Why Social Situations Exhaust Introverts: A Programmer’s Take

I’m going to apologize in advance if this winds up being a long post, but it’s a topic that requires a great deal of introspection and I find that attempting to explain myself is one of the hardest things to abbreviate. Over the years, I’ve read a bit about the topic of introversion versus extroversion and, being in an industry in which introversion is often assumed, I’ve also seen a number of memes about it. This one is probably my favorite, if for no other reason than seeing the poor introvert hissing like a cat at some invasive extrovert. This comic provides a memorable graphical explanation of what other sources such as wikipedia explain more dryly: that extroverts draw energy from social interactions and that introverts spend or use up energy during those same interactions.

On the whole, I find this explanation pretty satisfying as it more or less explains my life and experience. I’m the classic example of “not all introverts are shy or socially awkward.” I am competent in social situations and even fine with things like public speaking — it’s just that, after a long evening of spending time with people, I tend to get home and think, “wow, finally…” I’m not a huge fan of the vague and sort of hand-wavy idea of “mental energy” and it seems likely to me that there’s a more concrete physiological explanation involving adrenaline and dopamine or something, but the effect on me, personally, is undeniable.

The thing I’d like to explore is how and why these interactions are taxing to me. Maybe you’ll find that my explanation resonates with you. Maybe I’m just a lone weirdo.

Control and the Unknown

I have a memory that’s simultaneously very specific and very vague. The vague parts are that I was some age or another, probably in junior high, and that I had a crush on a girl, but honestly don’t remember which one. Assuming I’m right about the age, it probably varied weekly. But what I remember with incredible clarity was sitting alone in my bedroom, staring at the phone, and contemplating calling this girl to ask her to go to a movie with me or something. I really wanted to do this. If it had gone well, I would have been in junior high hog-heaven, and if it had gone poorly, I’m sure I would have recovered from the embarrassment in relatively short order, but I just sat there, analyzing, brain churning furiously. I’d pick up the phone and start to dial and then hang up. I’d think. Go through the conversation in my head. Rehearse what I’d say. Anticipate her response. Rehearse my response to what I imagined her response to be. Etc, ad nauseum.

Man, I’m tired just thinking about it, and that’s probably why I remember it. I never called the girl, which is probably why I don’t remember who she was (and I think I might have gone through this exercise with more than one), but young, introverted Erik was exhausted by a social situation that never even actually happened. Imagine how exhausting the phone call would been had I summoned up the intestinal fortitude to go through with it.

I’ll come back to that in a moment, but first I’d like to talk about how much I dislike conversations about the weather on a variety of levels. When talking about the weather, there are three possible categories of conversation: trite, tactical, and pseudo-religious. The first category is barely worth mentioning in that it is the “hot enough for you?” nervous drivel that serves as an awkward social lubricant in situations where people feel the need to make small talk and no alcohol is present. The second kind of conversation is planning that revolves around the weather such as “we should maybe reschedule our picnic for tomorrow because it seems like it’s going to rain.” The third category is the kind of long-ranging predictions about the weather that people tend to engage in knowing tones for the sake of having opinions: “well, after this brutal winter, we’re probably going to be in for a mild summer.”

When it comes to why I dislike weather conversations, it depends on the flavor. Not surprisingly, I find the trite weather observations to be, well trite — restatements of plainly observable facts aren’t the stuff of scintillating dialog. I find tactical weather discussions annoying because far more often than not they come up in the form of impediments like altered plans, grounded planes, traffic, etc. The pseudo-religious conversations I find bemusing and wholly unrelatable since weather is simply a chaotic system like a financial market or the movement of all of the fish in the ocean. Trying to predict it without unimaginable leaps in processing power or a wholly new form of mathematics is a waste of time and claiming to understand what’s coming is most likely the manifestation of a very human desire to make sense of the senseless and to see purpose in all things. This is why I call them “pseudo-religious” — they all assign moral meaning to the whims of chaotic systems, such as suggesting that storms are Divine punishment for our moral degradation or, alternatively, suggesting that the Earth is going to be uninhabitable because of our present eco-sins. But the fact that an ordered universe (or weather system) is more appealing doesn’t magically create purpose to make it somehow predictable and just.

So weather is either obvious and mundane, obvious and important, or unknowable. And, for this reason, as a serial problem solver, obsessive pattern-matcher (more or this in a subsequent post), and introvert, I find the weather completely uninteresting. It’s either a non-problem, a relatively easily solved problem (have your picnic inside if it’s raining), or an unsolvable problem about which speculation is pointless. If I tried to solve the problem of what the weather would be like in a month, I’d become exhausted by my own failure — in much the same way I became exhausted by the problem of trying to figure out how the girl that would have been on the other end of the phone line would react to my interest and invitation to a date. But, unlike the weather, the date situation had a relatively limited set of parameters and outcomes and much more potential benefit, so I at least labored to the point of exhaustion instead of saying, “why bother in the first place?” I had more control over that situation by far than the weather, but my control was still limited.

Programming, Safe Feedback, and Blissful Introversion

I’m at my happiest when I’m in my office succeeding quickly at small tasks. I made a post some time back about how I create a list of small tasks in an Excel sheet and change their background color from yellow to green as I work. I’m at my happiest when doing some TDD and checking things off the list. I write a test, see red, change the code, see green, refactor. I do this a few times, and I turn a spreadsheet cell from yellow to green. I’m moving efficiently through a mountain of work with small, steady, repeatable victories.

I’m in my own world. If I try something that doesn’t work, the test doesn’t go green and I learn from the experience and try other things until it does. If I’m stumped, I hop on google or stack overflow and see if I can find a solution. I experiment. I change the task list. I do a lot of different things where the pattern is “change something, see the results, and proceed accordingly.” My most productive days are large, beautiful crystals made from lattice structures of tiny examples of the scientific method: hypothesis (red test), experiment (change the code), analysis (green/move on or still red/try again).

In my own world, life is extremely predictable and within my control. Things change only when I change them and I know the results quickly and in a safe, consequence-free way. If I was wrong about something, I just hit control-Z and lesson learned with no harm done. There are endless mulligans as I go about my cycle of learning and building. I need not venture forth into the world with my products or conclusions until I know that things are bullet-proof. I can prove that the code works with automated scripts. I can back up my arguments with well-researched support. I find this not to be tiring but to be therapeutic and invigorating. After a day of uninterrupted, productive coding, I’m usually pretty energized and will head to the gym to burn it off.

Social Situations and Exhaustion

I’m less happy during the day when progress isn’t measured easily and the feedback loop is longer or non-existent. If, for instance, I leave my office and sit in several meetings where people offer opinions and try to reach consensus (more on this as well in a subsequent post), I grow tired fairly quickly. Such things are almost never people taking turns presenting evidence and well-crafted arguments, but far more often rapid fire opinions ‘substantiated’ with hearsay and conjecture. I can’t prepare for these conversations because I have no idea what people will dream up to talk about and when volume and charisma count for as much as reasoning and evidence, there’s no predicting what kind of outcome will follow.

And even if it isn’t meetings, people throw weird curveballs at me all day. Someone will come and claim that something is a crisis when it really isn’t, and I have to stop and spend time calming this person down or trying to persuade them to look at the bigger picture. I’ll speak with coworkers that are having a personal issue with one another. I’ll get invited to lunch when I have a lot of work to do, but I don’t want to be rude by saying no. These situations are quasi-chaotic. They aren’t chaotic like the weather or a market, but they’re extremely hard to predict and there’s no good way to back out of a bad choice and try the other branch. If I turn the guys down for lunch and see their faces drop, there’s no taking back that my initial reaction was to reject them, even if I reverse course quickly.

None of this is to day that I don’t like dealing with other people or that I’m some kind of hermit. I like going out to lunch with friends and coworkers. I like shooting the breeze sometimes. I understand that things come up that require my attention. And I’ll even grudgingly admit that every now and then a meeting is mildly productive. But all of these things are tiring. (There are two exceptions that I’ll cover in a subsequent post as well — times where I’m speaking/presenting to an audience and times when I’m mostly just listening to someone offer opinions for long stretches without feedback) I just want to get back to my office, sit at my desk, and be in a world of controlled experiments, careful reasoning, and strictly knowable and measurable outcomes. After a day without these, I’m usually too tired for the gym.

Maybe others have different reasons for their introversion than I do. But I’m willing to bet that I’m not alone in thinking that it’s a matter of preferring controlled environments and predictable outcomes. And what’s more, I bet that the correlation between introversion and certain personality types or vocations (i.e. programmers, among others) can be partially explained by this “introverts as highly analytical” notion. Food for thought on this Friday, anyway. I have more to say on this subject, but I’ll probably space these posts out a bit, since they’re about as far from the standard technical/workplace fare as I get on this blog.

  • http://www.schmonz.com/ Amitai Schlair

    The most salient sentence for me in this post was “I’m at my happiest when I’m in my office succeeding quickly at small tasks.” I wonder (since it hits home for me) whether it was the germ around which the post grew. In any event, many of your experiences and preferences seem to match mine, so I’m looking forward to the two exceptions. For me, those situations are as socially fatiguing as anything I know, it’s just that the fatigue is part of a package deal including excitement and connection that’s way positive, on net. Curious to hear your take.

    I wrote about a different aspect of introversion a few months back.

  • Peter DiSalvo

    I’m the same way in many respects, so you may not be a lone weirdo.

    You’ve expressed very well exactly how I feel about conversations about the weather. It’s winter and cold where I am, and it’s snowing a lot lately. Nothing out of the ordinary. Yet people feel the need to comment on the quantity of snow (obvious/mundane). Another is the fact that “it’s warmer today, but it’s going to be cold again next week” (obvious/potentially important). How much colder is it? Am I going to die? If I have to wear gloves both days, and neither day is cold enough to kill me, then today is not really that warm and next week is not really that cold, and neither is really worth mentioning (what’s potentially important becomes mundane).

    I’ve had the same “calling the girl” experience many times exactly as you described it. I have the same issue to this day when leaving voicemails. It takes me 15 minutes to plan what I’m going to say. It may have something to do with your safe feedback theory. On many voicemail systems there’s no “re-record before submitting” option. It frustrates me that I can’t undo and try again until I get it the way I want it. What if my tone of voice conveys the wrong message? What if I trip over my words and give the wrong information or just don’t make any sense? Voicemails are exhausting.

    I have a similar issue with having to plan out work-related emails, because I never know how formal they should be. I don’t like that emails are stuck between formal and informal (not quite a handwritten letter, and not quite a text message) because it makes it difficult to predict how the recipient will react. Do they prefer more or less formal emails? Is my tone too personal/impersonal? Ideally, most of my emails would be one sentence long with no salutation or valediction. Everyone would think I’m either inept or antisocial when in fact I just don’t think the formality or format of an email is more important that the content itself.

    That being said, I have no problem talking on the phone with a live person, and no problem with using instant messaging or text messages. The low feedback and unpredictability of the other methods I guess you could say cause some anxiety.

    I get along fine in social situations. I tend to stay home more often than agree to go out because I prefer programming, or doing something educational. In fact, the way I feel about weather-related conversations is how I feel about many other things. Some things I place on the same level as conversations about the weather are news media, gossip, sports, and 99% of television shows (except science fiction/fact based shows).

    I find most social situations are wasted on mundane or crude conversations and social constructs. I don’t mean to sound snarky or arrogant, but most conversations I have with people really are exhausting. I get that same feeling you might get when sitting in a meeting that’s going on for just a little too long. It’s not that I don’t like people, it’s that I wish we could have more meaningful conversations about slightly more interesting or important topics. In most cases I’m just biding time until I can go back to “my own world” and do things that I find more stimulating.

    Another thing I can relate to is getting invited to lunch at work. You can see/feel peoples’ disappointment when you decline a lunch invitation. I prefer to stay at my desk and read Popular Science and Wired, or even work through lunch.

    Lastly, the part about preferring controlled environments and predictable outcomes. I don’t really like traveling for this reason. A vacation to me is staying home and reading books, and just having the time to work on projects that interest me.

    Great post. Going back to my dungeon now.

  • http://www.daedtech.com/blog Erik Dietrich

    Your post actually cuts right to the heart of what I’m going to be talking about in my next treatment of this subject: opinion exchange, and how exhausting and depressing I find bike-shedding, especially in a corporate setting. We do share a lot of common ground on this subject.

    As for what inspired this post, I think the thought I had that gave rise to it was “I wish so much that opinions about business strategy would happen over email instead of in person.” I knew pretty quickly I’d write multiple posts about this, so that’ll come up a lot more in the next one.

  • http://www.daedtech.com/blog Erik Dietrich

    It definitely sounds like we have a good bit of overlap in the way we approach interactions, and I’m glad if this resonates. I think there’s so much to be said for “I want to be sure I’m getting this right.” Extroverts generally don’t seem to care too much, reasoning that if they’re wrong or they commit some kind of faux pas, they can simply improvise their way out of it. I don’t view it that way at all — I’d rather invest a bit of extra time and deliberation and get it right in the first place.

    So oftentimes being surrounded by extroverts feels… sloppy… to me. People are firing off opinions and statements that may be wrong or stupid or ill-informed and they seem not to care or even to take pride in that. I feel like I’m watching a comedian bomb on stage or something.

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  • FennNaten

    I find the subject deeply interesting, and I can definetely rely to that. When I was a kid, I had often been yelled at for not responding during tough chats, especially when being critized. That has been seen as rude or provocative, or as me being apathic, stupid, even “not actually feeling”. I didn’t have the words back then, but now I can explain that I’m completely uncomfortable with having to react without the possibility to think about the subject before. What if I’m wrong? What if I let emotions overcome my thoughts and make me act poorly or badly? What if I agree with something I don’t want to agree just to end the argument, and regret it later? What if, what if… all those what if-s trigger in me a lot of emotional responses, often contradictory, and tend to let me paralysed and mute. It’s not that I don’t care, it’s that I care too much.
    I’ve always preferred, and still prefer written communication over spoken one. When writing, I can think, I can weigh, I can check my facts, test my reasoning, and put a lot more value into what I say. I’m not stressed out with time constraint and having in front of me someone with expectations who can put a bias on the way I want to react, push me on ways where I don’t want to go.
    Sometimes I’ll describe a problem, maybe to get some help, and trying to state as clearly as possible what blocks me, I’ll find the solution myself. And nobody loses any time. Sometimes I’ll write something out of irritation, pause before sending, proofread, and delete the whole thing because it was misguided. Or useless. Sometimes I’ll write about some awesome idea I’ve had, and find while reading the thing back that it’s nothing new and/or full of drawbacks that pride of the discovery made me blind to.
    In the opposite direction, reading people’s reasonning let me assimilate it more easily, play back for things I missed if necessary, and have a recording of the full discussion so I can recall later why the situation is what it is.
    That’s something you can’t do with “direct” social interactions, and in my case that’s what makes those interactions exhausting: having to think too fast, knowing that you have a high probability of making mistakes, and after the fact replaying the whole thing with a lot of “I should have done/said that, I’m so stupid!”.

    I love “what if-s” as a conceptual exercise, and love reading anticipation fiction, prospective, unchronies, dystopies. I also love them in programming and problem solving. In fact, I love them in situations when I can anticipate, or speculate without risk.

    But in “real life”, I’m often harmed by the “what if/I should have” combination, and I think giving them too much importance is what makes me an introvert.

  • http://www.daedtech.com/blog Erik Dietrich

    That is very much in line with how I feel, right down to the strong preference for written and asynchronous communication and debate. I watch people extroverted people debate and spew opinions in group settings and think to myself, “do you even hear yourself? That’s clearly not based on any kind of facts or research.” Stay tuned — I have a future post coming that speaks more to this contrast.

  • FennNaten

    As long as the RSS feed lives, I stay tuned ;)

  • Tomasz Kowalczyk

    This… this article is a pure gold. I don’t have anything to add, anything to disagree with. Perfectly explained.

  • http://www.daedtech.com/blog Erik Dietrich

    Thanks for the kind words — I appreciate the feedback!

  • David

    I really like the way you framed this. Personally, I find that I’m less a small incremental task problem solver and more the type that needs to withdraw and build up elaborate mental models in my head (more of an intuitive and less of a structured approach). But, the conflict with needing that personal space to conserve/build “energy” vs socialising and wearing myself down is ever present.

    I actually feel at my best when I’m able to help people in a way where we can focus more on physical problems than on more cognitive problems which I always seem to think way too deeply about relative to others who are looking at 5 variables rather than 20 simultaneously. Perhaps physical problems help to ground me a little more to the problem at hand rather than examining ever possibility which is almost but not quite in scope (because what if things change and I need to adapt but I want to be prepared for those changes… kind of like all the scenarios in your theoretical phone conversation).

  • Naomhán

    I realise that this is an old post, but I just came across it and it hits the nail on the head. I’ve often wondered if I’m somewhat autistic, but as I don’t show any of the symptoms of autism, and after reading this, I have to say that my ‘self-diagnosis’ is definitely introvert. Great post, really resonated with me!

  • http://www.daedtech.com/blog Erik Dietrich

    That’s interesting. A different motivation for the same desire. It does make sense that creating elaborate mental models and holding a lot of ‘stuff’ in your head would similarly make it appealing to be alone in your own world for analysis. As for approaching physical problems, I’ll have to do a little self-examination to see how I react. Of the cuff, collaborating on physical tasks with people (e.g. team building activities) sounds exhausting to me.

  • http://www.daedtech.com/blog Erik Dietrich

    Glad if it struck a chord. It’s cool that seeking to explain myself can actually help others clarify their own self examination. Thanks for reading!