SHC Seminar Series: Fixing your introverted friends

“Introversion and extroversion are like ‘personality orientations,’” said student health center representative Winston Smith, “and as with all orientations, introverts can be changed into extroverts given enough therapy.” Smith went on to explain that many resources exist for students concerned about their unsociable friends. “I’m betting that a lot of you in the room right now are ex-introverts, recovering introverts,” Smith said, “rescued from a life of unnatural introversion by, perhaps, another ex-introvert. You guys have an amazing drive for converting others, but I’m also betting that you know how hard it can be to get some introverts to acknowledge they have a problem.”

Smith said that many so-called “introverts” are actually extroverts in disguise. “These people are the easiest to convince,” he said, “because they’re who they are as a result of bad experiences or lack of social skills. They know their introversion is perverse and unnatural, and they would reverse it if only they knew how. Reminding them of this big-picture goal will help them overcome their shyness when you want to take them to specific social events.” However, Smith cautioned, this strategy would backfire on the other class of introvert – those who have, to some extent, chosen their lifestyle. “You see these people a lot on college campuses,” Smith said of the latter category, “they’re often very gifted people who made a choice to resist human contact because, growing up, they found their peers stupid and uninteresting. Or perhaps they are friendly with others when necessary, but think of socializing for the sake of socializing as a waste of time compared to the ‘productive’ work they could be doing.”

For these people, extroversion is not a goal and can even be actively avoided. “It sounds harsh,” Smith said, “but what you really have to do for your introverted friends of this type requires some tough love. They will not acknowledge that their personality is unhealthy. They may say that they are content, or that ‘alone time’ recharges them. They may claim that the personal connections they make are deeper because they don’t try to maintain as many friendships and contacts. Or perhaps they might dismiss pure socialization as shallow, or ask why they should stop finding a cure for cancer to go to a party they find boring.” This type of person is happy with his lifestyle and can present many seemingly flawless arguments for why he chose it. “But we all know introversion is unhealthy,” Smith said, “a deviant behavior. About 60% of Americans are extroverts, so it’s clearly the cultural norm.”

But, since introverts often refuse to let their life be dictated by cultural norms, this healthiness argument can fall on deaf ears. Instead, the health center recommends “tough love.” “What you want to aim for is shock and discomfort,” said Smith, “as cruel as it sounds, it’s for their good and the good of society. Introversion is inherently selfish. The introvert might say that their policy of ‘I don’t bother you, you don’t bother me’ is a good one, but they forget about all you wonderful ex-introverts who think that extroversion gives you the right, even the responsibility, to meddle in the lives of others. These introverts claim to be happy, but you know that they cannot be – your hard-earned empathy and people skills allow you to know their mind better than even they do.”

Smith gave some examples of how to shock an introvert out of his comfort zone. “One big one,” Smith said, “is to remember that for an introvert, free time is absolutely sacred. If you cancel a meeting or event that the introvert would have had to attend, this will not bother him in the least. In fact, he will probably be happy that he can spend more time as he wishes. However, if you schedule or reschedule an event and give him only short notice, this will cause him no small discomfort. And of course, there’s the standard ‘drag him along to social events,’ although this strategy can be made even more effective by framing it as a sort of obligation. As an extrovert-friendly society, we realize that everyone owes their friends a certain amount of meaningless small talk and mingling. But introverts sometimes need to be reminded of this obligation, as they often see contact between two parties as something that should only happen when both parties actually want to talk to each other. With enough reminders from you, though, they might eventually begin to realize that ‘hanging out’ is a matter of simple courtesy, not something that should only be done for mutual enjoyment. True introverts can be very sensitive about the feelings of others, so guilt trips are a very effective method for convincing them to go along with your plans for them.”

The most important strategy, Smith added, is simply to remember what tricks have worked. “Again, many of you are ex-introverts and you know exactly the things that finally got you to go through the motions of being sociable. You know what arguments are the most emotionally persuasive. And most of all, remember that you have the advantage over your still-introverted friends. Their contentment and desire not to be a bother to others is weak against your repressed discomfort and annoyance at being turned into a reluctant extrovert.”

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