Sunday, March 19, 2006


I think the greatest (non-academic) article ever published is Jonathan Rauch's Caring for your introvert. An excerpt:
Extroverts are easy for introverts to understand, because extroverts spend so much of their time working out who they are in voluble, and frequently inescapable, interaction with other people. They are as inscrutable as puppy dogs. But the street does not run both ways. Extroverts have little or no grasp of introversion. They assume that company, especially their own, is always welcome. They cannot imagine why someone would need to be alone; indeed, they often take umbrage at the suggestion. As often as I have tried to explain the matter to extroverts, I have never sensed that any of them really understood. They listen for a moment and then go back to barking and yipping.

Classic. Anyway, I bring this up again because The Atlantic have just published a new interview with Rauch on the same topic. I was especially interested by the discussion of "small talk", i.e. content-free speech for the sake of socializing rather than actually saying anything worthwhile. (He notes earlier in the interview, "so little of what most people say is actually worth hearing.") I've always found that difficult. Anyway, over to Rauch:
Yeah, I marvel at Michael who can always somehow turn the conversation right over effortlessly and keep it going even when what he says is not necessarily profound or interesting. What he comes up with is perfectly tuned to the sense and flow of the conversation. But it's not words that are particularly intended to convey ideas or mean things. It's words that socialize — that simply continue the conversation. It's chit-chat. I have no gift for that. I have to think about what to say next, and sometimes I can't think fast enough and end up saying something stupid. Or sometimes I just come up dry and the conversation kind of ends for while until I can think of another topic. This is why it's work for me. It takes positive cognition on my part. I think that's probably a core introvert characteristic that you and I have in common and which can probably be distinguished from shyness per se — that small talk takes conscious effort and is very hard work. There's nothing small about small talk if you're an introvert. But we're good at big talk.



  1. I personally liked his "In Defense of Prejudice", which is one of my favorite articles ever. I'll give this new one a look.

  2. Just out of curiosity, do you see yourself in this description, Richard? I too am a philosophy student and that last paragraph is me to the 't.' When in a group setting I usually find myself completely tuning out because I honestly feel that what I am thinking about in my head is far more interesting than what those other people are saying. I really struggle with those "meaningless" conversations. I just don't know what to say.

  3. Yup. (I can cope with groups, and even a few minutes of small talk. It's just really hard work, is all. Yet, as Rauch notes, "big talk" is no problem. I'd find it much easier to talk about philosophy all day.)

    Always nice to be reminded that others share your "condition", I guess ;-)

  4. I was kind of hoping that Rauch would have given an account of what causes such behavior. While I certainly enjoy being the introvert that I am, I strongly suspect that it has a lot to do with some of the less pleasant aspects of my upbringing.

  5. 1) Introverted people are not necessarily profound people, and the motivation to be introverted is not always admirable. It is much easier to seem like a profound person if you don't say much: that sort of person can have a sort of false mystery about them, and people say “how profound he/she must be, always wrapped up in his/her dark and enigmatic thoughts.” Some introverted people are introverted just to invite this response, I think, and they can do that whether they are really profound people or not. Also, this feigned mystery is something that extroverted people can understand quite well. They are right to get annoyed about it, too, I think, and there is something admirable about always putting ones inner personality in view of other people, for other people's scrutiny and judgement; just as there is something cowardly about people who are afraid of showing themselves to others, for fear that their grand visions of themselves might not be shared by other people, and about people who will not let other people see all of them because then the other people will be able to say “This is all of him, and he is nothing more.” There is also something unattractive about people who always need to be prepared for a conversation, who are unwilling to enter into a social situation unless they know that they will demonstrate a firm grasp of the facts and not make a fool of themselves. It is a noble thing to be prepared to make a fool of oneself. So it is not always noble to be introverted.

    2) Rauch implies that socializing is not worthwhile: “…content-free speech for the sake of socializing rather than actually saying anything worthwhile” and "so little of what most people say is actually worth hearing." I think we should note here how subjective is our concept of “worthwhileness”, and how our estimate of the worth of a conversation is prejudiced if we assume that the most important thing of all is to say true things about broad topics like government and morality and knowledge etc. Presumably Rauch considers these topics worthwhile because, by engaging with them seriously, one is led to conclusions about the world that might eventually improve the lives of people in the world. There are two problems with this view. Firstly, it is not always obvious that speech about morality, government etc. is directed towards improving the lives of real people: often it is just a sort of high-minded game in which intelligent people argue simply for the sake of arguing, or inquire simply for the sake of inquiring, without much thought for making practical gains in the world filled with real people (and not only that, but sometimes such "big topics" can actually have very little chance of making any difference to anyone except the practitioners, even if the practitioners wanted to make such a difference); this sort of thing might give the participants pleasure, but it is not necessarily more purposeful or interesting than the talk of casual socialites. The second problem is that bare socializing often does improve the lives of people in the world, just by giving a thrill to the people involved. People who get no pleasure from wit or humour or quirkiness or creativity, and all the other delights that can come from idle chatter, can not be expected to appreciate this, any more than idle chatterers can be expected to appreciate the multifarious thrills of academic disputation; but the rules of pleasure are not set by philosophers, and so they should acknowledges the worth of idle chatter in the same way they acknowledge the worth of chess-playing or tennis or stamp-collecting, or any other harmless recreation that gets people out of bed in the morning.

    3) Rauch claims that introverts understand extroverts perfectly well, and in one sense he is correct: extroverts are on display more often, and so other people get more chance to work out who they are. But, judging from Raunch's piece, he has very little understanding of the relevant thing about extroverts, namely: why they want to be extroverts, and why they take pleasure in interacting with other people in such a boisterous way.

    4) Rauch shows his bias in another way. When he compares introverts to extroverts, he really compares the attractive sort of introvert with the unattractive sort of introvert, and largely ignores the rest. It is not only introverts who are irritated by the self-absorbed drivel of unapologetic ranters.

    5) Introverts, when they show their voluble side, can make really bad extroverts. For example, the introvert who has spent a long time developing an opinion on a topic on their own, such a long time that, when they come to convey it to others, they are dogmatic and boring and refuse to listen to anyone else, and because of their social inexperience are unable to see the effect they have, but labour on in the belief that their views are of transcendent importance to everyone. The great thing about blog comments is that you can do this without getting in anyone's way :)

  6. re: (3) & (4), I think Rauch was intentionally being polemical, both for humour's sake and because societal attitudes generally are so biased in favour of extroversion that a little exaggeration in the opposite direction couldn't hurt.

    5) may be true, though introversion and social imperceptiveness strike me as two largely independent traits. (It shouldn't require a great deal of social "experience" to be attuned to the reactions of others. And excessively self-obsessed people might not be improved by any amount of experience.)

    2) is mistaken. Note that the first quote is from me, not Rauch. But in any case, the point is merely that the content of idle chatter is not "worthwhile". This doesn't rule out other forms of value that such exchanges may have. (Surely you agree that small talk is valuable for its social role rather than the content of what is said?)

    1) labours under a misguided conception of introversion. You treat it as a behavioural trait, which anyone might choose to adopt or not. But introversion instead concerns the involuntary matter of whether one finds company energizing or enervating. (This trait may have typical behaviour correlates, but you shouldn't confuse the two.)

    Being "afraid of showing [oneself] to others" has nothing to do with introversion. On the contrary, I would have expected that introverts are typically more comfortable being open with their close ones. One might characterize it as a contrast between "breadth" and "depth" of sociality and self-sharing.

    Finally, your characterization of the introvert's aversion to small-talk is similarly misguided. The problem is not an obsession with being "prepared", with "a firm grasp of the facts". (How many crucial facts about the weather am I ignorant of?) The problem is simply one of thinking of something to say. Speaking fluff is a creative endeavour, and I think my second quote from Rauch highlights the admiration one must have for all the extroverts who are so talented in this respect. But again, the problem for introverts is simply that we find this hard work. What comes naturally for extroverts, for us takes "positive cognition". Fear or cowardice has nothing to do with it; it isn't an emotional "defect", it's a cognitive one.

  7. (In short, I agree that many of the things you point to are bad. I just want to deny the association with introversion.)

  8. Fair enough. If we pare down the definition of introversion like that, I can see how I am wrong; but I would rather look at the broader thing, just to see what this expanded type of introversion might contain, so I can be on guard aginst the less attractive parts.

  9. Im onclined to shy away from value judgements associated with such things.

    I would suggest being able to be extroverted when required is a good thing and doesn't deny the possibility of being introverted.

  10. Like so many other of our present culture's fixations (eg, sexual orientation, political viewpoint), Rauch's paper suffers from an absurdly Manichean world view. Most of us are NOT either introverts or extroverts, but something of both, and the precise mix changes according to social context, our objectives and our mood, and no doubt a score of other factors.

    I could stay alone in my room a thousand years, and never once have an original idea. When I want ideas, I talk to others, I watch movies, I go to conferences, bars and parties, and I am a classic extrovert. My best academic ideas have arisen in conversations or interactions with others on topics completely unrelated to my academic work.

    However, when I want to explore the detailed consequences of an idea, or to write them up, talking to others is a great hindrance. Instead, I sit alone in my room, resentful of every interruption, abrupt and disdainful of all others, eager to avoid small talk. I am thus something of an introvert AND an extrovert, and this happens every single day.

    What type of personality is it that imagines that there are only ever 2 types of people?


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