Calling all introverts  

Posted by Denis Haack in , , , , ,


A few years ago (March 2003) Jonathan Rauch published a brilliant piece in The Atlantic Monthly, “Caring for your Introvert” (you can read a copy here). Please do read it. If you are an introvert you will want to keep a copy of Rauch’s article to give to friends. (I’m not kidding.) If you are an extrovert you need to read Rauch’s article regularly in order to stop inflicting so much damage. (I’m not kidding about this, either.)

I am qualified to identify Rauch’s piece as brilliant because I am an introvert. Off the charts introvert, actually. Being with people is great, unhurried conversation is lovely and something I cherish, but I find being with people draining not energizing. I have friends who are extroverts and enjoy watching them ramp up as they are in a crowd and interacting, and though I wonder what that is like, I don’t envy them. I find silence and solitude energizing, and when the crowd disperses and I am alone I find my soul recovering a sense of delight great enough to once again plunge into another crowd.

Or as Rauch puts it: Extroverts are energized by people, and wilt or fade when alone. They often seem bored by themselves, in both senses of the expression. Leave an extrovert alone for two minutes and he will reach for his cell phone. In contrast, after an hour or two of being socially “on,” we introverts need to turn off and recharge. My own formula is roughly two hours alone for every hour of socializing. This isn’t antisocial. It isn’t a sign of depression. It does not call for medication. For introverts, to be alone with our thoughts is as restorative as sleeping, as nourishing as eating. Our motto: “I’m okay, you’re okay—in small doses.”

It should not be much of a surprise to anyone that many organizations, activities, and programs are run by extroverts. Not all by any means, but many. This includes the church. (There is even a book on the topic of introverts in the church, but I haven’t read it.)

The fact that many leaders within the church—clergy as well as lay leaders, formal and informal—are extroverts suggests this might cause some problems for introverts who love Christ but find people draining. It’s not that introverts cannot spend significant time with people, realize, but programs designed by extroverts can make introverts feel like they’ve been placed in a sealed box from which the air is being slowly sucked out. The worst of it is, Rauch notes correctly, that extroverts have no idea of the torment they put us through. Sometimes, as we gasp for air amid the fog of their 98-percent-content-free talk, we wonder if extroverts even bother to listen to themselves. Still, we endure stoically, because the etiquette books—written, no doubt, by extroverts—regard declining to banter as rude and gaps in conversation as awkward. 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. You are a wonderful person and I like you. But now please shush.”

In a comment to my last post on this blog (September 5, 2011) a friend of mine mentioned how introverts can be made to feel uncomfortable in church:

Is there a place for introverts in evangelical churches? A few weeks ago I went to a church where I know a fair number of people there and am quite close to a couple. But it was a new church for me and it was a massive crowd. I felt deeply uncomfortable the whole time. It wasn't b/c of anything the church did. It was b/c I'm an extreme introvert who hates crowds of any kind and who esp. struggles in crowds of Christians I do not know because I have a really messy past with Christians. Is there a place for someone like that in your church? That's what I want to ask people. Have you given any thought as to how to love, serve, and relate to people who don't like crowds and who don't thrive on tons of time with other people?

So, I’d love to hear from people on all this, particularly from introverts. What is your response to Rauch’s article (which you can read here)? What is your experience in all this, for blessing or for curse? What does introversion and extroversion suggest for the life of Christians and the church?

And finally, just because it is so true, I end this post with Rauch’s conclusion:

How can I let the introvert in my life know that I support him and respect his choice? First, recognize that it’s not a choice. It’s not a lifestyle. It’s an orientation.

Second, when you see an introvert lost in thought, don’t say “What’s the matter?” or “Are you all right?”

Third, don’t say anything else, either.

This entry was posted at Monday, September 12, 2011 and is filed under , , , , , . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .

17 comments

S.B.  

Great stuff. I find the idea of an introverts' rights movement intriguing. If they have animal rights, I don't know why they don't have introverts' rights yet. Naturally extroverts will write the social scripts though. Here's something I find kind of sad though: “Hardly anybody ever writes anything nice about introverts. Extroverts rule. This is rather odd when you realise that about nineteen writers out of twenty are introverts. We are being taught to be ashamed of not being 'outgoing'. But a writer's job is ingoing.” -Ursula K. LeGuin

I've even been labeled an "[awkward/shy] introvert" by people who I know for facts are introverts themselves! I find this ridiculous.

All this is to say, I'd be one of the first to jump on board with that introverts' rights movement.

September 12, 2011 at 11:21 PM

S.B.:
I had never seen that LeGuin quote before, but love it, so thanks for taking the time to write it out and post it. It's true: often people mistake my enjoying solitude and silence as an indication of something being wrong that their presence and chatter might make right. Understanding one another is so hard in this broken world.
Appreciate your comment.
Denis

September 13, 2011 at 9:02 AM

thanks for this post! I find it helpful for many reasons but I think the most important of them being that my best friend and husband is one of these amazingly dear, intelligent and insightful introverts.
I loved this thought: "it will not be impolite to say "I'm an introvert. You are a wonderful person and I like you. But now please shush." I have a group of friends that likes to talk about the MBTI (Meyers-Brigg Type Indicator) and the differences of personalities between us. One of our friends is an introvert who feels the freedom to express her need to escape the chatter. On a road trip with a friend she is quoted saying "I am sorry, I just really can't listen anymore. I need some quiet." And then later after having rejuvenated, she let her friend know that she was able to converse once again. That is a true friendship.

September 14, 2011 at 12:01 AM

Thanks so much Denis! I hope this sparks some eye-opening discussions for many of your readers!!

One thing that I think is so beautiful is really gaining the insight and opportunity to realize what those around us are gifting to us: that when an introvert chooses to invite us into their home, their lives, their hearts, it is a weighty choice. It is not a light-hearted "come on over and hang out anytime" offer of an extravert which itself is also a beautiful gift to give someone; it is an expensive but chosen gift.

As we look to serve each other as broken yet beautiful human beings, I think it is essential that we grapple with our differences and the different expectations and assumptions that come with these two distinct personality types.

I also am an introvert -- an admittedly difficult-to-recognize one -- and my husband learns more and more to love and serve me in our marriage, he is realizing that gifting me with space is a true and deeply felt gift... that listening with me to the Psalms from the Anglican prayer book being sung slowly by a cathedral choice draws me closer to the Lord and refreshes and feeds my soul in a different and, yes, far deeper way than going to a women's Bible study. It takes time to find ways to love and serve each other in marriage, in family, in the church, in our wider communities. Thank you for, once again, calling us to listen more deeply and carefully to each other.

September 14, 2011 at 4:44 AM

Joie:
That is a sign of good friendship, of caring enough for people to allow, even welcome them to be different from you. And I'm certain your introvert husband is pleased to hear it. (Tell him I say Hey!)
Miss seeing you,
Denis

September 14, 2011 at 7:46 AM

Dawn:

I find it so pleasant, so reassuring to discover that a close friend whom I admire and respect deeply also shares something with me that requires some negotiating to keep people from misunderstanding. (That friend is you, I hope you understand!). In the sort of life we have chosen to lead, believing that it represents God's call on us, we are imagined to be extroverts, but the truth is otherwise.

I've been thinking of how I'd love to organize a conference around the two spiritual disciplines, solitude and silence. Attendees arrive and after the opening prayer are informed that they are not to speak again. A big name speaker is invited (how else to get people to attend?) but they are only allowed to talk for 15 minutes, just before bed the first night. We provide simple materials to help people meditate on Scripture and pray, and simply be. As an introvert, it sounds like the beginning of heaven.

Blessings to you so far away on the other side of the world.
Denis

September 14, 2011 at 8:04 AM
Anonymous  

I've been reading the posts and comments about alienation and introverts with great interest. I'm an introvert and I struggled for 25+ years of feeling a total misfit in my loud, extroverted Pentecostal church.

The simple solution would be to leave and find another church. But I stayed. And I've learned at least a couple things about myself. First, my anger was a huge stumbling stone and kept me from connecting to anyone.

Second, truly listening to people is a rare gift. I've learned how to ask questions that get people talking--and people love to talk about themselves. I can't begin to number how many times I've been thanked for listening to people. If only they knew how relieved I am not to be the one talking!

Third, I collected my own group of church "outsiders." We've been meeting for a potluck dinner, a movie and discussion for almost six years now. We're introverts, bookworms, library geeks and awkward single people. We even have two guys who actually turn average people off because they talk too much. Somehow it works. I hate those canned small groups with video curriculum and painful, prying discussion questions, but none of us would miss our dinner and movie night unless we were hospitalized.

So yeah, Introverts Unite! And subvert the extroverts' structures to suit yourself.

September 15, 2011 at 4:08 PM
Jason Schaitel  

I have that book on introverts and the church. I went straight to the chapter on introverts and evangelism. I passionately want to share the gospel, talk about it, etc but so much of evangelism is extrovert oriented, either get big crowds together to present the gospel or strike up a conversation with a stranger about the gospel. I have received a subtle message over the years that if you care about souls and evangelism you will be more and more active in these ways. This has been difficult to deal with as a major introvert. Another thing that I dread and wish I could avoid, the only thing I dislike, is the meet and greet time during church service. If I want to greet one or two people I can do it in the lobby before or after service. Shaking hands and having polite truncated little conversations with 20 people in a five minute period is more than I can handle.
Thanks for posting the article.

September 16, 2011 at 12:27 AM

Thanks for the chance to think about introversion and the plight of getting along in extrovert-oriented society.

As an introvert, I've tried to learn to see my difference of needs as an opportunity to learn how to communicate with others. I've either stuffed my need for silence and separateness in order to please others and make them happy, or I've been resentful of people that don't understand and take my nothing-to-do-with-them desires for solitude as a slight. Only recently am I trying to figure out being comfortable with my own space and not allowing others to define it as a "good" or "bad" thing. It has been an opportunity for me, and all of us introverts, to learn both grace and how to communicate, something that can bridge the unfortunate gap of misunderstanding between the extro and intro versions of people.

I'm not saying it's all on us, but I do think we have to learn a particular kind of strength of identity and honesty, rather than expect others to stop hassling us (not that anyone in this conversation has said that...I'm just...putting it out there).

Thanks again, Denis! (I met you at Ruth's wedding and was so happy to get a chance to talk with Margie for a little while)

September 17, 2011 at 7:40 PM
Cal  

Denis - greetings from Kauai! Thanks for the post. I have always felt that as an introverted pastor I was missing something in my makeup. I found the book on introverts in the church (written by a pastor) to be helpful in at least telling me that I was normal, albeit different than the mold. It is how God has fashioned me and it always me to minister in some particular ways. My greatest problem has been my own insecurity which does not trust God as I compare myself to others - pastors in particular. As I read your post it was comforting to know that I was in such good company.

September 18, 2011 at 2:07 PM

Cal:
I always suspected you were a fellow introvert, but since we tend not to be very forward about things I never mentioned it. I look forward to the next time we can meet to talk in Chattanooga. Have fun on the island.
Denis

September 19, 2011 at 2:00 PM

Anonymous:
I am impressed. It's difficult enough being in a Presbyterian congregation in the upper Midwest--a Pentecostal church?!

Your three points are full of deep wisdom: dealing with anger, learning to listen, gathering fellow misfits. That could be a description of Christian faithfulness.
Be blessed,
Denis

September 19, 2011 at 2:03 PM

Jason:
I agree the Meet & Greet was designed by extroverts. I'm uncomfortable with them, too, but have assumed I should take them as a chance to try to learn some names. Which I am bad at. Not a solution but it helps me.

I agree too, that most views of evangelism are based on an extroverts approach to life. The biggest help I got in that was in spending time with Francis Schaeffer and watching him converse with people. He used to say that if he met a non-Christian and had an hour with them he thought he should spend 55 minutes asking questions and listening, and in the 5 remaining minutes say something intriguing so they might want to talk again. Suddenly I saw it not as a "presentation" or a "project" (both extrovert designs on live) but a chance to talk about the things that matter most. Took the pressure off.

Thanks for commenting,
Denis

September 19, 2011 at 2:10 PM

Becky:
I appreciate your comment because I think you are correct: we need to be responsible to carve out the time we need for silence and solitude, and realize that this is a faithful response to how God made us, whether people understand or not. They often don't. We have a good friend who will occasionally say, "OK, I need some Katie time," (her name is Katie), and will tell us what she plans to do to have it, which may include going off into another room for an hour. Delightful.

Nice to hear from you--that was so long ago! (Don't tell Ruth I said so.)
Warmly
Denis

September 19, 2011 at 2:16 PM

I have finally come to embrace that I am and will always be an introvert. No reformation is necessary; I'm not anti-social or diseased. And I am determined that I find new ways to be in the world this year as my fully hermit self to help extroverts with their disease (ha ha). I invite anyone who is interested to visit my Wild Adventures of a Modern Day Hermit blog.

January 1, 2012 at 4:50 PM
Anonymous  

Book written on

The secret power of introverts..!!

http://www.forbes.com/sites/jennagoudreau/2012/01/26/the-secret-power-of-introverts/

May 28, 2012 at 11:05 PM

Anonymous:
Indeed, a book I am reading now, and enjoying. See my blog post for May 3 for a video by the author.
Thanks.

May 29, 2012 at 8:17 AM

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