* Cain, 101

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6 thoughts on “Confessions of an Introvert

  1. I’ve really been wanting to read this book, and after reading your post, I want to even more. I’m sure you’ve seen it, but she has a great TED Talk, too: http://www.ted.com/talks/susan_cain_the_power_of_introverts.html

    Like you, I wonder about the various other causes of introversion, but I do like the idea of claiming one’s introversion. I’ve always been a bit ambivalent about my need to “get away” from stimuli and recharge, but I like that she celebrates the introvert!

  2. I enjoyed reading your experience and self-discovery on being an introvert. I’m reading “Quiet” now and definitely think it can be a transformative book in a society that has a love affair with extroverts. The real transformation comes when readers apply the concepts from the book to their unique experiences, as you have done, for positive results. I’m only about halfway done, but the book has certainly opened my eyes, and actually has me convinced I’m an introvert–even though I’ve always tested more extroverted on the Myers Briggs survey.

    • Chris,
      Thanks for reading! I think the sociological part if the book is just as interesting as the psychological parts. But, I was a little disappointed that Cain didn’t draw out the ways that the social value associated with extroversion can actually shape personalities. It seems like she reifies the social effects as being completely isolated from the psychological.

  3. Although I definitely think that people are predisposed toward being either introverts or extroverts at a young age, I have to wonder how our daily practices, habits, and professions also play a role. As you mention at the end of your post, we grad students spend a lot of time in isolation. Although I am a complete extrovert, I have found that with each passing year of grad school (and practice of days spent alone with my books and laptop), social interaction comes to feel a little less natural. Parties where I know no one have become more intimidating. From a sociological point of view, this might suggest that our networks, practices, and career choices influence our personality just as much as the reverse.

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