Picture this David Sipress cartoon: two couples meet on a street corner. One of the men has placed his hands over his eyes. His female companion says: “It’s too late, Roger . . . they’ve seen us.”
This image has me chuckling each time I think about it. It brings to mind how I felt upon moving to Cincinnati in the late 1950′s, relocating from New York City when Len completed graduate studies at Columbia.
At times, what I loved most about life in that bustling metropolis was being anonymous. When I went out of my immediate neighborhood to shop or just meander, I was almost certain to meet no one I knew. Already a wife and mother, when I had time to myself, I wanted no intrusion into that private world in which I could be one of the many, but solitary and unobserved.
True, once settled in our Clifton neighborhood, I enjoyed becoming known, chatting with other parents as we strolled with our babies, or when dropping a youngster off at school. But when I ventured out alone to the grocery, or was able to escape downtown to shop, if I caught a glimpse of someone I knew (as often seemed to happen), I wanted to hide and sometimes did. I yearned to recapture my treasured anonymity.
Even in my twenties I was well aware of these feelings, so now if I wish I could disappear from view to avoid an unexpected meeting with an acquaintance, or opt out of a social meet and greet, I know it’s not simply a factor of growing older. Some suggest it is the mark of the introvert. Initially I found this hard to accept for I’m not an unfriendly sort or indifferent to the world about me. Nothing satisfies me more than a leisurely conversation with someone I’m close to, or fully engaging with people to work for a shared goal.
Friends and family offered their analysis of my wish to avoid the social whirl.
Said my daughter: “rarely does a brief chance meeting result in a conversation worth having. Just a how are you, fine, what’s new with you, in a hurry, so must dash. Mom, you just have no tolerance for being bored.”
Said my son: “”you are addicted to the work you love to do, so want to complete those other tasks life requires without distraction, so you can return to what you’d rather be doing.”
Said my friend Bob: “You take responsibility for helping to solve the problems of those who share their plight with you. By avoiding them, you avoid being pulled into their world, a self-protective move.”
But now, at long last, I’ve been given a well-researched and definitive explanation. According to Susan Cain, a former Wall Street lawyer, who is now an acclaimed author, as many as one third or more of our entire population are introverts. The premise of her book: Quiet: The Power of Introversion in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, is that the myth of the extrovert ideal (talkative, gregarious, outgoing) has dominated in the West since the early 20th Century when our culture was transformed from a culture of character to a culture of celebrity. She asserts that because the extrovert personality is seen as the most advantageous, the traits and capabilities of introverts are misunderstood and undervalued, even confused with shyness, the fear of social judgment, which it is not. Her own story of why she initially chose but then left her professional life on Wall Street, is a fascinating one.
The thesis of this book and the evidence cited may be meaningful for others who feel the way I do, always seeking to evade the requisite cordiality of the social chat, wishing to completely control our own time.
I also know well that for many, the balancing point of this push-pull of yearning for both human connection and autonomy is quite different. For them, the extroverts, I imagine even a chance encounter is seen as an opening to unknown and welcome possibilities, is energizing.
Yet, all too often for those of us who are introverts, the unplanned meeting or the mandated social gathering finds us bemoaning the fact that: “it’s too late, Roger, they’ve seen us.”