I’ve been trying to post a list of my genealogy readings on Fridays, but this week I want to share a book that is related to genealogy only by chance. I ordered Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain through Inter-Library Loan because I’m an introvert (yes, really), and being an introvert has a devastatingly negative effect on my career. Yes, really.
The first section of Quiet deals with the “Extrovert Ideal,” that is, the emphasis our society places on extroversion, and the many assumptions that follow because of this emphasis. Extroverts are seen as natural leaders. Their ideas are followed more frequently not because they’re right, but because they’re assertive and talkative. Extroverted people are seen as more attractive, more intelligent…just more. Not because of their character or anything tangible, but simply because of their outgoing nature.
Introverts, on the other hand, are negatively labeled in just about everything, and I can attest to this from personal experience. If I had a dollar for every comment my parents made to me about speaking up in public, finding a “real” job (working with the public, naturally), being more like my sister (the brilliant, beautiful, outgoing teacher and coach with an active social life and tons of friends)…
My father is a songwriter. When I was young, he traveled across the Southeastern US performing. He never made it big, but that was largely because he felt a duty to provide a more stable home for his wife and children. And so, the touring stopped, but he pursued songwriting on the side until, after retiring from his “real” job, he could again devote his life to music.
I’m a songwriter, too. Bet you didn’t know that, huh? Well, I am, but you’ll never hear me perform live, because I absolutely cannot control my innate dislike of being on the stage, and it adversely affects my ability to perform. Don’t think I haven’t tried, repeatedly, but my voice shakes, my musicality suffers, and I end up feeling humiliated and miserable. So, me being a performing musician? It just ain’t gonna happen, and that’s something my father will never understand. Do you know how hard it is to live with being such a disappointment to a man whom you adore, and knowing that you will never live up to his dreams for you?
Those of you who have met me probably think I’m pulling your leg right about now, but no, I’m not. But Dawn, you might say, you’re so friendly and personable! You did so well at that lecture! You can’t be an introvert. Well, yes, I can. I’ve learned, the hard way over a very long period of time, how to put on a public face that allows my natural kindhearted nature to surface.
But that public face comes with a heavy price. Just one half-hour trip to the grocery store can leave me huddling in my office in quiet solitude for hours afterward. After returning from my week-long trip to Samford University’s IGHR last summer, I spent weeks recovering from being in such close proximity to others, in spite of the fact that I insulated myself as much as possible by eating alone, rooming alone, and spending my evenings alone in the safe confines of my dorm room.
The whys of an introvert’s need for solitude are very difficult for extroverts to understand, in part because introversion and extroversion are tied to one’s physiology, as I learned in the second part of Ms. Cain’s book. Extroverts physically need human contact to recharge. It’s part of their hard-wiring. Introverts, on the other hand, crave the quiet comfort of their own thoughts, and this is also hard-wired. Extroverts thrive on crowds, noise, and physical challenges. Introverts enjoy intimate conversation, solitude, and a stimulating book. It’s not that the “‘twain shall never meet,” because there’s more overlap than most people realize. It’s more about how different personalities handle the same situation, and appreciating those differences rather than denigrating someone because of a quiet nature.
Genealogy is, in many ways, an ideal career for an introvert. It’s a deeply intellectual pursuit that can nearly always be pursued in solitude, particularly in the digital age. This appeals to the introvert’s need for near-constant intellectual stimulation (as opposed to the extrovert’s near-constant need for physical stimulation), as well as to the innate need for peace and quiet.
Still, my career as a genealogist requires that I come into contact with people on a frequent basis. I often use the Internet as a shield to protect myself from interaction with others, and I do very well on that front, handling business by e-mail and so forth. This is good, because I view nearly all social situations as confrontational, and I absolutely despise confrontation, but that very thing can be minimized to almost nothing by the lack of face-time.
On the other hand, I do have to be in the public eye on occasion, and not just as a speaker, something I choose to do not because I’m good at it but because I need to take advantage of every opportunity to build and promote my skills and, therefore, my business. That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy meeting researchers and discussing research problems with them. I simply prefer that discussion to be one on one and not in person. Getting up in front of a crowd and speaking about a topic I enjoy to a (usually) appreciative crowd isn’t too difficult as long as I’m prepared. By prepared, I mean that I’ve spent a large amount of time over-preparing, not just in researching the lecture’s topic and preparing the program, but also giving myself The Talk: Dawn, there’s nothing to be afraid of here. These people are just like you, interested in genealogy. It’ll be ok. Just take a deep breath, acknowledge that you’re nervous (read: scared to death), and move on. That usually works long enough for me to become so involved with the lecture that I forget I’m innately afraid of being in front of people. And, hey, at least I’m not playing a guitar and singing while I’m up there, right?
But speaking is not, unfortunately, the only time I’m placed in what I view as confrontational situations. Like it or not, a lot of research must be done in the locality where the needed records are held, and that means dealing with courthouse staff or archivists, other researchers, and, worse, lawyers and other professionals. There are times when I dread being in a stuffy, crowded records vault so much that I will actually postpone doing research. Yes, really. I’ve learned to get around this problem (and it is a problem) by setting strict deadlines for the research. If I don’t, then the research doesn’t get done because I will procrastinate out of an absolute hatred and fear of having to deal with other people face to face. Behind a computer screen, I’m fine, but face to face? Forget it.
I haven’t yet finished reading Quiet, but the sections I have read have gone a long way toward easing my mind about a part of my personality over which I have absolutely no control. I can learn how to deal with the public. To be fair, I’ve been doing that (mostly) successfully for a while now, because I’ve had to, not because I want to. But having to and wanting to really make no difference there. My public face is well in place, and very few who’ve met me suspect that I am, deep at heart, an introvert. My family and friends know, and they will all continue to worry about the amount of time I spend alone, but now I have the ammunition to tell them that, yes, really, solitude is a very healthy need for an introvert, and won’t you please quit pushing me into the public eye? I’m perfectly content alone, nestled in with a good book or a tricky research problem, thank you very much, and to me that’s far more pleasurable than, well, pretty much anything.