I am a textbook introvert. On the CatholicMatch temperament spectrum, that makes me some combination of melancholic and phlegmatic. After reading a discussion about temperaments in the forums, I read a few books and articles on introversion. I began to see just how misunderstood I’d been for most of my life — particularly when dating.
The most fundamental separation between introverts and extroverts is how they gain energy, feel most comfortable and creative and are best able to concentrate. Extroverts fulfill all those needs through interactions with others. They are the ones who are upbeat and outgoing, embracing a wide circle of friends and acquaintances. Introverts, on the other hand, tend to have a small circle friends who are much closer than, and distinct from, their acquaintances. Introverts gain energy in quiet spaces, preferably in a state of contemplation and intense concentration. The introverts among us are the artists, writers, researchers and mathematicians who need solitude to work.
I found out that there aren’t many of us. Introverts make up only about 25 to 30 percent of the population. That means the dominant personality values its own qualities: social, bubbly, loud, high-spirited.
The problems start when one temperament doesn’t understand the other. And I find that while many introverts understand the extrovert, simply because it’s the prevailing temperament, the reverse is not always true. Here are a few of the misunderstandings about the introvert:
- Myth: Introverts are shy. This appears to be true to some extent because they are often the wallflowers who decline invitations to get into the mix.
- Reality: Introverts often prefer to be the detached observer. I find people-watching fascinating, so while it may appear that I’m gazing at the crowd like a lonely outcast, I’m actually having a great time.
- Myth: Introverts are anti-social.
- Reality: Introverts are hesitant to engage in needless social interaction. Some don’t like small talk and prefer to tackle subjects with depth and meaning. Others simply prefer their internal world to trivial talk. If you’ve ever been chatting casually with someone whose eyes are glazed over, it’s likely that you’re talking to an introvert who would rather discuss 19th-century aesthetics or the future of new media.
- Myth: Introverts are daydreamers who can’t handle reality.
- Reality: Introverts understand the usefulness of their own imagination.
One of my dearest friends gave me a compliment that I treasure. She said, “You live in the world of ideas.” Our imaginations can be used to solve problems, be creative, explore possibilities and — perhaps most importantly — empathize with others.
Troubles with men
One way all of these myths affected me was in my dating experiences. Over the years, I’ve heard “Why so quiet?” and, “Are you upset? Something must be wrong if you’re not talking.” I have never understood that correlation.
I’ve also heard things akin to ”Where are you?” “What are you thinking?” and the occasional (and infuriating) “What’s going on in that pretty little head of yours?”
“What are you thinking?” has become a loaded question for me. I figured out, through trial and error, that if I talked about what I was actually thinking, most people would lose interest or not understand or think I was crazy. I was right about that most of the time.
When I did respond, I’d hear things like, “Why would you think about that?” with an almost accusing tone. Sometimes it was simply, “That’s…interesting”, accompanying a blank stare and a moment of dead silence.
My personal favorite: A man I was seeing was always inquiring about my thoughts because he claimed I was the smartest person he knew. So I told him.
His response? “You think too much. You’re overthinking things. You need to get out of your head.” First, excuse me? Second, thinking too much? How else does one become the smartest person you know?
Here are three perfect examples of how my introversion led to dating disasters:
1. On a first date, we cozied up with a bottle of red in a bar. We were in a booth next to a window that overlooked the busy streets and it was pouring rain. People were ducking and darting everywhere in a rushed panic. I began to wonder what would make them slow down instead of speed up. The property of the rain itself would have to be different.
So when he asked, “What’s on your mind? You look deep in thought.” I blurted out, “What if it, like, drooled instead of rain? I mean, what if rain was the consistency of drool, or something more…gelatinous?”
His reply: “Ew! What’s wrong with you? That’s disgusting!” I tried to explain that I didn’t mean actual saliva, rife with germs. But he’d already mentally packed up his toys and went home. We drained that bottle of red quickly! And if it wasn’t obvious, he never called.
2. Another date, another guy: We went to a bar after seeing a concert, where he asked what I thought of it. My critique was that the band was a watered-down version of themselves. I likened it to Baudrillard’s simulacra — at which point I was interrupted by the slam of his pint of beer onto the bar. He yelled, “I don’t want to know about any simulacra!” and prompted departed to the men’s room. I still have no idea what warranted such hostility.
3. And my all-time favorite: We’d had a great time at the Metropolitan museum, followed by dinner at a local Italian place. I ordered the potato gnocchi. It was so delicious, and I was marveling at the incredible versatility of potatoes…and then he asked it.
I said, “Don’t you think potatoes are, like, the Meryl Streep of the root vegetable kingdom?”
His face lost all evidence of joy and he glowered at me, “No. I don’t.” He didn’t speak to me unless it was practical information, like how I was getting home.
So when it became a pattern for all my dates, I concluded that something was wrong with me, not them. I’d also concluded that “What are you thinking?” is the equivalent to “How are you?” It’s small talk, a social nicety. People want simple answers; they really don’t care about innermost thoughts.
Other patterns I’d come to see as issues in my relationships centered around the introvert/extrovert clash.
A big point of contention is the introvert’s need for quiet and stillness. Unless I’m actively engaged in listening, I can’t stand having music on as background noise. I don’t own a TV – which is often a deal-breaker in itself – but if I did, I would never have it on just for the sake of sound. I cannot tolerate the extra stimulus; to me, it’s distracting and irritating.
Also, if I was really honest about where I wanted to go on dates, it caused problems. My staunch refusal to go to loud bars or nightclubs, and my disdain for huge, raucous parties, crowds, chaos and noise was met with hostile resistance or utter confusion. So I often conceded, and within an hour, I would suffer from sensory overload. I needed days of solitude to recover!
Once I was past dating and into a serious long-term relationship my beaus never understood that need for solitude. They’d taken it as some kind of alienating, passive-aggressive mixed-signal thing.
I just need time alone to regain energy, refocus myself and preserve my spiritual core. It has nothing to do with the other person. But it had become a grave misunderstanding many times.
My marriage was a prime example of this clash of temperaments. In our home, the TV was always on, a radio always played in another room. There was a constant stream of family or friends visiting; our guest bedroom was never empty. A bottle of wine was always open; food was always on the table, and the sounds of chatter and laughter was constant. Even our wedding night was accompanied by 15 other people!
As much as I loved my ex-husband and his crew – and still do, as close friends – I don’t think we spent more than a few days alone during our entire marriage. It was an extrovert’s dream.
Meanwhile, I was constantly having to answer, “Why are you so quiet? What’s wrong?” My need for solitude drove me to take up long-distance running. My marriage ended with me still gravely misunderstood but in the best shape of my life.
The most important thing I learned while reading about this clash of temperaments was I shouldn’t have taken any of the negative reactions personally. It was simply a failure to understand a different temperament, not a criticism of me as a person. After years of feeling misunderstood, I am finally comfortable in my selectively quiet, still self.
I now know that the friends to seek out, and the man to hold onto, are the ones who are comfortable with my silence and are also genuinely interested when I want to talk – and perhaps, God willing, even have a real conversation with me.
On the very first phone conversation I had with someone new – an artist – I asserted that brussels sprouts should always be BFFs with fennel. He didn’t agree, but he fully understood what I meant.
On our first date, I re-told the rain/drool story, and he replied, “See, I think that’s a very cool thought.”
Could it be? Here’s hoping!