Wednesday, 31 July 2013

ETC: About Introverts and Conferences

Max Ray (@maxmathforum) posted a comment to my TMC (Twitter Math Camp) Day 3 blog where he remarked on my "introvert perspective". Mary Bourassa also made a TMC post referring to her "lack of outgoiness". I want to expand a bit on these ideas, and possibly debunk two things I've seen online:
1) An introvert "hates being around people".
2) An introvert "is fine when around friends".

Note that I'm not trying to put words into anyone's mouth, so definitely call me out if you think I'm representing the introvert situation inaccurately, or unfairly. You can do it through email if you'd prefer to be anonymous, I promise I'll call myself out in the comments.

It's not that you're against me. It's that you're so different from me.


First, let's be clear that there is a sliding scale involved. While people CAN be "all introvert" or "all extrovert", it's more likely that you simply identify more with one category than the other. Bearing in mind that I'm speaking from experience, not research, here's my test:

You are at a conference. You walk into a room where there are a bunch of like minded people you know, and would call friends. Do you:
a) Keep quiet UNLESS spoken to?
b) Keep quiet UNTIL spoken to?
c) Speak up because you know THEM?
d) Speak up because you know THEIR INTERESTS?

Notice the full introvert might not walk into the room, and the full extrovert would probably speak up regardless. So where are you on the scale?

I am firmly in category (B), leaning (A) if anything. If you want my opinion, or you want me to tag along, you will ask me. At that point, and ONLY at that point, I'll jump in and join in with whatever. Otherwise, you've got a thing happening, that's cool, I'll be over here. Note that I tend to do this even with friends and colleagues I HAVE KNOWN FOR YEARS. Acquaintance time is a very negligible variable. Moreover, even after I have jumped in, after 2-3 hours, I just... can't anymore. I'll start subtly watching the clock.

My wife, incidentally, identifies in category (C). If she walks into a room full of strangers, she will keep quiet. But if she walks into a room of friends, she's fine, because she knows them. She can also carry on a conversation with them for over 2 hours, again, because she KNOWS them. Now, I love my wife to pieces, but I don't understand her ability to do that.

Similarly, I think a number of people out there who would put themselves in category (C) or above do not understand me. Or worse, you think you do, but you don't.

I really take the cake.
Reaching for a metaphor, it's sort of like the difference between being invited to a birthday party, and simply crashing one. No one "invites" you to a conference (unless you're a guest speaker), so I don't want to crash in and start talking to people unless there's an opening. It doesn't matter if I've known everyone there for 5 minutes or 5 years. I NEED that opening, so that I'm certain that I'm not intruding. I CAN'T just "GET OVER IT"... at least, not without effort on EVERY interaction!

But, you protest, you KNOW these people, you've met them online and in person, or you've been teaching in their department for five years, or you've been drinking beer with them EVERY Monday for ten years, and it's this big birthday celebration, just say 'hi'! AGH. That's SO incredibly awkward.

I've seen some tweeting recently about how some people have no trouble conversing, but they have trouble writing. Like that, EXACTLY like that, but my problem is the TALKING. I can write easily, because you can choose not to read. It's much harder for you to choose not to hear me! The opening, the "Hey there, so what's your opinion about..." makes all the difference. I try to offer it up to others whenever I can, because I'm usually on the opposite side of it.


The other thing about writing, and online things in general, is that it's easier because it's implied "public". I agree with the logic that if you wanted a private conversation, it wouldn't be, say, on Twitter. Now, two caveats. First, that all changes at a conference in person, where pocket conversations still feel "private", even if they're in the lobby. So I will only speak up if I feel I have something to contribute. Second, throwing oneself into an online conversation - even during a Play-By-Email Roleplay session - STILL feels awkward to me.

Someone at TMC (possibly Sean Sweeney) mentioned they tend to accept an invitation the second time it's offered, not the first time. I can totally see the logic in that. You want to make sure someone is actually interested and dedicated, not just tossing something out offhandedly. I mean, you don't want to give a person a job to do, then have them flake out on you when you need them most. Right?

I will not offer a second time.

If you ignore (or reject, or miss) my first request, I will assume that either you've got things well in hand and do not need my help, or more likely that you recognize I do not have the necessary skills (eg. interpersonal skills) and thus DO NOT WANT my help. In fact, I'm almost the complete REVERSE of the above, in that if you come to me first, I may not ACCEPT until the second request. Because surely there's other people you could ask who are not only more qualified, but who, you know, can actually talk to people. Have you asked one of them? (Me? Really? Huh. Okay then.)

Now, with the baseline established, are you ready for the exception to all this? It's the great leveler.


Passion is what makes an introvert stand up and present. At a conference, or anywhere really.

It might be passion for a specific subject. At my brother in-law's wedding, I hung out on the sidelines for well over an hour until someone came up and asked me about the Ontario teaching system. Boom, half hour conversation. It might be passion for a specific person. Last year, at ConBravo, I went up to Lewis "Linkara" Lovhaug and asked for a picture with him because damn it, I KNEW I would regret it if I didn't. Or it might be passion for a specific event. I dare say that this is what made some people stand up at TMC and deliver their "My Favourite", in order to give back to the conference.

Getting this picture wasn't so hard, was it? Well, actually...

But the passion tends to be specific. If a bunch of friends are talking in general about their personal lives, or their dinner plans, well... I'm just not that passionate about dinner. There is no opening there. I won't speak up unless maybe there is a pause of at least three seconds in the conversation, so that I feel I'm not interrupting. Which doesn't happen so often if the other people are type (C) and above.

I also regret to inform you that passion can be bled out of a person over time, if it seems like no one else wants to hear from them.

It's like how someone who's written a great novel, then had it rejected by many publishers, and seen their requests for beta reading go ignored, can reread it themselves and go "yeah, guess it wasn't so great after all, I suck".


First, it's a two-way street. So, any introverts who have been reading this and nodding all the way through - sorry, while you don't necessarily have to "Get Over It" you DO have to MAKE ADJUSTMENTS. I know, I know, it does take effort EVERY. SINGLE. DAMN. TIME. I feel your pain, REALLY I do, but if you don't make the effort, you'll regret it. Worse than that, we're not going to see your passion, and WE WANT TO SEE IT!!

Try to find a coping strategy, if you can. Make like you're not talking to the whole group, but just one individual, to bring you in. Max Ray has said that when he writes, he writes with a particular person in mind, kind of like it's an email to them. I think that's brilliant. After that, when you post something up, if there's no response... send it out a second time! Fire it @ someone, even. Fire it @ me if you want to. I can't promise I'll comment, but I'll read, and if I RT, it increases your chances of it being seen.

As to the second direction on that street, those definitively above category (C), be aware of the issue. As the story goes: LISTEN, SHUT UP. Ask the guy sitting quietly at the table if he wants to split an appetizer with you. Or maybe try to hook two introverts together, which I suspect at least one person tried to do with me at TMC Karaoke. In fact, in terms of conference planning, I think a number of things are going right already:

1) Scheduled evening events. There is no doubt in my mind that if there had been no scheduled events at TMC, I would have ended up in my room every single night. Hating myself for doing it. (Okay, maybe not every night, David Wees called me out at one point.) The one dinner I did go to was in part due to the fire alarm, thus we were all hanging around in the lobby anyway. Sidebar: Quieter venues are nice too. Given the amount of effort an introvert needs merely to speak, having to shout to be heard tends to induce silence.

2) Long breaks. Having fifteen minutes between sessions is a good thing not just for travel time but for decompression. Likewise for extended lunch, and time before the evening events.

3) No forced groups. Occasional pairing is fine, and some sessions did involve group work, but I think four was the largest group, and I joined by choice. Groups make my stomach twist in knots.

One possible improvement that occurs as I write? Signup sheets. For sessions, for dinners, whatever. This not only allows introverts to feel like they're not "intruding", it can allow extroverts to notice "that name on the list I haven't spoken to yet" or "that person presenting to an empty room".

At this point, you're probably wondering why I'm even a teacher, given the number of students I have to talk to. I'll simply point you at my post "Why I Teach". For more reading on introverts, you can look here in comic form, or here for an amusing video.

Oh, just one more thing! I've noticed a media trend lately of comparing "Extroverts" not to "Introverts" but to "Neurotics". Seriously. Not helping.

Okay, thanks for reading to the end, flame away in the comments below!


  1. What I've found that helps immensely is the idea of a persona. It's not necessarily a fake version of me, just a role I can put on to get through social situations. Once I get comfortable with a group, the real me does come out, but the persona is still available. Helped when I worked as the phone firewall for Sympatico. The callers weren't talking to me, but the professional persona I developed. (Mind, role-playing as a hobby helped with working out the concept. I also still need downtime even when using a persona - it takes energy to not run screaming from a crowd.)

    Online interactions are easier, though it still takes me time to warm up. I don't need the persona as much; everything is in the words, not the body language, so I can be more me and less not-me. Email is easiest; it's asynchronous, giving me time to craft a proper response. Chats and IMs are more immediate, so I do need to keep up and interject from time to time.

    As for your suggestions... Scheduled evening events make sense. They don't have to be as formal the events during the day. A meet-and-greet the first night, dinner the next is simple enough (other than logistics). Doesn't even have to be long, too.

    The longer breaks are nice. Introverts need recovery time. I find that even after spending time with friends over an evening, I need to wind down and recharge alone. It's not that I didn't enjoy being with everyone; I just need the me-time to re-centre. Small breaks help.

    Group work can be torture for us introverts. It gets worse if it's a group of introverts. Someone has to step up to at least get the work going. It might be easier to have a number of leader-types (introverts can be leaders, though) to lead a group. (Hmmm... Obviously, it'll be difficult for a small conference, but the idea struck that a workshop can have a few group leaders to work with the participants, guiding as opposed to doing the work.)

    (Also wondering if some of your ideas for the conference could also be applied to teaching?)

  2. So I actually had a few comments here, though most were tweets. Been meaning to sum up.
    -At least one person called me out for this being an accurate representation. (Not just me then!)
    -Someone who admitted to being between (b) and (c) said "years of practice faking it" helped.
    -Someone said "it was helpful for me to realize that just like people can choose not to read what I write, they can choose to disengage from conversation with me so I'm not interfering any more in real life than I am in written form".
    -And of course there is Scott's comment above.

    The idea of 'faking it' or 'adopting a persona' is certainly an option. I think part of my personal issue with that is: I'm too comfortable with myself. I am who I am. If you haven't recognized that (yet), you'll need to make it worth my while for me to engage with you, given the additional effort of me making pretend. And in some circumstances, I recognize it IS worth it, for one or both of us... but dinner, yeah, still not passionate.

    The 'disengaging from conversation' idea has made me realize that I do see conference conversations as being with lots of people, versus reading as a more dual, reader/writer relationship. Like if I toss myself into a conversation, there could be one of the four others there going 'Oh no, not Greg', but they won't say anything out loud. Yet if someone invites me in, hey, it's not my fault, your friend asked me along. Which... is weird to write, and maybe I simply have to get over myself there.

    Online is a weird beast. We've moved from letters, to emails, through newsgroups, to instant messages... always trending towards instant feedback, instant gratification. I think introverts need more time to mull things over. Yet society these days seems to have a preference for immediate results, blind to long term consequences... maybe that's another reason we hear more from extroverts. Now, I'm NOT saying all extroverts only think in the short term, I just remember hearing that in a financial variant on the "marshmallow study" (ie- you can have this one now, or watch it for five minutes and then have two... but I believe it was $20 now or $30 tomorrow...), extroverts were more LIKELY to go for receiving things now. Maybe it's an impulsive thing.

    Finally, yeah, some of the conference ideas are probably applicable in the classroom. Honestly, I think part of my issue with groups is I don't want to force anything, yet students can't always pick the best one themselves. Plus there really isn't anything wrong with working alone, in my mind. So I end up spinning my wheels. Meh.

    One last thing that's occurred to me about signup sheets is it does sort of commit you... meaning you'd be less likely to just bow out on a whim. There may be something to be said for that. At any rate, thanks for all the response!