Tuesday 25 March 2003

The unbearable heaviness of babble

I’ve been meaning to write about Liz’s extroversion post ever since Phil Ringnalda pointed to it at the beginning of the month. Though Phil doesn’t reveal precisely what Liz revealed “about extroverts that has baffled [him] for years,” her post confirmed what I’d long suspected: that extroverts don’t know what they think about an issue until they’ve talked about it at (interminable) length. As Liz explained:

…I said that the whole concept of something being “self-evident” seems to me to very specific to introverts. Where an introvert sees something as obvious based on observed actions, an extrovert is more likely to want to explore it, to triangulate views from multiple sources before forming an opinion. To be valid, for me, an opinion must include input from other sources—I don’t believe any of us can be “objective” or see a full version of what’s around us, and without asking what others see, I don’t believe I’m getting a full picture.

That’s where the conversation got particularly interesting—I told her that I thought the extrovert’s desire to discuss things endlessly was the antithesis to the belief that something is “self-evident.” She said she’d always assumed that the talk was an announcement of fully formed ideas, not a thought-forming process—that the people talking “already had their ideas, and felt a need to subject us to them.” And I replied that for me, that talk is really the only thought-forming process; the thoughts aren’t solid until they’re expressed, discussed, poked, prodded, etc. Internally, thoughts are amorphous and unformed. When “exposed to the light” through expression, you can see if they’re solid.

I was reminded of Faulkner’s question: “How do I know what I think until I see what I’ve written?” (Which, for extroverts would be: “How do I know what I think until I hear what I’ve said?”)

The process of triangulation that Liz describes, of comparing views from multiple sources, is something I can do in my head because—and I have no idea whether this holds true for other introverts—for most subjects, I don’t feel attached to any particular point of view. For example, I regard General Curtis LeMay as one of the most gifted and courageous generals of World War II while at the same time I believe that he was a war criminal according to the standards established by the Tokyo War Crimes trials. I suspect it’s this ability to hold simultaneously contradictory viewpoints that makes the internal triangulation possible, though the end result—a state of almost permanent ambivalence—is frustrating for those who see issues from one perspective or another.

[I admit to being puzzled by Liz’s need to determine, through conversation, “what others see,” since I am so rarely surprised by what others see. One only needs to spend ten minutes or so with most people in order to predict, with a high degree of accuracy, their position on any issue. The introvert’s pain at being trapped in a conversation with extroverts is caused partly by boredom—we’ve already formulated allthe arguments in our heads—and partly by repetition—we then have to listen to those arguments being repeated ad infinitum.]

The comments on Liz’s post are equally fascinating. A few people warn of the dangers of stereotyping, dangers that I believe are insignificant when compared to the insights that the MBTI offers about different temperamental styles, why extreme differences—for example, between introversion and extroversion—lead to conflict and misunderstanding, and what each side might do to facilitate harmonious relations.

Jeremy raised an interesting question when he asked:

whether or not bloggers and blogging has any relationship to these sets of indicators intro/extroversion or whether they are completely unrelated?

My guess is that Liz might be one of the few extroverts whose weblog I read regularly since her writing in no way resembles what she describes as the “constant babbling” of her conversational style. But then I’m not attracted to the traditional link+quote+comment weblog, which I instinctively believe is more likely to belong to an extrovert than an introvert.

I visited friends in the Blue Mountains last Saturday and, during the 80 minute train ride, a few different people in my carriage conducted protracted, voluble, and loud mobile phone conversations. I found myself wondering, along the lines suggested by Jeremy, about the relationship between extroversion and the willingness to reveal to strangers both the intimacies and banalities of one’s existence. “Have these people no sense of privacy, or shame?” I asked myself.

To me, being interrupted on a train or in a restaurant, while I’m thinking or reading or watching, is an intolerable intrusion. Yet all around me people are constantly checking their mobile phones for voicemail or SMS messages. Surely only extroverts feel such a relentless desire to be in constant contact with their family, friends, and/or business associates.

In her post Liz mentions that she (an off-the-scale extrovert) is married to an introvert and in a comment on her own post she quotes a couple of typical conversations which suggest a mutual tolerance for their diametrically opposed temperamental/conversational styles. I began to wonder about their respective mobile phone usage: does Liz make ten times as many calls as her husband? Does he, as I do, have his phone switched off most of the time? Does he, as I do, delete all messages before listening to them? (I guess not—if I were married, with children, I think I’d listen to my messages.)

I realized that I’ve often wondered about what it might be like for an introvert to be married to (or in a relationship with) an off-the-scale extrovert. No offence to Liz, or any other extrovert, but I think I’d rather spend eternity having my fingernails pulled out. At the very least, it seems to be a recipe for unendurable torment on both sides. So how do they make it work? I’m not suggesting that introverts and extroverts can’t get along—rather it’s the presence of an extreme type in a relationship that has me baffled. What would a relationship between a mild extrovert and an extreme introvert be like? Could two extreme extroverts be happy together?

Or have I been so absorbed in my conception of the ideal relationship (between introverts who can intuitively share their thoughts and feelings) that anything else seems utterly strange?

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"You are surrounded by quiet twilight there, said Marie, you see the light of day outside through cracks in the slatted blinds, you hear water running gently through the weir, and the heavy turning of the millwheel, and you wish for nothing more but eternal peace. Everything Marie meant to me from then on, said Austerlitz, was summed up in this tale of the paper wheel in which, without speaking of herself, she revealed her inner being to me."

W.G. Sebald, Austerlitz

Posted by Shelley on 26 March 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Gee, I thought I was the only introvert that waited this long to blog about a topic, Jonathon.

Maybe this is why introverts don't have to babble about it eternally.

They actually think about it a long time before they say/write anything about it.

Of course, when I look back at some of the comments I've written on people's sites, it reminds me why it's a good idea to think before you open your mouth. I have to go back in order to correct what I've said without thinking enough.

Posted by Loren on 26 March 2003 (Comment Permalink)

I'm an off-the-scale extrovert engaged to a borderline introvert (this is MBTI, of course, but observed as well).

I think I'm more introverted with her, and she's more extroverted around me. I usually talk all the time in public and she's usually quiet, so we try to balance it in our interactions with each other, I suppose. I really can't imagine making it work any other way.

Posted by Chris Tessone on 26 March 2003 (Comment Permalink)

How can I resist responding? Am drafting something on my blog. Accidentally selected publish rather than draft, so you've gotten a premature trackback ping.

Look for that link to go live later today, or tomorrow.

Posted by Liz on 26 March 2003 (Comment Permalink)

I'm a moderately expressed introvert, according to a quick online Myers-Briggs test I did recently. Although I do have a tendency to become quite extrovert in a situation where I feel very safe, say with a small number of family or long-time colleagues.
I'm not sure there is any great link between extroversion and owning a mobile 'phone, though I do think there's a link with the manner in which it is used.
I rarely go anywhere without my mobile. This is partly because I do have children in day care and need to be contactable at all times. It's also partly because I'm a contractor, move around a bit, and my mobile number and email address are the 2 permanent links to me; if I want to get work, I'd better be contactable. But mostly I carry it because it represents a connexion, a link, to a couple of people I love. I tend not to talk on it very much; instead I send a lot of SMS. So it's a very private thing for me, my 'phone. I might be on the train or wherever, but I can have a private exchange of thoughts.
Sometimes I do talk on it for a long time, but again because it's that link to those special people; I can't be with them right now but I want to "touch" them. Yes, I feel a little hesitant to talk in public, and I do guard what I say when there are many people around. And at those times the conversation relies on there being that kind of intuitive understanding, so that we don't have too say too much explicitly.
Interestingly, my wife is a borderline extrovert and is most uncomfortable using her mobile, except for SMS. However, my closest friend, the other person I talk to, is similarly introverted to me and talks on her phone a lot. She and I might chat for an hour, which is unlike me to do normally. Not being together all the time, we've had to make email and 'phone the "space" where we meet. I think -- hesitatingly, as I'm not quite sure -- that both she and I, as introverts, can retreat into a private space where we don't apprehend the people around us and are therefore free to talk "in private". My wife, by contrast, is extrovert enough to be aware of her public situation, but not sufficiently extrovert to be comfortable talking out loud in that situation.

Posted by Andrew on 27 March 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Erk! I accidentally posted this on the wrong entry. Sorry.

Posted by Andrew on 27 March 2003 (Comment Permalink)

I feel outside this conversation because I can't figure out which I am. I do have a craving to be constantly in touch with people, unless I'm behind on work and think they are angry at me, in which case I prefer to avoid them altogether till the work is done and I can present them with a fait acompli.

I like interviewing people with a tape recorder and making note of what they say. I like talking with people who have different world views - for instance, people who believe that suffering in this world is caused by Satan (a view which is different from my own, more secular viewpoint).

I'm better at 1 on 1 conversations that group conversations, a sign of an introvert. But I can deal with groups.

People make me nervous but I crave their presense.

Posted by Lawrence Krubner on 28 March 2003 (Comment Permalink)

I really could use some direction. My guy is introvert from the word go and I am an extrovert. Seriously! We have a wonderful relationship. He is a wonderful person but, I have trouble dealing with him not being social when I am. Everything I have read leads me to believe this is normal and I being an extrovert will feel rejected. I don't want to feel this way. I could use some advice on how to deal with his alone time without feeling rejected or ignored. I want to understand who he is.


Posted by Teresa on 5 November 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Teresa: You just have to accept him the way he is, and trust that what appears to be anti-social grumpiness is just quiet observation and reflection. As an introvert myself, I assure you it's awful to be prodded to be social; I enjoy talking about interesting things with one or two people, but if you put me with a bunch of people I don't know, I clam up and observe. And I spend a *lot* of time reading and thinking. I'm deeply grateful to my wife for understanding this and not feeling abandoned; she knows I am always close to her, no matter how shut off I appear. If you can convince yourself to accept this about your guy, he will be much happier -- and so will you.

Posted by language hat on 5 November 2003 (Comment Permalink)

There can be no single more obvious mark of an extrovert than those pesky cell phones. They are the bane of our existence, us introverts. Please don't use it standing next to us in line or sitting next to us at the counter restaurant. Puhleeeez.

Posted by Nancy R. Fenn on 17 December 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Nancy, your comment veers perilously close to violating my anti-comment-spam policy (since your link is to a commercial site).

But I'll let it stay -- partly because I'm in a lenient mood, mainly because there's something appealing about a commercial site which invites visitors to "discover how wonderful it is to be introverted!"

Posted by Jonathon on 17 December 2003 (Comment Permalink)

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour