On Various Verts

“Likes good things, dislikes bad things. Not here for hookups despite my incredibly suggestive pictures. ESFP.”

So goes the majority of personal blurbs on any online dating service. If I were a different person entirely, this would be where I’d begin recounting a recent date, carefully disguising the identity of someone who didn’t consent to be written about by changing a letter in their first name. It was nice to meet you, Lundsay. Alternately, this might be the beginning of one of those “hilarious” suggestions of a new name for such a service, along with descriptions of the types of people they might specifically try to attract. Alas, no. Instead, I’m hung up on those four letters at the end. 

It is an interesting ploy, leading with a supposedly objective, scientific classification of your personality.    Sometimes this is done with Myers-Briggs, sometimes with various formulations of “introvert” and “extrovert”, lately expanded to include “extroverted introvert,” “introverted extrovert,” “desiccated coconut,” and so on. To define yourself in this way is an attempt at setting others’ expectations appropriately, and to subtly suggest that any conflicts arising as a result of this predisposition should resolve themselves by other people realizing that’s just who you are. But is this wise?

I stood up from a restaurant table recently during a meal with some friends, and attempted to make my way to the restroom. I was immediately met with loud protests from the group, who assumed I was attempting to sneak home unnoticed. I explained I wouldn’t do that, as it would involve sticking them with my share of the check, but someone quickly jumped in with the suggestion that “if Thom has decided he’s done for the night, he’d probably just pay the whole tab rather than stay until the end.” This was useful as everyone laughed and allowed me to escape to the bathroom, but I couldn’t escape the realization that I had, in fact, done exactly that in the past. I’m quite bad at people, it turns out - selfishness and cowardice combine to produce many ungraceful social interactions, the occasional Irish Goodbye being one of the less harmful examples. 

Many others are, thankfully, much better at people than I am, and as the introvert/extrovert debate rightly points out, some tend toward the opposite extreme and self destruct during any periods of silence. Anyone who has gathered together with friends or families for an extended period of time in the last few years has seen the way we now handle troughs in the conversation by collectively disappearing into our devices for a few minutes. Certain people can’t handle this, and use those moments as an opportunity to read their social media feeds aloud as though the rest of us are interested, often providing an unsettling window into the things they find amusing. The more outgoing have the upper hand in this situation, as my reticence to start a conversation is neatly complimented by my ability to ignore them.

I’ve participated in exactly one Myers Briggs exercise, one of those formal work training days where a dozen colleagues find an excuse to get out of the office together for a few hours. After listening to presentations and completing questionnaires, we were split into groups across the room, introverts and extroverts divided like boys and girls at a junior high dance, or virgins and popular kids at a high school one. After we were settled in our teams, the facilitator asked if anyone had done this before, and something important came to light. A friend in the “extrovert” corner, who those of us who had been around a while knew as someone who didn’t feel especially comfortable around people, but had worked like hell to become good at it to further their career, noted that in a previous course she had been called an introvert. The instructor had a minor mental breakdown, explaining that these are scientifically proven unalterable personality traits. They must have done it wrong the first time.

This is the flaw in the -vert divide, and is why I wish we would stop using the terms altogether. It’s not that I don’t believe we have such predispositions. But classifying them in the way we do hurts all parties involved. When my inept social skills cause me difficulty, I need two things: hope that I can improve to attain a better outcome in future, and encouragement to work at this. Diagnosis as an introvert, as though I have some genetic malfunction, both condemns me to a life of embarrassingly bad interactions with others and relieves me of responsibility for this. Is there a more hopeless place to be? Those impacted by the social failures of others are also not well served by this silly psychologizing. The mental muscle we all need to exercise to hold together a society full of other broken, frail humans is not a bland tolerance which pretends we’re not broken or frail. We only help our fellow creatures move forward by providing the kind of relational safety in which boundless patience and strong admonition to change can work together for good.

I’m bad at people. And you might be bad at silence. We both need to know that we can change, we should change, and we’re loved. Diagnosis a-verted.