Saturday, July 21, 2012

Throw a non-sequitur grenade, or social strategies for introverts

The other day at the Center For Inquiry Austin non-fiction book club we discussed Susan Cain's "Quiet: The Power of Introverts". All the 8 people in the room self-identified as introverts. We told personal stories of extreme social avoidance (one person, as a teenager, asked his/her parents to turn down an invitation to a school dance on his/her behalf), and debated whether Neil DeGrasse Tyson is a rare example of an extroverted scientist, or if he only acts as an extrovert as a public figure. We also discussed how the workplace and the rest of the society can be hostile to introverts -- that's one of the points the book brings up. "Open" office plans, a.k.a cubicle farms, don't so much facilitate collaboration, as keep introverts from getting work done; in brainstorming exercises, the most dominant person's ideas usually get pushed through, no matter their quality, and the quieter people's ideas not heard; and we won't even mention the horror of various "professional development" and "team building" events, which, as several members attested, did absolutely nothing for their professional growth.

(Myself, I was lucky enough to get exposed to a team-building event just once. It was lead by a motivational speaker who made us play little games -- the bane of introverts -- the purpose of which was to demonstrate some simple and obvious idea. For example: write your name 5 times with your dominant hand. Now write it 5 times with your non-dominant hand. Did it take you much longer? Does it look like chicken-scratch? See, it shows that it's easier and faster to do things you're naturally good at, and much harder to do things you're not good at!

I started out with an open mind. I considered that all those games and exercises, all the platitudes they were designed to express, might add up to some genuine insight. But I lost hope for any such revelation, when I saw the speaker struggling to explain the concepts of "form" and "content". Apparently she thought that we -- a group of programmers and other technical people, who earn their daily bread from abstract thinking -- didn't already know these concepts. Moreover, she thought we would find them hard to understand without a concrete object analogy. So she looked around with urgency in her eyes, grabbed a cup from the table, and raised it, saying: "Form is like this cup, and content is like the water in the cup." After that, I pretty much tuned her out.)

CFI Austin non-fiction book club CFI Austin non-fiction book club. More pictures from CFI Austin can be found in my photo gallery.

But back to the discussion.

We also touched upon the appeal of cults, and (at the risk of making it sound like an extrovert hate fest) speculated about how much stock market crash can be indirectly blamed on extroverts, their irrational confidence making investors believe that this market bubble was different. The discussion often deviated from the book (which is just as well, because I haven't read it), but this was one area where everybody in the room had personal experience with, and sharing that personal experience was even better than discussing the book.

Since ~ 75% of society are extroverts, most social conversations flow in such a way that people don't stick to any one topic for more than a few sentences, touching it superficially, and moving on to another topic by association, not because it logically follows. For an introvert, who think *before* they speak, and speak only when they have something to contribute, such a conversation becomes meaningless. By the time they are ready to share their well thought-out point, the conversation would have moved on. So, are there any strategies for an introvert to make social interactions more self-friendly? Some people suggested to interject a complete non-sequitur. Like a grenade, it will cause some chaos in the conversation: "Huh? What did she just say?" And then the introvert can make a point they're trying to make.