Meet the introverts who are dreading a return to normal

April 14, 2021

The Washington Post

By Roxanne Roberts

April 10, 2021

Everybody can’t wait to return to normal. Except for half the population dreading the return to normal.

During a sad, tragic year, it was introverts who found a silver lining. There was more time alone, more peace and less of the personal and professional pressures they find so draining. The calendar was suddenly, blissfully empty. Life slowed down.

And now we’re returning to the pre-pandemic world, or as close as we can get. Like everyone else, introverts are excited about seeing family and close friends in person, dining in restaurants, traveling and all the other pleasures of a good life. But most are not interested in facing the forced small talk, the big parties, the noisy open offices and all the demands of extroverts who think more is more and introverts should try harder.

“People are saying, ‘I don’t know how I’m going to go back,’ ” says writer and introvert Jenn Granneman.

“It’s like being paroled for a year and then being told, ‘Actually, you’re going back to prison,’ ” says her partner, writer Andre Sólo.

Social scientists correctly predicted that introverts were best suited to weather the stress of the past year. After months of lockdown, the question now is whether introverts can teach the rest of us something about moving forward.

Granneman was surrounded by extroverts in her private life — people who love to engage and get energy from being around others — when she started the blog Introvert, Dear in 2013. Now, her full-time job, along with Sólo, is dedicated to reassuring fellow introverts that they're fine just as they are, and helping the rest of the world understand them.

Many people believe introverts are cold, shy or socially anxious — but those stereotypes are misleading. They love people, but in small doses. “A lot of times people jump to the conclusion that if you’re quiet, it’s something malicious or rude or you don’t like them,” says Granneman.

The truth, says Sólo, is that introverts can be very engaging, but it’s draining. “If I’m going to go to a social event where I actually want to be, I’m loud, I’m making jokes, I’m telling stories. But it really does feel like you have a battery running down pretty quickly.”

There’s some brain science to explain the behavior: Extroverts are less sensitive to dopamine, the “feel-good” chemical that affects the brain’s pleasure center, and require more stimulation to be happy and energized. For introverts, a little dopamine goes a long way, and too much of anything can be exhausting.

When restrictions were imposed last year, “I had extrovert friends who were just losing their minds,” says Sólo. But introverts were finally getting the uninterrupted time they craved.

Not every introvert, of course — those suddenly spending 24/7 with family members or roommates were much more stressed. But most of Granneman’s audience said they loved being at home, freed from all the invitations, the meetings, the many outings with family and friends.

Introverts missed seeing their close friends but savored the ability to go for hours or even days without speaking to another person. Sólo says he rediscovered the lost art of the phone call. During a walk, he’d usually listen to a podcast or music, but sometimes he’d call friends and talk for 30 minutes or an hour — something he rarely did before lockdown. “But when you’ve cut out all these ‘Tuesday we have this, Thursday we have this, and don’t want to go to this but it’s an obligation’ — when all that’s out of your schedule, you can connect in this deeper level by having a conversation with someone, even if you can’t get together physically.”

Zoom calls? Not so much. “I think it feels like a performance, right?” says Granneman. “You can see yourself, so you’re constantly monitoring yourself, feeing self-conscious. I just didn’t feel like I could be as authentic and it took a lot of mental energy, like I was coming into work.”

For most introverts, the outside world can sometimes require emotional labor. The small talk at the office is work because no one wants to know how you’re really doing. Bosses and clients demand a happy face. Extended family and friends, no matter how loved, require what little down time isn’t already dedicated to work and a spouse or kids.

A return to normal is all that and more, plus the pent-up demands of weddings and birthdays and reunions postponed in 2020. Most introverts go because they care about their friends, but time to be alone and recharge will be even harder to find.

The decade before the pandemic saw increasing reports of a “loneliness epidemic.” A 2018 study found that 22 percent of Americans felt lonely often or always. But for introverts, the past year has been a revelation: They thrived while being alone, and realized they don’t necessarily have to return to a world where they’re constantly surrounded by people.

Sólo says even his extroverted pals are reassessing their pre-pandemic normal. “It’s been interesting watching a large number of my friends say, ‘You know, suddenly I have all this extra space in my life to think about what I want.’ And they have literally changed their life plan or changed what they’re doing because they had time to think about it.”

The pandemic is what psychologist Susan Krauss Whitbourne calls a “time of measurement” effect — the rare historical event so profound that it alters perceptions and personalities. “So psychology won’t be the same for a number of years now, just as after World War I and World War II.”

She says introverts will have to deal with the irony that, for many, 2020 was one of the happiest years of their lives — and that happened because so many other people were sick or dying. That’s classic survivor’s guilt, she says, and being miserable is not going to change an outcome you can’t control.

Before the pandemic, it was natural for extroverts and introverts to seek out personalities similar to themselves, which then reinforced their behavior.

“We’re all faced with a kind of stark new way to think about our personalities that we always took for granted,” she says. One benefit of the lockdown is that it gave both sides time to gain a little self-awareness.“And if you decide, yeah, there is this part of me that likes to reflect and think and spend time alone, I feel you’ll emerge from this with maybe a better understanding of yourself and potentially better mental health.”

Many professionals are questioning the valueof returning to the 9-to-5 office— introverts because they prefer to work alone, extroverts because their lives would be simpler. Is getting dressed, enduring a commute and sitting at a desk really necessary? Every theory about remote work — it makesemployees less productive, less collegial, less available — has been challenged during the past year.

This discussion, of course, is for those privileged enough to have options. Many workers were forced to be on-site; millions others lost their jobs entirely. Working from home, for anyone, is still luxury.

Now introverts have colleagues — including plenty of extroverts — advocating to work from home part or full time. What happens next might depend on who’s in power. Extroverted bosses like the hustle and bustle of a traditional office. Introverted bosses may be more open to a hybrid workplace. In either case, the days of the open office plan, once the darling of corporate consultants, may be numbered.

John Hackston, head of thought leadership at the Myers-Briggs Company, not only describes himself as an introvert but studies personality types to create better fits for employers and employees. He says that before the pandemic, introverts were expected to adapt to an extroverted world: Speak up at meetings, adapt to the culture of the workplace, be team players. “All cultures, but Western culture in particular, encourages what you might call stereotypically extroverted style of behavior,” says Hackston. “Rightly or wrongly, introverts had to find ways to adapt. A lot of that mental load was taken away when the pandemic hit.”

Some companies have already announced liberal work-from-home policies; others are returning to a conventional pre-pandemic model. In January, a Gallup survey found that 44 percent of U.S. workers prefer to work from home once restrictions are lifted, as compared with 39 percent that want to return to the office.

Remote work is already a bargaining chip in job recruiting and negotiations, says Hackston. And job crafting — the idea that you don’t have to do that job in the same way as somebody else to be effective — is gaining popularity.

“Self-awareness is really key, not just for introverts but managers as well,” says Hackston. “We take the scales off people’s eyes so that they realize that there are people who are different from them in the world, and there might be better ways to communicate and better ways to manage. So if one of the things that the pandemic has done is to give some extroverts insight into some aspects of what it’s like to be introverted, that probably is a good thing.”

Going forward, will introverts feel forced to interact with the world out of social or professional obligations? And can they say no?

“I think we’re all trying to figure out what this will look like,” Granneman says. “A lot of people in our audience have told us that they liked the holidays that were calmer and with fewer people. They were able to make more meaningful traditions of their own, instead of going to the big party or bouncing from family get-together to family get-together.”

Sólo says he plans to cut out anything loud, crowded or busy. And Granneman?

“I think my simple answer would be I would like to edit out things that are draining to me,” she says. Her best friend, by contrast, actually gives her energy.“There are other relationships — and I think we all have them — where we feel obligated or maybe it’s just a relationship of opportunity or happenstance. I think those are becoming less important to me.”

Or, as one Twitter user put it, “now that I’m fully vaccinated, I just want you to know that I still won’t be able to make that thing because I don’t want to come.”


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