Friday, August 24, 2012

Please Shut Up. ...What? We Said Please!

Giving a book talk to a group of parents. There's a
good chance I was inappropriate.
The most frequent question we receive is "What's wrong with you?"  Number two: "Is there a diagnosis for what you have?"  But third is "Why don't you do stand-up?"  (Yeah, we know; we think it's a stretch too.)  We regularly give presentations for work, and let's just say that our default presentation style is irreverent.  Funny presentations keep people engaged, and humor is a resource to draw upon when we're nervous.  When both of us worked for Random House (and before Gianna abandoned me), we gave book talks to the staff at BookPeople, two in one day.  For an hour we'd talk books and Gianna might pelvic thrust when talking about skiing and I'd quote Celine Dion songs, and then two hours later we'd do it all again for a second group of booksellers.  What most people didn't see was the break in between the presentations.

Another question we're asked (or at least I, Liz, am asked) is "How could you stand to travel together?"  We used to drive to Mississippi for work several times each year, basically spending a week on the road in almost constant contact during waking hours.  We would also drive to Amarillo and Oklahoma together.  We once called the Dr. Laura show to ask how anyone could be married to that woman.  We absolutely will  turn around and drive four miles back in order to take pictures at the giant Jesus shrine.

Here's the thing, though: we are introverts.  This is why we aren't stand-up comics.  This is why we find quiet spots to recover in between presentations.  This is why we can ride together for hours in the car--we sometimes don't speak for hours and that's perfectly fine.  Yes, our jobs involve social interactions and presentations, sometimes in front of large groups, which we can perform and even enjoy, but we also work from home and spend many hours alone.  For me, those alone periods--whether at my desk or traveling--are when I am able to think about projects and focus on my goals.  I've known my whole life that I need this time to concentrate without distraction.  I am a huge fan of the long soak in the bathtub.  I do my best thinking there.  Nothing makes me crazier than crowded rooms with multiple voices talking over each other, like at airports or parties.

Quiet author Susan Cain
speaking at a TED conference.
I have never questioned my introversion, as it's just who I am, but this is a world designed for extroverts.  For that reason, I found Susan Cain's book Quiet to be a valuable read, and one that I can't get out of my head.  Gianna read it earlier in the year, and she too is a fan, calling it "an instant classic."  Cain, herself an introvert who gives speeches to companies but still feels the twinges of stage fright, manages to present the world of introverts in an illuminating and practical manner.  Throughout the book I felt like she was talking about me.  If you were to ask any of my college professors, you would learn that I hated to speak in class--so much so that one actually applauded when I spoke up for the first time during the second-to-last week of the semester.  I know that I communicate better in writing.  Eleven people are coming over to my house tomorrow night, most of them my closest friends...and that's still a strain for me since they will be in my safe space and I am uncomfortable in groups of more than about four people.  Sales conference is my definition of torture: going from an airplane to a conference of nonstop large group interaction during all waking hours for days on end.  It's the price I pay to be able to spend the rest of my work life designing my own style to best sell Random House books.

Introvert.  No, really.
What Cain does so brilliantly in her book is that she captures the world of the introvert without placing judgment, and shows how introverts thrive, even in extrovert-designed environments.  For introverts, it's a read that provides permission to find ways to exist in our bubbles but still stretch the boundaries of those bubbles.  For extroverts, it offers insights into how introverts best function, because I guarantee that everyone reading this post knows some introverts, even if closeted ones.  People who only see the public performance version of me might question my declared introversion; I can be loud and assertive and I play up my awkwardness for laughs. Last February, I was asked to sit on a panel at the Random House sales conference and speak in front of several hundred colleagues (including the Random House CEO).  I knew what I needed to say, and even had the encouragement of one of the high ranking bosses to be funny.  I was the second person in line to speak, and according to another of the bosses, I looked "petrified" as the first person was presenting, but then I just "flipped the switch into performance mode."  That's sort of what happened, except that I wasn't so much petrified as uncomfortable being observed while not actually speaking.  I wasn't in performance mode until I was actually speaking, and that boss noticed that I wasn't the smart ass in that space before my turn.  I can fake extrovert when called upon, but given the choice I want to go unnoticed in the back of the room.

Introvert. And hero.
How do I want to spend my Friday nights?  I want to stay home and read, and occasionally I may want to play board games with a small number of friends.  I describe my life as monastic, and that's comfortable for me.  Susan Cain's Quiet is a battle cry for all of the book nerds out there, and the people who like to stay in and watch movies instead of going to a club, and the people who hate the open office layouts and long for walls, and the people who feel overwhelmed in the midst of lots of activity or noise.  It's a book for the sensitive (in the psychological sense, "sensitive" refers to people who are more easily stimulated, so they tend to be moved more by works of art and are more likely overstimulated by chaos) and empathetic.  It's an explanation of how we can go from Gianna sitting in my lap at a staff presentation and fake kissing me to both of us sitting in corners and not speaking right after the booksellers leave.  Most of all, Quiet is a liberation book for all of the quiet kids who are content to play by themselves, and the adults those kids become.  Introversion isn't a pathology, it's just a different personality type, and without introverts this world would be a psychopathic and self-destructive mess.  Bless us, both intro- and extroverts, for making the world a varied place.  Let me find peace in my national parks and I'll let you attend your concerts.

But it's never okay when Gianna sits in my lap.  Never.

Are you an introvert? 


  1. All true. When I go home at night, I am exhausted from being nice. Really I just want to read and chill out. And I don't want to have to pretend to like you. I'm definitely a fake extrovert.

  2. I liked this book so much, perhaps because it was so self-justifying! I tested in high school as just-on-the-introvert-side of the great E-I divide of Meyers Briggs and have become far more introverted as I've aged--because I've become more comfortable with who I am. Yay, introverts!