By the standards of today, I’m essentially a hermit living in a cave:
- I have only one close friend, my wife of 30 years.
- I spend most of my waking hours alone in my office – a windowless, converted cellar – and I love it.
- I avoid in-person interaction with people outside of a very small circle.
- I like engaging with people online.
- I bare my soul and every medical condition on this blog.
- I stalk deep thinkers on the internet, devouring dozens of articles a day.
So…what, exactly, does it mean to be an introvert in a connected society?
Does a connected life reinforce our “intro” tendencies toward isolation? Or does the internet finally give us the engagement with humanity that completes us?
This is the manifesto of a contemporary introvert, a modern-day, digitally-connected hermit.
Don’t call me, I’ll call you…maybe…but probably not
I like people.
Actually, I like the concept of people. People are awesome in the abstract. But up close and personal…that’s a different thing altogether.
I have learned, like many of my fellow introverts, how to perform well in public. When I’m with other people, I enjoy their company. But I can only take a couple hours of social contact before I want to shed my skin like a lizard, leaving behind a shell with a stuck-on smile while I make my escape.
Given the choice of socializing or staying home, staying home wins every time in a landslide.
Even before events with family, I’ll usually take my anti-anxiety supplement cocktail. 1 There’s likely some placebo effect, but it keeps me from flinching when the “glad to see you, let’s hug” session begins.
Note: Always click on these → 2 for additional, slightly off topic but still interesting stuff. Go ahead, try it.
There is undoubtedly a genetic component to my introversion, but I’m certain of what reinforced this tendency: thousands of hours of glorious aloneness on my childhood farm.
Over the years of my youth, I spent hour after hour, day after day, year after year, taking care of our small farm. I spent those hours and days by myself, and I loved it.
As I sputtered along on my tractor, tilling the soil, I was king of all I surveyed, insulated by the vast emptiness of the Snake River Plain while dreaming endlessly of heroic future exploits. My only companions were the ever-present birds, tagging along to pluck the exposed worms.3
It’s fortunate for my social skills (and sanity) that society expects us to participate, to connect, to make an effort at engagement, hard though it may be. Without this expectation, I would likely still be isolated on my tractor, figuratively speaking, put-putting my way from field to field.
Interaction in school and Scouting and sports taught me how to get along with others, but I’m not a natural. For me, “getting along” is a calculation, not an innate skill. This skill comprises thousands of small lessons, accumulated over the years until my act is hardly distinguishable from the real thing.
But it’s not a role I can play continuously. Here’s my prescription for people: in small doses and on my own terms.
Most of my capacity for human contact is taken up by the primary person in my life, my wife. Everyone else on the planet gets what’s left – which is often not much.
My “with/away from” ratio is no more than ¼ of my time in direct contact with others. For every one hour with, I need at least three hours away…and time sleeping doesn’t count. If this ratio is off for a few days, my anxiety will increase logarithmically.
The salad dressing example
As I wrote this, the idea of introversion = salad dressing kept coming to my mind. You know: oil and vinegar.
The oil (introverts) doesn’t easily mix. It must be shaken vigorously to get it to engage, so to speak, with the vinegar. Then, briefly, it’s in there, socializing and mixing it up with the lettuce.
But almost immediately, the oil begins to separate, returning to its usual place: floating above, in contact but disconnected.Introverts & extroverts are oil & vinegar: will mix if shaken, separation starts immediately. Click To Tweet
Video: The introversion cycle
5 minutes, 44 seconds | subtitles available
Here’s the over-simplified, semi-definition of introversion that I subscribe to:
Human contact drains the “social tolerance” battery of introverts, causing them to seek time alone to recharge. Being alone recharges the battery.
Conversely, for extroverts:
Being alone drains the “joy of living” battery of extroverts, causing them to seek time with others to recharge. Human contact recharges the battery.
This perfectly describes my introversion. I like this definition because it doesn’t say:
Introverts are withdrawn, extroverts are outgoing.
…which includes some level of judgment regarding which is a better way to be.
The definition I prefer also explains why most introverts perform just fine in public, to the point where no one would consider them to be withdrawn at all. It’s just the length of our ability and willingness to perform that is the issue.
No human tendency is always black or white, this or that. There is a range of intro vs. extro traits. I’d put myself here on the range:
All of our performance tricks are designed to make us appear as part of a group, because that’s what the world expects. Where does this pressure to belong come from? And how is it affected by the online world?
The tribal pressure to belong
The common perception promoted by marketing is that everyone is dying to belong – that you are not complete unless you belong to at least one close group.
The marketing message is subtle. On the surface, the message is that you (the targeted consumer) are unique. The deeper message is that you must draw your “unique” identity from membership in a select group composed of people who all own a particular product.
In other words, the deeper message is that you’re a loser if you don’t belong to the right group.
Social media amplifies this mindset:
“I’m cool because I’m doing stuff that other cool people do…just with a slightly different, quirky twist.”
For more on this, read my article: You Talk Like a Lone Wolf, But Act Like A Sheep. How to Break Away from the Herd and Achieve Your Goals.
But, of course, marketing must promote the idea of shared consumption. Can you imagine the anti-social ads that would target the introverted lifestyle?
So: the relentless pressure is to belong. And we introverts do belong…but on our own terms rather than the conditions established by the marketing industry and social media.
The online introversion challenge
Being an online personality of sorts, I can speak to the dual challenges of introversion in our connected age:
1. The online opportunities to engage, to share, to participate, to add value to other’s lives.
2. The endless opportunities to disengage by simply being an observer rather than a participant, or hiding behind a carefully-constructed avatar.
Can these challenges be reconciled? Well, they must. Because no matter how much we introverts may shy away from interaction, the truth is we still desire meaningful connections with other humans.
Humans: built to connect
I have a confession to make.
I spent many years – until quite recently – thinking that connection outside of a small circle of family was overrated and unnecessary. It was mainly a task, a skillset, as I explained earlier, that I had to master in order to function effectively in society.
I have come to realize that my thinking was wrong. It wasn’t connection per se that turned me off; it was the terms of connection that I didn’t like.
Introverts do have connection needs. We are, after all, human, and the desire/need to connect is coded into our DNA for survival purposes. But we don’t want connection at any cost; selective connection is more our style. If you are like me, then your need to belong does not trump everything else; community for the sake of community is far too superficial for our needs.4
So, what is it that I want out of connection? Speaking only for myself, I want to connect with ideas. 5 The more complex the ideas, the better. And the topic scarcely matters; I even like analysis of subjects I don’t particularly care about, such as sports. I never watch sports of any kind, but I’ll read a long article about the controversies surrounding the amateur/professional status of NCAA athletes.
[tweet] I want to connect to people’s brains, not to all that fleshy stuff surrounding their brains.
There’s just one problem with my terms of engagement, something you may have noticed: deep thinkers are not all that common in everyday life.
Thus: this blog. You might see it as an in-depth examination of different ideas, which it is. But it’s also a trap – a mind trap. It’s a way to attract deep-thinking people in order to connect with them.
(In case you’re wondering about your status: Anyone who has made it this far into a 3,000-word article is, by definition, a deep thinker.)6
Which brings me back7 to introversion in the connected age.
The online introvert
So: I seek out connection online because…
1. I can aggregate the deep thinkers and interact with them.
2. I can control that interaction much more easily than I can in person.
There aren’t many problems with number one; after all, I met you online, right? There’s virtually no limit to the places you can go, the mind adventures you can have, the in-depth conversations that are possible.
But the second item can lead to all kinds of problems.
It’s too easy to create the infamous “bubble” we keep hearing about, inside of which you breathe in only the ideas and opinions that smell right to you.
Plus, you can hide behind a semi-false persona, or disengage and drift away, avoiding genuine commitments of any kind.Introversion in the social media age is…complicated. But not impossible if you accept yourself. Click To Tweet
As I came to feel more fully alive online, I realized that I needed some guiding principles to keep myself from turning anti-social, and, perhaps, out of touch with flesh-and-blood relationships.
Thus: my manifesto.
The connected introvert’s manifesto
A manifesto is a published verbal declaration of the intentions, motives, or views of the issuer…
First: I’m unapologetic:
About wanting to be alone most of the time.
Your need to engage, as long as you respect my need to limit engagement.
The world will just have to accept:
That I am nearly complete unto myself, with only small spaces that need to be filled by others. But…
That “nearly complete” is not sufficient for a meaningful life. Online interaction can fill some of the small spaces, but not all. I must continually seek out ways to interact offline. Toward that end…
I am committed:
To using my time online to make myself a better person offline. I won’t:
- Use the Internet to create an exclusionary bubble that filters out a broad swath of my fellow humans.
- Use social media to aggrandize myself rather than connect meaningfully with others.
And when I do engage…
To add as much value as possible. I won’t take from others (their time, their attention) without giving them more in return (my knowledge, my understanding).
My past is (almost) prologue
Somewhere deep inside will forever be that boy on a tractor, tilling his way across the vastness of the internet, uncovering fresh ideas like upturned soil.
But I’ve learned that a solitary existence does not make for a fulfilling life. Every once in a while, you have to get off the tractor and talk to the birds. 8
Until next time…remember the OverExamined Life motto: Think about it. A lot. Then do something.