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Perspective

Social anxiety

How do you drive an introvert crazy? Friend her.

By Jennifer Graham
July 24, 2011

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I was in grade school when I failed a test for the first time. It was the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator.

Oh, sure, psychologists say there are no right or wrong answers on the personality test that determines whether you are an extrovert or an introvert. (All feelings are equally valid!) But we all know the truth, and it is this: Extroverts good, introverts bad. Nobody ever says, after some nut case shoots up a shopping mall: “We always knew there was something wrong with him. He was too outgoing. He was one of those people persons!”

No, it’s the introverts who are always the bad guys. You know us: Misfits. Loners. People without a Facebook presence.

For centuries, extroverts and introverts have successfully coexisted because they need each other, not unlike a parasite and its host. One group talks, the other listens, or at least is disinclined to interrupt. But now there is an antagonist eroding our uneasy peace. Its name is social media.

To introverts, the very idea of Twitter, Facebook, and this new thing called Google+ is atrocity laced with hubris. Let us get this straight: You want us to spend valuable time – time in which we could be reading Thomas Merton in a quiet corner of the house – bantering about ourselves on the Internet? You want us to tell other people, strangers even, what we are doing, what we are eating, wearing, thinking? And if we don’t sally forth with such gibberish, you think there is something wrong with us?

The whole thing is yet another example of how the Internet has turned millenniums-old values on their heads.

The first to go was trust. What’s in a name? Nothing anymore, at least not on the Web, where Melanie may well be Melvin, and not 40, but 62. Better the suspicions of the journalism-school grad who was taught, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”

The Internet then slew humility, the aw-shucks, why-it’s-just-a-little-ol’-Nobel attitude that for centuries had been a mark of a New Englander’s character. These days, an unwillingness to brag is thought to be a manifestation of low self-esteem, and anyone with a public school education knows what we think of that. Self-deprecate in a public school and you’ll be immediately sent to the guidance counselor. And so, for instance, my children instead spend an alarming amount of time telling their classmates why they are special (“I had waffles for breakfast!”). This skill may not help at MCAS time, but they’ll be well prepared for their first Facebook pages.

I think it was George Sheehan, the late running guru, who once said that he liked going to parties so long as no one minded if he took a book and read it in the kitchen. See, we introverts don’t mind having extroverts around; in fact, we find you kind of cute and endearing, so long as you don’t interrupt our train of thought. But social media do this, loudly, shrilly, hourly. Most of the chatter is the most banal of small talk distributed on a large scale.

One Stanford study claimed that Facebook makes everyone feel worse about their lives, such as when a “friend” you haven’t seen in 15 years shares that he’s eating lobster Newburg in Aruba while you’re swatting mosquitoes on “staycation” in the backyard. Maybe for you insecure extroverts that’s true.

But introverts, for all our bad press, are famously comfortable in our own skins. It’s why we don’t feel an urgent need to fill quiet with noise, which is, at root, what social media do. We could make a pact, like the informal one in real human interaction: You extroverts talk, we introverts nod politely. I’m OK, you’re OK, no need to go see the shrink. We could do this, except you guys insist we create (and frequently visit) a Facebook page.

“The police just recovered my car,” a friend tells me on the phone.

What? Her minivan was stolen? And she’s just telling me now, a week after the fact?

“Well, it was on my Facebook page. I assumed you saw it there.”

First we outsourced our jobs to India, then our friendships to Facebook. I just want to outsource my laundry, so there’s more room in the kitchen for me and my books.

Jennifer Graham, a writer in Hopkinton, can be found on Facebook. Once or twice a year. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.

  • July 24, 2011 cover
  • July 24, 2011 cover
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