Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Leave the introverts alone

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

Warning for length, and ranting.


This morning, the Today programme had on the American journalist who has just written a mildly controversial book about the Obamas. To the shock and horror of the commenting classes, it turns out that Mrs Obama may not be a doormat person stuck in a 1950s time-warp. She has, apparently, ideas of her own, and sometimes expresses them. This, it appears, makes her both frightening and angry. And again I find myself hurling another socking great double standard across the room.

But the point was not so much about the brilliant Mrs O. Right at the end, the journalist, whose name I stupidly forget, was asked about President Obama’s first term. Justin Webb, who knows something about American politics, said: ‘Why do you think he has been a bit of, well, a disappointment?’

First of all, the journalist did not pause to challenge the premise. I am quite keen on challenging the premise and think people should do it more often, especially on flagship news programmes. (This is not the same as not accepting the premise, which is a politician’s weaselly way of not answering the question, cf Andrew Lansley this morning on the National Health Service.) In fact, she seemed quite delighted to be asked, as if this were the crux of the matter. She had obviously given the thing some thought, because she did not pause or ponder; she came right out with it. ‘Of course,’ she said, conclusively, ‘he’s the most introverted president we’ve ever had.’

At which point, I literally shook my head, like a baffled horse. I practically snorted and pawed the ground. What? You take the myriad, convoluted, labyrinthine complications of running a country as eclectic and mysterious as America, and boil it down to the fact the president is an introvert? And, and, you blatantly imply that this is a bad thing, a terrible drawback, a defining weakness. I do not understand.

Justin Webb, whom I admire, moved on without a beat, as if this were a perfectly explicable answer. I was left opening and closing my mouth like a grumpy carp. It’s not actually the politics of this that interests me, for once. I could argue for hours that Obama has not been a disappointment. I think it is a miracle that he can govern the country at all, since America seems more profoundly divided now than I have ever seen it. It’s not just left and right, there are furious fissures within the ideological camps. Have you been watching the Republican primaries? There is a massive fight going on between the religious right and the fiscal conservatives, the almost extinct Rockefeller Republicans and the neophyte Tea Partiers, the biblical literalists and the radical libertarians, and all points in between.

Within the same party you have Ron Paul, who wants the government to run a small army and not much else, and Rick Santorum, who would like government to be so enormous it can go into your bedroom and your womb. (There’s fun for the ladies.)

The Dems are slightly less fractious, but the coloured bit of the Venn diagram where centrists once met seems to be smaller and smaller, so there are terrible, pointless, childish rows and stand-offs in both House and Senate, where bills are thrown out because of tribalism, Republicans vote against things they once supported, and filibusters grow like mushrooms after rain. Sometimes, when I watch the implacable dislike and mistrust that seems to obtain between the two sides, I wonder that America can be governed at all.

Yet, Obama stopped the economy sailing off the cliff, got the jobs graph to start crawling up instead of plunging down as it had under George W, put through a healthcare bill which at least contained the idea of universal coverage, pulled out of Iraq, tracked down Osama Bin Laden with his supersecret powers, and repealed Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, all against the howls and tantrums of an obstructionist Congress. He has not been perfect, but, in an awful situation, he has not been bad. And he can sing Al Green songs.

But that is not the point. (Turns out I had to say it, because it makes me so cross when people suck their teeth and say he has done nothing.) The point is that his perceived disappointment is being blamed on being an introvert.

There is an element in American politics which is hard for me to understand fully, and that is the glad-handing aspect. British politicians don’t have to do this. Ministers introduce their bills; the party system guarantees most of the time there will be an easy majority; occasionally the whips are called in and glare with menaces; very rarely the government backbenches rebel. As far as I can see, in America the President can rely on almost no one, even his own party.

For each bill, he has to get the votes, and this seems to involve personal relationships. When asked why his promised bipartisan dream did not come to pass, the Republicans say, over and over, that he never came up to the Hill. He never asked them to things, apparently. He did not have them in for cocktails. It’s so strange. It sounds like they are teenage girls who did not get invited to a fashionable party, and now they are throwing a strop about it.

I that this is partly what that journalist meant when she blamed Obama's introversion for his perceived failure. The only inference I can draw from this odd statement is that if he had been a good ol’ boy, yacking it up, and slapping backs, and twinkling and winkling, then somehow everything would have been fine.

I admit, I am entirely biased. I am an introvert. I get so sick and tired of introversion being seen as entirely negative trait. Introvert is used to mean taciturn and shy and anti-social; that is not its meaning at all. It simply means that the inner world of thoughts and ideas is more real than the external world of events. For the extrovert, it is the exact opposite. The extrovert’s greatest terror is being left entirely alone; the introvert fears the collapse of her internal world. Regular readers will know that my biggest fear is that I shall go mad in the night and wake up thinking I am Queen Marie of Roumania. It is a classic introvert terror, almost a cliché of introversion.

Introversion is a bit like handedness. One can go out and dance and sing and talk and laugh; one can be social and make conversation perfectly well. It’s just it’s a bit like writing with your left hand when you are naturally right-handed. It requires a bit of effort.

The difference is that extroverts thrive on people; big groups, social occasions are like fuel in the tank for them. Introverts, on the other hand, are exhausted by going out, however much it might be a pleasure. That is why, after this lovely weekend away, I had to sit in a silent room for the whole of Monday, staring out of the window. My easiest and gladdest default mode is to be alone.

I always used to think that introversion and extroversion were evenly mixed. Apparently not. Someone worked out it’s more like 30-70. This now starts to explain to me why people react with disdain; it’s the old minority thing. It’s other.

Also, on a very human level, people take it personally. Sometimes, I do not answer the telephone. This is because I have been thinking all day and my brain is not fit for human contact. Often, I refuse invitations, because I am not robust enough for many people in a room; I need to be still and quiet. Because extroverts, the majority, the normal ones, cannot imagine feeling like this, they take it as an insult. The conclusion is: the introvert does not like people, rejects company, is somehow superior or disdainful, is horridly chilly and distant.

It’s not that. It’s just that doing more than one human at a time is a stretch for me, so I need to be feeling strong for it. I need a good night’s sleep and all my iron tonic.

Introverts might not always have the easy ability to beam their charm and magnetism at a group, as Bill Clinton or Sarah Palin may; the concentration on the inner world may well be a drawback in strict political terms. What they do have is the capacity to sit in a room and think. I would like my leaders to be sitting and thinking as much as they can damn well bear.

The world is swerving into water where there are no charts. It is the contemplation of introversion rather than the instant action of extroversion that is needed now. I bet you anything all those bloody Joe Cassanos and the other credit default cowboys were extroverted up to their eyebrows. And look how well that turned out.

One of the complaints about Obama is that he is too cool. He does not connect, apparently. I think you can ask the wrong things of a politician. I’m not sure I want hail fellow well met; I want brain the size of Poland. I’m pleased that the President is a thoughtful man; I admire his dignity and grace. I don’t want to have a beer with him, I want him to make good decisions, because what happens to America affects us all.

But most of all, can people stop drawing intellectually lazy, psychologically inaccurate conclusions; could they stop conflating two different things and making baseless accusations? Could they just leave us introverts alone? We are not freaks. We do not hate or fear people, just because we are not doing karaoke every night. We just come at the world from a slightly different angle. Surely that is allowed?


Pictures of the day. I am slightly obsessed with the colours of the bare trees, so there are rather a lot of snaps of those:

24 Jan 2 23-01-2012 11-31-29

24 Jan 3 23-01-2012 11-34-29

24 Jan 4 23-01-2012 12-10-36

24 Jan 7 23-01-2012 12-12-21

24 Jan 8 23-01-2012 12-12-25

24 Jan 8 23-01-2012 12-12-36

24 Jan 9 23-01-2012 12-12-58

24 Jan 10 23-01-2012 12-14-08

This photograph is not well composed. It is not even in focus, which you might think would be the minimum requirement. But it is of Pigeon doing the blinky eyes. I'm sorry, but no blinky eye can remain unseen. So here she is:

24 Jan 15 23-01-2012 12-10-22

Back to focussed gazing face:

24 Jan 1 23-01-2012 11-29-45


24 Jan 16 23-01-2012 12-15-30.ORF


  1. Nail on the head, yet again. You have exactly expressed what I have long felt but never managed to put into words. (And that's because I don't have enough thinking time. One of the things they don't tell you about having children is that it makes it very, very hard to be introverted. At their current stage it seems I must be forever facilitating their socialisation or I will blight their lives. At the very least one must take them to school every day, charmingly, wittily and warmly engaging with multiple staff, parents and other children in the process.)

  2. Helen - what a lovely comment. And you are so right about the child thing; it is why I have so much respect for the mothers.

  3. Thank you thank you thank you. This resonates on all levels-- I am an introvert who is constantly being shouted at for not answering the phone; I am tired of people saying Obama has done "nothing" when, quite frankly, as you say, it takes a Herculean effort just to keep the country in existence on a daily basis; and I am weary of people wanting a person just as stupid as them to run the country. I do not consider myself to be a stupid person (who does?!), but I also know that I would make an absolute bloody hash of it and I want somebody far smarter than me in charge, please and thank you.

    What is interesting to me is that lately, in the US, it's become 'cool' among a certain class (the intellectual middle-- the class which pronounces the most upon politics and has, apparently, the least credibility with the average American voter) to be introverted. All of a sudden people who are on Twitter every moment of every day seeking friends to do things with them, whether it's eat lunch or walk around the block or sit in a room and write (I am not kidding, this is true), are claiming to be introverts too. It's very odd. I do wonder if, by doing this, they are trying to stake a claim for a piece of the thoughtfulness and quiet introspection said to accompany introversion-- as if extroverts can't also think hard. But if this is true, the implication is cheering: hard thought is perhaps creeping back into fashion. Here's hoping.

    Helen, I can't imagine how hard it must be to be an introvert parent. For the record my father was one, too, deeply, and he rarely facilitated my social life, and what I learned from him is the most precious of all of the things I know-- how to be alone-- so don't worry.

  4. Yes, yes, yes! I am going to keep this and show it to people who nag me to get out and about more. Sitting and breathing quietly in a room is my default setting. Yes too, to a leader with a big brain and a small mouth.Thank you! Rachel

  5. Ellie - so, so pleased there is someone else who does not answer the telephone. It drives my family mad. Very interesting about the new introvert posing. You always tell me something fascinating every time you comment.

    Rachel - here is to sitting and breathing. And to lovely leaders with big brain and small mouths.

  6. I agree - insight over instant gratification!

    Lovely blinky eyes today, and fences & trees - still looking at the incredible sheep from your trip too. Thank you for the beautiful pictures.


  7. Robyn - can't tell you how happy I am that you like the blinky eyes.

  8. Yes, our political landscape is a total mess. The art of compromise seems to have totally vanished, and the result is political deadlock.

    I love all of the pictures of the Pigeon. She always looks so earnest.

  9. Susanb - I MISS compromise. I just think it is the thing that gets things done, even though it's not very dramatic or sexy. So glad you love the dear little Pidge. That serious face is mostly her thinking: can we please stop with the boring photographs and play with the stick now?

  10. Yes, yes, a million times yes! As an American, you've taken the words right out of my mouth concerning Obama and American politics in general. Drives me bonkers. I think about the mess our poor president has been given and think he deserves a pat on the back just for getting up in the morning and carrying on. Also, your explanation of introverts and extroverts shall promptly be sent to all my family and friends, because you see, as a college student no one can quite understand why I would rather stay in and read on a Friday night, or why at times I would much rather a dog than a boyfriend. Thank you!

    1. Danielle - SO agree about preferring dog to boyfriend. :)

  11. I wanted to compose a lengthy comment about how much I agree with every word, but have an unexpected extra person to interview, so "I agree with every word" will have to suffice. The world needs far more sitting and thinking. (I am also an introvert, if that were not obvious).

    1. Mona - hurrah for sitting and thinking.

  12. If the introverts are in the minority, you seem to have gathered quite a few here! Count me in. If my family didn't live so damn far away, I'd get rid of my phone altogether. It is rarely used. Give me a good book and a glass of wine, and I'm happy. Actually, just the book is fine too. Or skip the book and I'll be happy to sit and admire the sky. Of course, I have little kids and rarely have that opportunity these days. (Loved Helen's insights on being an introverted parent...I can relate.)

    I agree with every word about our messed-up political system. What worries me the most is that I do not see it getting any better. The days of compromise seem to be behind us, the battle lines more firmly drawn, and those of us who can see both sides of an argument or who live somewhere in the middle of the spectrum are left out of the process altogether.

  13. Yes, yes, thank you, yes. I am a new reader of this blog and have found myself saying that to my computer over and over as I have read old posts, but this is a beauty. Some of my very favorite topics; acceptance of introverts, appreciation of President Obama in a messed up system and Scotland photos! Thank you!


    1. Keira - always so lovely to find new readers. Welcome.

  14. In the interest of my blood pressure, and the enjoyment of my day off, I skipped all the political talk and got right down to my favorite part: PIDGE and THE HILL! 8-) The blinky eye!!! The blinky eye!!!!!!

    1. Marcheline - so very, very happy that you appreciate the Blinky Eye.

  15. Thanks for clearing that up (for me)!
    I always thought I was an extrovert because I can handle myself in social situations, easily talk to strangers, am interested, ask questions, listen and so on (all of which helped immensely when I worked as a journalist).
    In fact, I am very much the introvert. I really prefer my own company, can spend days at a time happily on my own and like, even love, silence. I also can ignore a ringing telephone, much to the chagrin of both husband and daughter.
    On the other hand I would have been sputtering at the television and that American "journalist" (quotation marks most deliberate). News continues to spiral downward into celebrity "gossip". Articles are actually opinion pieces. And the language...Just read a Nicholas Kristof piece about "European" being used as a derogatory word (President Obama is too European -- whatever THAT is supposed to mean!). Will stop before a full rant comes on.
    The Pigeon, as usual is glorious (yesterday's photo too).

    1. Pat - so interesting about difference between the two. I think people generally muddle up extroversion and gregariousness, or even just a bit of social ease. Also, I think it does grade a bit on a curve. There are actually official tests one can take, Briggs Myers being the most famous. So agree with you about the European as insult thing. So very, very odd.

  16. This completely hits the nail on the head. When tested I fall precisely between introverted and extroverted and tend to have relationships with introverts.

    I have a lot of time for introversion and the wonderful things it can bring. If we rephrase it all, introverts are often a lot more self sufficient and rely less on the opinions of others than extroverts - very good things.

    So I think the introvert/extrovert questions is like the silly slim/curvy fight many are interested in. Why do we have to decide that one is right? Why not see the values in both?

    Sorry - slight rant there. I really did enjoy this post!

    1. Siobhan - lovely rant. And so agree. Both have their value.

  17. Thank you for this post! Needless to say, I am introvert too. The telephone is the devil's work, rarely used out of volition. I even had a blog once, long time ago, and though I was encouraged by readers I gave it up as I found out I wasn't the sharing type I guess.
    I've never felt bad for being introvert, quite contrary, felt special in a good way, but people quite evidently miss the point as you very nicely explained.
    And being the way I am, I have not been commenting lately, even though you wrote beautifully about Kauto Star and our very own Václav Havel. But I always read, re-read and think about your writing.
    Good girl Pidgeon!

    1. Sabina - what a very lovely comment; thank you.

  18. Tania, what a wonderful post. Hurrah for us introverts!

    I am endlessly fascinated by American politics and wonder how a President is able to achieve anything in a term. It must be so frustrating. I find myself defending Obama for all the reasons you mentioned. And as for not being a good 'ol boy - thank goodness!

    Gorgeous Pidge x

    1. Em - hurrah for the dear old introverts!

  19. From one introvert to another - Tania, I LOVE YOU! Thank you for putting it all into words. Especially the bit about needing strength to deal with people. And the effort to function on the telephone. Somewhat disconcerting for Them At Work, but I figure that's their problem. I will get back to them when I can.

    Pigeon's Blinky Eyes are lovely. It's like they're quietly smiling at you (well, that's what I always think). Best scruffles and ear rubs to Herself.

    1. Erika - you are so kind. And I am SO glad you liked the special blinky eyes. They slay me.

  20. I so agree, and gave a great 'Ha!' of recognition at "My easiest and gladdest default mode is to be alone."

    I'm very cheered by Ellie's comment that introversion may be coming back into fashion; how lovely if there were a bit more quiet and thinking in the world!

    1. Claire - almost the nicest thing anyone can say about the blog is the Ha of recognition. Thank you.

  21. Rather astonished by the response to this post; I worried it was a bit long and rambly. But it has really hit a chord. Rather amazed and pleased to find so many fellow introverts out there amongst the Dear Readers.

  22. I am an introvert too!!!
    And proud of it, after reading your post.
    I adore solitude, and actually thrive on it. I am at my most creative when alone and free to follow any new shoots of ideas.
    Interacting with people, even when highly pleasant, is indeed 'a bit like writing with my left hand ...'.
    I come home from social gatherings either quite hyper (if happy and it went well) and in need of a fair amount of time to re-adjust to normal mode, or quite exausted and 'finished off' if I felt uninterested and frustrated.

    Tania, thank you, thank you, thank you for writing such a liberating post.

    I feel honoured to be in any way associated with President Obama. I always liked his thoughtfulness, his rigour and his kind demenour. As well as his polical stance.

    Missed the Pidge's presence these last few days, but feel fully restored now, after today's lovely 'squeeze'.

    Cristina :)

    1. Cristina - your description of being a bit hyper and in need of readjustment is exactly it. How interesting it is to find so many proud introverts among the Dear Readers. V touched that you missed the Pigeon. :)

  23. The Pigeon's blinky eyes photo! That alone is enough for today's column, but instead you add all that thoughtful insight. Thank you.

    The introvert comment puzzles me. True, perhaps Obama prefers not to glad-hand, but for heaven's sake, he did it just fine on the campaign trail. Could it be (gasp) that he actually believes that the important thing now is to DO his job and try to haul us out of this mess? My question is, why isn't everyone else in Congress as serious about doing theirs?

    If Obama could have overhauled Wall Street, there would be no way anyone could say he has not done everything. However, I believe he has discovered that those guys owns not only the Republicans, but way too many Democrats too. (See David Stockman's new book on 'crony capitalism.') But everything else he has done is not exactly chopped liver. As someone else said, I'm printing off this post to sharpen my answers to the idiots who say he has done nothing.

    Whew! I need an hour in your beech avenue with The Pigeon. But we had the 'extrovert' in W. I'll take 'introvert' every time, personally and politically. Thanks again for a superb post.


  24. Hear, hear!

    As an introvert, and especially as an introvert in America, I have had to work hard to throw up barriers of protection against the onslaught of extroverts, who can't imagine why I don't want to be with them all the time. And then, having protected myself, I find myself criticized for having done so, as though there were something wrong with my wanting to stay at home and limit my exposure to all that intrusion and outward busyness. You're right: they do seem to be insulted or offended. Happily, I do have a number of friends who are introverted, and, as such, are both respectful of, and supportive of, others' social limits and need to recharge and recuperate in private.

    I'm not at all surprised to find a deep vein of introversion amongst the Dear Readers, here in this little corner of cyberspace. Thank you, once again, for making this possible and for expressing your thoughts as only a true introvert can!

    Possibly my favorite line: "Could they just leave us introverts alone?"

  25. Yes. Introversion describes people who need solitude to recharge their batteries and who are drained by socialising. Extroverts think loner, serial killer, geek etc they view with suspicion introverts. We need introverts and extroverts and respect for both. (I have a particular dislike for that dreadful pest the self-confessed "people person"...)


  26. Aha - so that's why I hate the telephone!

  27. HEAR HEAR! Great post and so well written as usual. I couldn't agree with you more.

    I spent many of my formative years hearing people describe me as shy. I AM NOT SHY goddammit (sorry for shouting)! I just don't feel the need to talk all the time or to be around people all of the time. I feel lucky to be able to be so comfortable and happy with just me and my thoughts when I want or need to be. I like to think it's one of my qualities that makes me strong.

  28. i love it here. a place i can come as i am.


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