I am not usually one to see a glass as half full, especially when any idiot can see that it’s half empty, as it is right now. But the new quarantine regime that is forcing even the most outgoing person indoors does, to combine metaphors, gild the glass with a silver lining: It has relieved considerable pressure on the introvert community. The world has caught up with us at last.
I should point out, to strike a personal note, that I live alone; already I can hear you say to yourself, “There’s a big surprise.” When newscasters tell Americans that we are entering a “strange new way of life” or a “new normal,” or moving into “unfamiliar territory,” I know they’re not talking to me. I and millions like me have been trying to self-isolate for years. We are the hopeful practitioners of antisocial distancing.
That February was the virus’s American debut is fitting, because many introverts were still recovering from the trauma of the end-of-year holidays: Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, New Year’s. (Introverts recover slowly.) Each year from late November to early January, we are subjected to a period of unrelenting cheerfulness, with entreaties from our extrovert brothers and sisters to join the fun, come out of our shell, loosen up, party down, stop being such a fuddy-duddy.
Well, there is no party to join now, and if there were a party and the host, by definition an extrovert, was popular enough to attract more than nine guests, it would quickly be declared a public menace. All our lives, introverts have known there was something wrong with large parties. We just couldn’t quite put our finger on what it was, and even if we could, we would have probably kept it to ourselves. We now look prescient rather than merely neurotic.
Assuming, that is, people look at us at all. We usually go unnoticed by design. We are the people who spent the night of our senior prom working on an arts-and-crafts project, who whiled away weekends burrowed in the stacks at the college library, who later on preferred to eat alone at corner tables in restaurants with a book propped up on the salt shaker, ignoring the occasional puzzled or pitying glances from the extroverts at the bar.
Replace the restaurant corner table with a tub of takeout, eaten over the sink standing up, and you can see how everyone else’s new normal conforms to our old normal. I have never known an introvert who washed his or her hands fewer than a dozen times a day; it’s our version of calisthenics. Hugs, long a source of terror for us, are now generally understood to be as violent and unwelcome as decapitation. The elbow bump is a social greeting most introverts can live with, far superior anyway to the viral autobahn of the handshake. A brief, awkward wave at six paces would be best of all. Indeed, for a true introvert, any encounter closer than six feet constitutes foreplay.
Only recently has introversion been deemed a social force, thanks to the writer Susan Cain. She became an unofficial spokesperson, a very soft-spoken spokesperson, when she published Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking a few years ago. As nonleader of a nonmovement, Cain replaced the late writer and memoirist Florence King, author of Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady. So deep was Florence’s introversion, she once told me, she had recently bought a used car on the condition that the seller remove every seat but the driver’s. “Now I’ll never have to give anybody a ride,” she said.
In truth, King was as much a misanthrope as an introvert; despite lots of overlap, the two are not the same. Cain speaks for the introvert qua introvert. Her book became a huge best seller with the aid of the internet, which allowed its target audience to buy as many copies as they wished without having to go to the store. Her theme was perhaps novel to some people, but not to us: This is the extroverts’ world; the introverts just live in it.
“Introversion,” Cain wrote, “is now [considered] a second-class personality trait, somewhere between a disappointment and a pathology.” Her book was a catalog of the ways in which society is designed around the pleasures and benefits of the extroverted: open floor plans in the workplace, team-building exercises everywhere, office calendars that let the boss and co-workers track your every move. Our culture’s heroes on the screen or the athletic field are always extroverts, our weirdos and deviants invariably portrayed as introverts—that shy, retiring neighbor who always kept to himself until the cops got the idea to dig up his basement floor.
If Cain’s book, readable, clever, and popular as it is, was intended as a revolutionary manifesto, it largely failed. It is very difficult to coordinate an uprising of people who would rather not leave the house.
Now, though, the virus has done what a revolution never could: The social order has been upended, and extroverts find themselves living in the introverts’ world. How the outgoing, the world-beaters, the Good Time Charlies and Charlenes will react is anybody’s guest, but take it from one who knows: Introversion isn’t so terrible, even with the alternately sad and horrifying news that makes introversion a societal necessity, even a matter of life and death.
Consider: As Cain points out, the world’s most introverted country, Finland, is also the world’s happiest.
How introverted are the Finns? Here’s how: You can tell a Finn likes you if he’s looking at your shoes instead of his own.
That’s a joke the Finns tell on themselves! Just because people are introverted doesn’t mean we can’t have a little fun. We just don’t want to overdo it, is all.