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

You also mention in the article that studies have shown that introverts process information differently from other people.

Yeah, that's something I read back when I was reporting the piece. I can't remember the details now, but it involved brain scans.

It sounds right to me that the process is different. When there's a conversation flowing around me and everyone else is so quick with their responses, I almost imagine that other people's brains are endowed with some kind of fast-acting comment-generating engine.

Yeah, I marvel at Michael who can always somehow turn the conversation right over effortlessly and keep it going even when what he says is not necessarily profound or interesting. What he comes up with is perfectly tuned to the sense and flow of the conversation. But it's not words that are particularly intended to convey ideas or mean things. It's words that socialize—that simply continue the conversation. It's chit-chat. I have no gift for that. I have to think about what to say next, and sometimes I can't think fast enough and end up saying something stupid. Or sometimes I just come up dry and the conversation kind of ends for while until I can think of another topic. This is why it's work for me. It takes positive cognition on my part. I think that's probably a core introvert characteristic that you and I have in common and which can probably be distinguished from shyness per se—that small talk takes conscious effort and is very hard work. There's nothing small about small talk if you're an introvert. But we're good at big talk. Are you good at big talk?

If I get onto a topic I'm interested in and feel strongly about then it's true that I can get animated and engaged. But I'm not so good at chatting about things like the weather.

Right. The weather's not interesting. But once an introvert gets on a subject that they know about or care about or that intrigues them intellectually, the opposite often takes hold. They get passionately engaged and turned on by the conversation. But it's not socializing that's going on there. It's learning or teaching or analyzing, which involves, I'm convinced, a whole different part of the brain from the socializing part.

Do you ever wish you were an extrovert?

Not really. That may be because my "faking it" skills are pretty good. But I do think a lot of us are tired of being told that there's something wrong with us—of this lazy assumption that if you're not an extrovert, there's something wrong with you. I think my article may speak to people in part because of its defiant message. It says, "No, I don't wish to be an extrovert. Not everyone has to be one. And why don't you people get it?"

Your article made me think of that book The Lonely Crowd by David Riesman from the 1950s. He argued that the dominant economic model of each era in a sense "creates"—or privileges—the character type that's best suited to it. So, for example, in the agricultural and industrial eras, what he called the "inner-directed" type was best suited to getting work done and transmitting certain moral and cultural values. And then, with the rise of a more consumer-oriented economy, it became beneficial for people to be gregarious and affable. So teachers started to care more about whether their students were popular and cooperative than if they were interested in the subject matter and doing well academically.

I've never thought about it in those terms. It's true that in a lot of the social jobs that require leadership—whether in politics or in corporations—being energized by dealing with people all day long is a plus. And it's also probably true that, in an urban corporate economic structure, those skills are more important than in a rural peasant economy. But I wouldn't say that it changes the character of the people particularly. I do think that there's been, in the last ten years or so, a major economic resurgence for introversion—the "geek" economy. The prototypical geek is really good at thinking, has superb powers of concentration (which tends to be an introvert trait), and works very well independently. They're often pretty awesomely brilliant people, and they're fairly defiant about being geeks. They've turned this word "geek" into a term that's almost romantic in some ways, and through the Silicon economy, they've been massively innovative and economically important. A lot of them are running circles around the extroverts who are selling shoes. So I think part of what's happened lately is that the digital economy is giving introverts a new place in the sun.

You've gotten more reader response to this article than for anything else you've written. What do you think accounts for that?

Well, I can tell you that I never saw it coming. I thought I wrote this almost for my own fun and so that I would have something to hand people to get them to understand. Part of the problem with being an introvert is that it's hard to explain yourself. You can't say to your friends, "Hey guys, I'm an introvert," and have them know how to deal with you. So I thought it would be pretty darn handy to have something on paper.

Then I got this overwhelming reaction in the mail. It's been a bigger reaction than to anything else I've written. I think it suggests that a lot of people have the same experiences you and I do, and that they haven't had a name for it or a way of understanding it. Having that is very valuable. It tells you how to understand yourself and—maybe even more importantly—it tells you that you're fine and that, in fact, a lot of the problem is with the rest of the world.

People really do seem to be having a real "eureka" reaction to this. At some level, it reminds me of what it's like to discover that you're gay. Obviously there's no structural similarity between introversion and homosexuality, but there is this sense of realizing that you're different in a way that's very meaningful. Understanding introversion as a concept kind of makes the pieces fit together. A number of people have told me that they've Xeroxed the article and given it to their friends, their families, their significant others, and so on, as a communication device.

You jokingly talk about an Introverts' Rights Movement. It seems as though, given the dramatic response to this article, there must be a lot of people out there who are just now realizing that they're introverts and that the dominant culture doesn't really take their characteristics into account in terms of what it expects of them.

Well, that's exactly right. Part of the thrill of this article is that it seems to be helping introverts discover each other. It never occurred to me when I wrote it that there would be so many other people out there with whom this would resonate so strongly. But one of the main points I see over and over again in the mail I've been getting is, "I'm not alone! There are others like me." This sense of empowerment because of not being alone is very important to people. That in itself, to the extent that that takes hold, would be a very important part of correcting the introvert/extrovert imbalance.

Your article has also been one of the most popular pages on our Web site. We posted it three years ago, and it still gets more hits than practically anything else on the site.

Yes. The Internet is the perfect medium for introverts. You could almost call it the Intronet. You know the old New Yorker cartoon with a dog sitting at a computer saying to another dog, "On the Internet, no one knows you're a dog." Well, on the Internet, no one knows you're an introvert. So it's kind of a natural that when The Atlantic put this piece online, introverts beat a path to it; it's the ideal distribution mechanism by which introverts can reach other introverts and spread the word.

Are you aware of anybody else writing about these things today?

I'm not. Some people who wrote in sent me some of their own writings on the subject. But if there are other articles I haven't seen them. We'll see over time.

So if you were to spearhead an Introverts' Rights movement what would be some of the things you'd advocate?

Massive subsidies. I think people like us should have twice as much Social Security.

I like that.

Yeah that's pretty good.

Maybe Greta Garbo could be the mascot.

Good idea. Though she may have just been shy. Did she really say, "I vant to be alone"?

That's what I've heard.

I think that was a line from her movie The Grand Hotel, though, in which case it was just her character who said that. But she could still be the patron saint. Actually, my favorite line is from Waiting for Godot. I can quote it to you exactly: "Don't talk to me. Don't speak to me. Stay with me."

That's perfect.

To me those words sum up the introvert impulse. We love people—we're not misanthropic for the most part. We just can't socialize with them all the time. We want to hold their hand or hug them or just sit quietly and read a book with them.

I was tongue-in-cheek about the introverts' rights movement, but the main principle would just be that it should be as respectable for introverts to be who they are socially as it is for extroverts. We ought to be trying to make extroverts conscious and not uncomfortable about the fact that we're here. Extroverts should understand that if someone is being quiet it doesn't mean they're having a bad time; it doesn't mean they're depressed; it doesn't mean they're lonely or need psychiatric help or medication. A lot of the battle is making the extrovert world more aware. The onus is on us to do that. Maybe this article is a start. One thing you'll notice about the article, by the way, is that it addresses extroverts. I think that's very much the strategy; we need to tell the world who we are. The first step is to understand who we are ourselves, but the second step is to educate extroverts. This is stuff extroverts need to know. They're driving us crazy. We need to tell them.

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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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