Being Introverted and Female
It Can Feel A Little Freakish
I have two teenagers, both of whom have inherited my introverted temperament. As I watch them navigate the demands of a suburban high school, I’m often struck by how particular those demands are for us less boisterous, more pensive types. As Susan Cain noted in her book on introversion, Quiet, public school is extrovert territory. It rewards the students whose hands shoot up first to offer an opinion while their introverted classmates sit in silence, mental gears grinding, considering whether an answer actually has merit before daring to say it out loud.
As introverts, both my son and my daughter are coping with their school’s emphasis on team-building, group projects, and the catchphrase du jour, “collaborative learning.” (In theory, partnering with other students on history reports and even math equations teaches “problem-solving”. In reality, my kids have learned one thing from groupwork: that the world is comprised of slackers and those who, through no fault of their own, are forced to pick up the slack.) Both my son and my daughter are learning how to get by in classrooms where “participation” — i.e., talking — counts for a substantial part of their grade. Both my son and my daughter are struggling to balance the need for “extra-curriculars” for college admissions purposes with their own personal, sometimes dire need to come home straight after school to the solitude of their rooms, where they can recharge their batteries after seven-plus hours of noise, crowded hallways, and forced interactions.
In short, both my son and my daughter face challenges specific to introverts. But my daughter faces additional challenges — almost always on the social front, and almost always because she’s not only introverted, but female. I know what she’s going through because I observe it. More to the point, being a female introvert, I’ve been through it myself.
All introverts, I suspect, are occasionally misunderstood. Our quieter natures lead extroverts to sometimes misconstrue us as “remote”, “spacey”, or — perhaps the most dreaded adjective in the Age of the Selfie — “shy”. Still, while both my kids are introverts, at least my son has gender stereotypes that work to his advantage. Sure, male introverts who need to distance themselves from the pack are called “loners” — a term which once carried some mystique but now is forever associated with school shooters. Yet male introverts are also labeled “independent” or “thoughtful”(think Barack Obama). Their reticence is often interpreted as admirable masculine stoicism, the “strong, silent type”. Or, it’s taken as potent efficacy: while others talk, the “man of few words” takes care of business. And if he’s intelligent, a guy’s quietness is easily chalked up to eggheadish-ness; like Einstein, he “lives in his head”.
In contrast, a reserved female tends to be considered kind of a dud. My daughter is an introvert in a world that often stereotypes femininity as being talky and emotive. While she concentrates on a few deep, meaningful friendships, the ideal is still the “social butterfly” who casts a wide net and reels people in with her outgoing charm. And while she’s slower to warm and reveal herself to people, she finds a lot of girls to be uninhibited gabbers, ready to spill their guts to anyone willing to listen. It’s no surprise that my sardonic, non-giggly daughter once overheard two boys describing her as “weird”. But before your heart bleeds for her, let me share what she told me when I asked her if this upset her: “Mom, please. Ninety percent of the guys my age are jackasses. It’s no big deal.”
So it’s not the boys that are the problem for her. It’s the girls. And the problem is not that any girls are being purposefully cruel to her. Not at all. The problem — or challenge, rather — is that my daughter is becoming aware that, as an introvert, she’s wired differently than most girls. While her female peers send each other non-stop text messages and Instagrams, my daughter is more circumspect in what she chooses to share. While other girls seem to live in a group — talking together, hanging together — my daughter favors one-on-one connections. And while other girls get energized by socializing, there’s only so much interaction my daughter can take before she drains. After time with friends, she needs to withdraw for awhile and retreat to her own space to rejuvenate.
“It’s not that I feel like I’m being excluded,” my daughter once confided. “It’s just that sometimes I don’t feel very . . . feminine.”
Yep. I remember being her age, sitting at the cafeteria table in relative silence while it seemed all my female peers were gossiping and laughing at peak volume. I was baffled by the girls that unloaded their feelings and spoke their minds with such ease, envious of the almost instant intimacy that seemed to spring up between them.
It took awhile to get to know me. As a teen, I never considered that a disadvantage until, one day, I was shocked to learn that some female classmates thought I was “stuck up.” I knew I talked less because I was reserved. They thought it was because I was cold. But I wasn’t cold! Like any teen, I was brimming with feelings, mostly contradictory — loving one minute, hating the next, sometimes both at once. It is any wonder that I — like a lot of nerd girls — read and re-read Jane Eyre throughout my adolescence? Jane, like me, was quiet on the outside. But on the inside? She was all torrid passion.
Even today, I wonder whether being introverted doesn’t make me an outlier among adult women. While I require a degree of intimacy before discussing my personal life, I find a lot of women quick to divulge their conflicts with their kids and/or significant others, not to mention all the hairy (no pun intended) details of their sex lives. I find coffee klatches to be so much caffeinated blabbering, dozens of conversations tangling up in one another. I much prefer joining just a friend or two for a cup and following a single line of conversation at a time. And, just like when I was a teen, the occasional female still mistakes my reserve for snootiness, as I discovered when I learned a female co-worker had, unbeknownst to me, dubbed me the “Ice Princess.”
What really sets me apart from my gender is that I just don’t seem to require or crave the sheer quantity of social interaction that most women do. I observe my friends abuzz in the daily ping-pong of emails, text messages and calls, constantly apprising each other of What’s Happening. As for me, if I have occasion to speak to someone for the second time in a day, my first thought is: Didn’t I just talk to you?
So what’s my advice to my daughter? How does Jane Eyre get by in an Oprah world?
I tell my daughter to embrace her own nature — not an easy thing to do in an age where technology promotes the shrinking of our privacy at the expense of “sharing”. What she lacks in talkiness, she makes up for in thoughtfulness and creativity. And while she may have fewer friendships, they tend to be richer and more satisfying — the kind that stick.
At the same time, I tell her she needs to make regular forays from her quiet, chillaxed comfort zone. So many female friendships, introverted or extroverted, are built on mutual need and support. But if you’re wired to need less conversation and less interaction, some women may take this to mean you simply need them less. From your reserve, they may mistakenly conclude that you aren’t, for example, interested in confiding your insecurities to them, or in listening to their problems. They may take your self-containment as a sign that you don’t value their friendship and company.
So meet other girls halfway, I tell her. You don’t have to text them until your thumbs are arthritic, or force yourself to stay at their parties until your head is throbbing. But you do have to get in the habit of calling and meeting, reaching out and checking in — sometimes even on those days when you’d rather just curl up at home with a good book. You don’t have to be an extrovert. You just have to speak their language every now and again — at least if you want to develop friendships with people who are different than yourself, which is something I highly recommend.
I tell my daughter all this. Then I remind myself that I should really try harder to follow my own advice. And I will! Really! Just as soon as I finish this book . . .