Photo: Four introverts in far more public eye than I’ll ever be. Clockwise from top left: Marlon Brando, photo Carl Van Vechten, public domain; Lady Gaga, photo Gabrisagacre14 via wikimedia.org, CC BY-SA 4.0; Jimi Hendrix, photo A. Vente via Beeld en Geluidwiki, CC BY-SA 3.0 NL; Greta Garbo, photo MGM (work for hire), public domain.
I told the story, a while back, of how I survive conferences, given that I’m an introvert and don’t particularly like putting myself out there. Quite a few people told me they were surprised to learn I consider myself introverted. In part, this reflects decades of practice at pretending otherwise, at least when professionally and socially necessary. But it occurs to me that there’s another reason people might be surprised: I blog (obviously), and that means every week, I put myself out there by posting an opinion for all to read. Why, one might quite reasonably ask, would an introvert do that?
I’m not quite sure of the answer. There’s a kind of arrogance to blogging, to the belief that I should post my quite-possibly-trivial thoughts so the whole world can have the supposed benefit. This seems to stand in tension with my tendency to withdraw from other interactions with people. It certainly stands in tension with my dislike of criticism and interpersonal conflict coupled with my rather healthy imposter syndrome. Bizarrely, whenever a post starts to get a lot of views, I get an uncomfortable sinking feeling in my stomach. “Bizarrely”, I say, because it’s hard to figure out what point there would be in writing a blog that nobody ever read, so surely I should welcome readership. Intellectually, I do. But emotionally, it’s hard not to dread the (suspected) coming criticism – a little bit for posts that are somewhat personal (like An Introvert Goes Conferencing), and a lot for posts where I anticipate controversy (like my musings on calculus in our curriculum or on the optimal distribution of grant funding). Both the calculus post and the grant funding post generated a few nasty comments (on Twitter as much as in the actual Replies)*. One cutting comment makes my stomach churn and takes me down further than a dozen positive ones bring me up (which I gather is a common reaction among introverts). And yet I court those cutting comments by posting ideas and standing more or less behind them. Why?
All I can figure is that it’s a lot like my enjoyment of teaching. One might think that as an introvert I’d be uncomfortable at the front of a classroom, shrinking behind the podium and muttering into my notes. But I’m not like that at all; I have fun up there. Over the years I’ve wondered about this and I’ve decided the classroom gives me permission to pretend to be an extrovert, and to pretend this in a very safe space. Teaching seems emotionally safe because as a faculty member in front of undergraduates I have an assumed authority that saves me from the fear of social interactions on a level playing field. In blogging I don’t have that, but I do have the social-media advantage of speaking from the comfort of my own desk, where other people are abstractions rather than corporeal beings I can actually see or hear**. I can, in principle, even refrain from reading the comments and thus pretend my audience doesn’t exist at all***.
The occasional pretense of extroversion is something I think I have in common with a lot of other introverts, and not just in academia. Greta Garbo dazzled on the silver screen, but when the cameras were off, she just wanted to be left alone. I’m no Garbo; but I’ve come to understand both sides of her.
© Stephen Heard (firstname.lastname@example.org) August 8, 2016
*^To be clear: nothing remotely approaching the cesspool of online vitriol that often seems to hit women, Muslims, politicians, LGBTQ folk, and so on. Just the odd ad hominem attack and accusations of “lazy thinking”. (That accusation is quite ironic coming in a 140-character tweet in response to a 1500-word blog post with citations and a graphical model. You’d think the irony would make me feel better, but it doesn’t much.) Of course, I get honest disagreement and constructive criticism, too. Those I actually enjoy; I learn from them and I suspect readers do too. Keep those criticisms coming.
**^This very same privacy enables the online vitriol that’s the dark side of the internet. There’s an irony here: what helps the shy and the marginalized participate is the very thing permitting the bad behaviour that may drive them right back offline. This is a bigger problem than I can solve today.
***^Except that I can’t help myself, and I’m actually quite glad, because the vast majority of comments on Scientist Sees Squirrel are fun or interesting or enlightening or all three of those. Keep your comments coming; they make my blog a better place. Just maybe refrain from character assassination. Meanwhile, the notion that I could ignore the comments if I wanted to seems to help.