Interviews February 2006

Introverts of the World, Unite!

A conversation with Jonathan Rauch, the author who—thanks to an astonishingly popular essay in the March 2003 Atlantic—may have unwittingly touched off an Introverts' Rights revolution

Most magazine articles do not, as a general rule, inspire impassioned responses. But in 2003, when The Atlantic published a short essay by correspondent Jonathan Rauch on the trials of introversion in an extroverts' world, the reaction was overwhelming. Rauch was inundated with more enthusiastic mail about the piece than for anything else he'd ever written. And on The Atlantic's Web site, it drew (and has continued to draw) more traffic than any other piece we've posted.

Also see:

"Caring for Your Introvert" (March 2003)
The habits and needs of a little-understood group. By Jonathan Rauch.

Follow-up: The Introversy Continues
Jonathan Rauch comments on reader feedback about introvert dating—and poses a new question

Introvert Letters
Rauch has received more mail in response to this article than for anything else he's ever written. See a representative sample of excerpts, with commentary by Rauch. PLUS—Rauch invites more feedback.

"I am an introvert," Rauch declared in the piece. And as such, he contended, he is a member of one of the "most misunderstood and aggrieved groups in America, possibly the world." By definition, he explained, introverts are those who find other people's company tiring. Yet the uncomprehending extrovert majority imposes its own gregarious expectations on extroverts and introverts alike—compelling incessant socializing, enthusiastic party-going, and easy shooting of the breeze as norms. Introverts, Rauch pointed out—though an oppressed minority—comprise a significant portion of the population. Their quiet, introspective ways, he argued, should therefore be viewed not as a deviation from standard, but as a different kind of normal.

He addressed extroverts, admonishing them to be more sensitive to their introvert peers: after all, "someone you know, respect, and interact with every day," he explained, "is an introvert, and you are probably driving this person nuts." As for introverts, he wrote, "we can only dream that someday, when our condition is more widely understood, when perhaps an Introverts' Rights movement has blossomed and borne fruit, it will not be impolite to say, 'I'm an introvert.... Now please shush.'"

If the groundswell of support for these sentiments is any indication, Rauch may soon find himself the unwitting figurehead for an Introverts' Rights Revolution. We decided to have a few words with this author, who has clearly tapped into something important.

Rauch is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution. His book, Gay Marriage: Why It Is Good for Gays, Good for Straights, and Good for America, was published in 2004.

I spoke with him in early January.

Sage Stossel

Author photo
Photo credit

Jonathan Rauch

Did anything in particular inspire you to write an article about this? An especially trying plane ride seated next to an extrovert, for example?

I don't think it was any specific incident. The idea was rolling around in my head for a while. To some extent, it was the result of being partnered with an extrovert and realizing that this was a daily source of tension. So I started organizing my thoughts on the subject. Another motivation was, basically, that I thought it would be funny.

It's interesting that you've found it a source of tension to be paired with an extrovert. I've read that introvert-extrovert pairings work well because the person who doesn't like to make small talk can just let the other person do it for them.

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Introverted Teenagers
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That's true. It does work very well in some situations. But for an introvert it also makes for a constant—I guess you might call it "brain pressure." That's a better phrase than "tension," because tension implies conflict and it's not that. It's just that my partner Michael's default mode of being is to talk and interact all the time, whereas mine is to talk as little as possible. We've been together since 1996 and we've spent much of that time just learning how not to drive each other completely insane. Part of my motivation for writing this piece was to pass along some of what I've learned. I was also hoping Michael would read it, which he did.

Did it help?

By the time the piece was published he'd probably heard it all from me before. But it doesn't hurt to go on the record.

If he were a writer he could do the companion piece—"How to Care for Your Extrovert."

Exactly. But of course my view, as I say in the article, is that it's much easier for introverts to understand these things than extroverts. Extroverts really have a hard time "getting" it. And even when they do get it, they still have a hard time modifying their behavior.

You wrote that for a long time you didn't even realize you were an introvert. What caused it to finally dawn on you?

From about the age of eighteen or nineteen, when I went to college, I realized that it was just not my idea of fun to party. In fact, I couldn't see why anyone would want to—I get so monumentally bored at parties. So I realized that I had this fundamental difference with a lot of other people. I didn't put a name on it until a few years ago when a friend of mine, who reads a lot of Jung, informed me that he's an introvert and that, "by the way, Jonathan, you're an introvert, too." He explained what that means and suddenly a lightbulb went on and things fell into place.

Now that you're tuned into it, can you usually tell when you meet someone whether or not they're also an introvert?

No. There's no introvert "gay-dar" that I can tell. One reason is that a lot of introverts are actually very good at being social. It just takes a lot of work for them. I'm like that. I'm not great at small talk, but I can seem quite outgoing for spells of up to an hour or so before I completely run out of gas. So I have to kind of get to know someone before I can figure out whether they're an introvert. Not that it takes all that much getting to know. If you notice that someone's getting tired out by a long conversation, they're probably an introvert. But it's not a first impression kind of thing.

I was surprised to read in your article that it's not typical for introverts to also be anxious or shy in social settings, because I'm both.

I was wondering whether you were an introvert. When did you realize that about yourself?

I'm not sure. I guess it probably hit me in seventh grade when somebody told my older brother, "You know, Sage could be popular if she talked more." Of course, he reported this to me, and I started to brood over it.

That is so unjust. Isn't it?

Yeah—chattiness suddenly seemed like the key to social success and happiness.

That story so sums up the kind of extrovert hegemony that can make life miserable. I think it's particularly hard for girls and women. "You'd be so much more popular if you'd talk more." It seems to me that the world would be a much better place, and that people would be much more rightly popular, if they talked less. Because so little of what most people say is actually worth hearing.

True. Although sometimes it's interesting to listen to other people talk. It's too bad it's not more acceptable to go to a party and just kind of soak things up.

Yeah. They should sell skybox seats at parties for people like us.

You asked about shyness versus introversion. My limited reading on the subject suggests that, psychologically speaking, they're regarded as different things. That reflects my own experience; I'm not particularly shy myself. To me, shyness implies a real reluctance to be socially aggressive or assertive. It's very difficult for shy people to put themselves out there if they need to. For introverts, it's never easy to do, but it's more a matter of reluctance to expend the energy, because it tires us out. That's what I feel most strongly. If I have to go to a party and then a dinner afterwards, I'm completely ruined for the evening. But if I'm called upon to run a business meeting or something, I don't feel any reluctance or anxiety about it. So, in my mind there's always been a fairly clear distinction between introversion and shyness.

Presented by

Sage Stossel is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and draws the cartoon feature "Sage, Ink." She is author/illustrator of the graphic novel Starling, and of the children's books  On the Loose in Boston and On the Loose in Washington, DC. More

On Election Day in 1996, launched a weekly editorial cartoon feature drawn by Sage Stossel and named (aptly enough) "Sage, Ink." Since then, Stossel's whimsical work has been featured by the New York Times Week in Review, CNN Headline News, Cartoon Arts International/The New York Times Syndicate, The Boston Globe, Nieman Reports, Editorial Humor, The Provincetown Banner (for which she received a 2009 New England Press Association Award), and elsewhere. Her work has also been included in Best Editorial Cartoons of the Year, (2005, 2006, 2009, and 2010 editions) and Attack of the Political Cartoonists. Her children's book, On the Loose in Boston, was published in June 2009.

Sage Stossel grew up in a suburb of Boston and attended Harvard University, where she majored in English and American Literature and Languages and did a weekly cartoon strip about college life, called "Jody," for the Harvard Crimson. From 2004 to 2007, she served as Books Editor of the Radcliffe Quarterly

After college she took what was intended to be a temporary summer position securing electronic rights to articles from The Atlantic's archive for use online. Intrigued by The Atlantic's rich history and the creative possibilities in helping to launch a digital edition of the magazine on the Web, she soon joined The Atlantic full time. As the site's former executive editor, she was involved in everything from contributing reviews, author interviews, and illustrations, to hosting message boards and producing a digital edition of The Atlantic for the Web.

Stossel lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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