An introvert yearns for a comfortable silence

I have a handicap. It isn't one helped with a guide dog, wheelchair ramp, or special parking privileges. My handicap is being an introvert.

America worships the extrovert: the person who attracts the most people, has the biggest parties, or gets the most voicemail messages. It's all about the outgoing personality. Of the general population, 75 percent are extroverts, suggest Myers-Briggs-based personality studies.

Social interaction is America's prime lubricant, and runs heavy in the workplace. Meetings, conference calls, luncheons, and training seminars are job staples. Networking is the mantra, and saying a little to many is key to success. Think Perle Mesta, Dale Carnegie, and President Clinton.

The national darling is the "people-person." That's not me. I like people - one at a time. I consider five a crowd. At work, I like my desk in some remote spot.

My biggest job concern is the business convention, where my agony starts on entering a cavernous hall. Flashing multimedia booths loudly broadcast their vendors' wares. Thousands of delegates cluster to negotiate sales and before long one always approaches me about my product.

"Hi, do you make the Adventure edutainment series?" he asks, my eyes darting to his chest for his name tag.

"Yes, I do, John." I say, starting to sweat.

"What is your company planning to do about the middle-school market share?" John asks.

"Oh, we'll be making product for it," I reply. My mouth feels dry - what to say next? I feel the urge to divulge how much I love my niece, who's in middle school, but know it is inappropriate with a stranger.

Small talk kills me; I can't balance on that membrane between personal and impersonal. In extrovert America, conversation is like playing tag: Keep moving. Slow down and you risk being touched, making you "It."

In my personal life, I've experimented with going against the social norm. Once, at a meditation retreat there was a break for socializing. Being in a quiet mood, I took a chair at the side of the room and settled in to observe. Seeing other participants clustered in lively conversation, I felt I was "It" briefly as I feared appearing unpopular. I took a deep breath, calmed down, and felt at peace and happy.

Soon, a woman approached and bent to place her head level with mine.

"Is everything all right?" she asked, sounding as if she'd found me sprawled on a city sidewalk.

"Oh yes, I'm fine," I replied, cheerfully. "I just felt like being quiet."

She took a step back.

"OK, I just saw you sitting alone and wanted to be sure...."Her voice trailed off, clearly missing my intent. Before I could explain she had joined a nearby cluster of chatting people. Soon the meditation recommenced, and I blended with the now silent group.

My next experiment took place after a big sailing race. People packed tightly together in the yacht club bar for the requisite race autopsy. The noise level rose as stories grew in their exaggerated retelling.

"That spinnaker douse almost took me overboard!" a man shouted into the throng.

"I thought you were going to lose it at the windward mark!" someone else yelled. These statements sought no reflective response; rather, they served to prolong the race.

I sat at a small table with one of my racing partners, who soon left to mingle. Panic rose as, alone and silent, I was "It." Then I relaxed and let the social din swirl around me.

Eventually a man I knew vaguely from other races joined me. We began a quiet conversation about boats.

This, I could handle.

Since then we've become close, and he, too, I found, is an introvert. Together we share comfortable silences, neither of us ever feeling that we're "It."

Toni Weingarten wrote and produced the 'America Adventure' CD-ROM for young adults. Most recently she has worked as a writer for KCTS-TV, the Seattle PBS affiliate.

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