The Boy Behind The Couch

Safety in Couches

When I was in seventh grade, I got invited to my first party that wasn’t organized and supervised by a parent. The joyous festivities included a round of Spin the Bottle. I spun and it landed, just by chance, on the girl I had a crush on. Her response made it clear she did not share the sentiment.

Then the girl who did have a crush on me and who invited me spun. Someone grabbed the bottle and made sure it pointed straight at me. Perhaps the most socially awkward moment of my life up to that point. I’m pretty sure I have surpassed that on several occasions since.

There were few comfortable moments. I did not have a crush on the girl who had a crush on me. I accepted the invitation because she asked, she was a perfectly nice person and I didn’t want to hurt her feelings. So I went into it uncomfortable. Then there was Spin the Bottle. But in truth, even without Spin the Bottle I would have been excruciatingly uncomfortable. I remember that much.

What I don’t remember is the exact moment when I hit overload and I decided to crawl around behind the couch and hide, cementing my reputation forever as an absolute social stud.

I do remember — vividly remember — a girl looking over the back of the couch and saying “What are you doing?”

Fair question. I had no answer. And yes, I still remember the names of all the people mentioned thus far and a reasonable facsimile of their faces.

I knew this wasn’t normal. I knew this was not what the cool kids did. It’s one of those tragic geek stories that we try to forget. In the intervening 40 years I have never known another person who has hidden behind a couch to seek calm in a party. In retrospect it always seemed both odd, perfectly sensible and unique to me.

Then, the other day, I was listening to the audio version of Susan Cain’s wonderful book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking and I hear:

“When she arrives at a party, Sally often wishes she could hide behind the nearest couch” (p. 119 in the print edition).

My people! I had never in 40 years heard of another person who hid behind a couch. And yet this was on some level normal behavior for Susan Cain’s subjects. Sure, it was a hypothetical — Sally doesn’t actually hide behind couches. But the impulse was there.

As I listened to the book, I was surprised how strongly and how often I identified with the people and stories in this book. I can’t think of another book I have read in the last 25 years that has revealed so much to me about myself.

The Secret Introvert

It wasn’t until recently I considered myself an introvert at all. Most of my life people have said things like “You’re such an extrovert!” Yes, I am a talker. Yes I have the gift of gab (oh yes, a bad case). I’m not shy in most circumstances (let’s leave dating out of this). So I don’t fit the stereotype of an introvert.

But though being shy correlates with being an introvert, shyness and introversion are independent (30% of the chronically shy are extroverts, which strikes me as a hellish combination). An introvert need not be a shy person, but is someone who is fatigued by social situations rather than energized by them. A tired introvert is never going to think going to a party at the end of a long work week would be just the thing to recharge the soul. On the other hand, a tired extrovert is not likely to think that a quiet evening home alone with a book is the most awesome TGIF option imaginable.

When people assert that I’m a strong extrovert, I have a simple response. I point out that I worked alone, with no colleagues or clients, for twenty years. My job involved maybe an email or two a week and less than one phone call on average. I would go days without speaking to anyone other than Theresa. The life of a telecommuting paleographer and editor is not one for extroverts.

As I thought more about my behavior, I realized in recent years that I tend introvert. A friend posted on Facebook: “My idea of a bad party is one with no music where everyone is just sitting around talking,” which, for starters, more or less defines my idea of a good party.

Jeffrey, a strong introvert, responded “My idea of a bad party is a party.”

I didn’t go quite so far. I wrote “My idea of a bad party is one where there’s nothing good to read in the bathroom.” I enjoy meeting people and seeing friends. I can even sort of work the room. But I retreat to the bathroom every couple hours, independent of any physical need. After a few minutes of reading and meditation on the porcelain throne, I’m ready to go back out.

I never told anyone why I was going to the bathroom. It wasn’t a secret, it just never occurred to me to tell people and on some level it never occurred to me that other people weren’t doing the same thing, didn’t feel that need. In fact, I don’t think it was until recently it occurred to me that I was even doing it.

In talking about it after reading Quiet, I found out that even my Theresa had never noticed (nor had she deployed this particular strategy at parties). She was especially surprised to know that I to it even at the parties we host. I tend to linger on the periphery of most parties rather than taking center stage (a standard introvert strategy, by the way). So when I duck into the bathroom for a bit of reading, it usually goes unnoticed.

In Quiet, Cain profiles celebrated speakers and teachers who take refuge in the bathroom to recharge and regroup. This turns out to be a classic page in the introvert playbook. Again, these are people perceived to be great speakers and teachers, comfortable in front of a crowd. Like them, I enjoy being up in front class or giving a presentation, but at some point, I need to find some quiet to recharge.

When I take surveys designed to measure introversion, I usually answer a strong Yes. The exceptions are questions that ask about comfort talking to people. On a typical test, I would choose the introvert answer for nine out of ten questions, only answering “no” to questions like “It makes me nervous to make small talk with strangers.” Since most people consider that the one hallmark of introversion, most people see me as an extrovert.

And that’s why I never thought of myself as a strong introvert until reading Quiet.

But Cain’s subjects constantly say and do things that fall into two categories:

  • Odd things I do that I prefer not to tell people about because nobody else does them (like the bathroom break during a party). Except half the people Cain studies.
  • Things that I assumed everyone did until I realized they are classic introvert behavior (like the bathroom break during a party).

Above all, the book took me back over and over to childhood. Before reading the book, I had felt that I had become an introvert as an adult. I thought that all my years of working alone may have made me into an introvert. Quiet showed me countless behaviors that marked me as a chatterbox introvert from an early age. Over and over she quotes people saying things that have at some point come out of my mouth.

Some highlights from my life as a secret introvert:

  • I always preferred individual sports to team sports. My dad reports that when I played baseball, I sat in the outfield blowing dandelions mostly oblivious to a game that to this day defines boredom for me. When my skills got better, they moved me to third base, at which point I quit, because the only pleasure at all that I had in baseball was sitting alone in the outfield blowing dandelions. When I played third base, I had to pay attention and be part of the game, which I found onerous.
  • I had a terrifying fear of public speaking. After hundreds of presentations and many accolades for my classes and presentation, I have become much more comfortable. I even look forward to it now. But my first real public speech left me unable to eat for two days before the event. Even now, after having been told many times that I had given great presentation, my pulse quickens and my palms sweat. People constantly tell me how relaxed and confident I appear. That’s not how I feel. Ever. And by the way, in my experience, people who are truly relaxed in front of crowd tend to give poor presentations.
  • I gravitate to the periphery at parties. I recently had to go to a meet and greet for some journalists. I soon found myself at a remove from the group in an intense conversation with one person, the husband of one of the journalists. This is classic — introverts are likely to try to have one or two intense conversations at party, rather than six or eight small-talk interactions.
  • Some researchers believe introversion correlates with thin-bones (yep) and thin faces (oh yes), hayfever (check) and blue eyes (yup).
  • I always avoided study groups in school and preferred to study alone. I could never understand the idea of it. Cain profiles a student at Harvard Business School who struggles because of the pressure to join study groups even though he prefers to study alone. Thankfully, I became a historian where most of the pressure is to go into libraries and archives alone and sit your ass down and do deep work.
  • I spent a huge amount of time wandering the woods alone as a kid (but an even more time with Geoff and Billy who even at seven years old shared my love of being out in nature and Geoff at least still does). It sometimes took me hours to get home from school and I often arrived home in the dark (not that difficult in a Vermont winter). In summers, I could paddle my canoe around with my dog for hours without ever feeling bored. I once asked my mother if I was one of those kids who started complained about being bored during summer vacation. She said (forgetting about my baseball experience) “No, I don’t remember you being bored a day in your life.” Neither do I, on days I was alone. I do remember many boring days of school or baseball, but that’s another story. Discussing winning the lottery, someone once said “But wouldn’t you be bored if your didn’t have to work?” I replied “The only time in my life I ever remember being bored was at work.”
  • Though I love teaching, I at first found it the most exhausting work I had ever done. And for the record, I have worked 16-hour shifts as a slimer in the fish processing plant and 12-hour shifts raking and digging dirt as a landscaper. Even now, though I have fun in the classroom, I do need recharge time after a day in the classroom.

I could go on. It felt like every page told some story that resonated. If you are an avowed introvert or suspect you might be a secret introvert, it’s worth a read. If you don’t identify with any of this, it just might open your eyes to an entire secret, quiet, social world all around you. My sister suggested it for her reading group and work and her extrovert boss said “Now I finally understand you.” Who knows, it might help you understand someone you care about, maybe yourself.

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking

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