A bohemian in the Cheesecake Factory

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I’m an INFJ working undercover at JCrew/Abercrombie/Banana Republic/Sephora/Barneys/Apple/Eddie Bauer Town

Cary’s classic column from Tuesday, Dec 7, 2010

Dear Cary,

I’m a worldly, well-traveled, experienced and vibrant woman, still young (age 55), I have a wide network of interesting friends, a talented, caring and loving husband and a young adult daughter (who I raised alone) who is holding her own and doing well. I was blessed (I guess) with physical beauty and I have a strong and elegant personal style. I was fortunate to retire with a full pension almost two years ago and set upon a life of leisure while pursuing my art as an avocation, have held two successful gallery exhibits and produced a book as well, which has been very well received in my Rust Belt American city. I am an INFJ, if that tells you anything. The most marked characteristic to me is that we are only 3 percent of the population.

I consider myself to be very strong and am a survivor. I won’t go into my past except to say it included a measure of poverty, violence, loneliness and estrangement from family.

All of that has been long worked out. I truly believe that I am firmly on the path of being the woman I would have wanted to be when I was younger and full of doubt, avoidance, fear and uncertainty.
I believe those are traits that I still have — they are human traits, after all — and even when I feel overwhelmed by such emotions I am able to put them into context and move on.

I recently began working again, part-time, at a small retail establishment that is a corporate entity of her sister stores. It’s located in an affluent suburb in a pretty little shopping district that was built for just this purpose: retail. A pretty, little fake town with nice shops selling expensive goods: This is how the shopping district is set up. It’s pleasant and pretty and in my view it’s all pretend. Or it’s not. It’s all about marketing and spending money and capitalism. It is fascinating and when I go to work I feel as though I’m a cultural anthropologist visiting JCrew/Abercrombie/Banana Republic/Cheesecake Factory/Sephora/Barneys/Apple/Eddie Bauer/Brooks Brothers Town.

I see this as an opportunity for personal growth in getting along with people, especially women. In my real world the people I know are bohemian, earthy, acerbic, witty, creative, artsy and outrageous. My new work world is not like that. I feel that my challenge will be in honing my skill at interpersonal relationships. I have always been a square peg in a round hole, even among the boho crowd. I’m good with that. However, I am concerned about workplace relationships. The woman who hired me is lovely. I’m not worried about my boss, I’m worried about getting along with co-workers, all women.

I want to fit in, without fitting in, if you know what I mean. Already I am trying to squelch my internal critical dialogue of what I observe around me. I am also blessed (I guess) with the ability to see scenarios as they really are and to see people as they really are, i.e., I’m perceptive. Sometimes this makes me judgmental and I internalize that dialogue. I am now in an environment where my wry observations, sardonic wit and sarcastic barbs would most definitely not be well received.

I can control myself, no problem. My challenge is to learn to internalize acceptance of what I find to be icky: namely, entitled, outer-ring suburban McMansion, probably racist, certainly Republican (that is the demographic of the area), greedy, hypocritical and clueless. See, already I’m sounding harsh. How do I stop?

I really appreciate this job, even though the hours and wages are meager, because I believe it is giving me a valuable opportunity in navigating interpersonal relationships, including honing the art of diplomacy. These would be skills that I could apply in many different places for the rest of my life. How do I not fuck it up?

The Outsider

Dear Outsider,

They’ll assume you’re one of them until you bring in a painting.

So don’t bring in a painting. Keep the paintings in the trunk of your normal automobile, which they’ve seen you drive up in.

Don’t pose as normal, though. Pose as eccentric in a normal automobile. If you pose as normal they’ll know right off you’re weird. If you pose as eccentric but they see the normal automobile, they will believe the normal automobile.

You can’t fake normal.

It may be idiocy but it’s a finely calibrated idiocy you cannot fake. Look at Sarah Palin.

They’ve got too much experience. They’re like native French speakers.

It would be better if you rode bulls and drove stock cars. But your eccentricities can work. You can pose as the rebel insider.

You can do this easily. Just pretend. Keep in mind that you don’t have to hide everything; some of your activities will seem interesting to them until they learn enough to be confused.

Because you don’t belong, you’re going to work hard to appear to belong. Because you are skilled at appearing to belong, and because you are analytical and thoughtful, and because you know you are an outsider, you may appear to belong more than those who actually do belong.

This is the drama of the outsider.

Your difference makes a difference. But the difference to them is not as great as the difference to you.

You think they notice but they don’t. You think they know because to you it’s so friggin’ obvious. But they have not been issued a clue. They were not issued a clue and are not aware that a clue is available free on the Internet or at any public library.

So they will be astonished to find you’re not staying for life. “Oh, but you fit in so well here!” your boss will say, giving unconscious voice to the doubts that were there all along.

You will be mystified by their inability to see through your ruse.

One danger in giving this performance of fitting in is that you may appear weak. Someone may try to manipulate or bully you. That’s where the bull-riding story comes in. Or the story where you slit someone’s throat. Or a cop in the family. Some drama of throat-slitting or bull-riding will be a prophylaxis. It will sound eccentric, but since it’s violent, it’s permitted. That’s also where protection comes in.

Did I mention this is prison?

In prison you find a buddy. Figure out who has the power and make that person your buddy. Then, even if they do figure out that you don’t belong there, you’ll be protected.

I’m a college student with no natural social skills

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Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, APR 3, 2008

I’m 21, female, and I don’t know how to talk to people!


Dear Cary,

I’ve recently come to the realization that I have no natural social skills. This is not really much of a surprise, considering I spent most of my childhood wondering if my classmates were, like me, sentient beings. While these days I can usually understand why people are doing what they’re doing, I still have a lot of trouble communicating, especially if there’s more than one other person involved in the conversation. Knowing what to say and when to say it is somehow really hard for me, so I frequently avoid situations where I have to talk to people. Since I’m female, and girls are supposed to be good at all that stuff, it just makes me that much more awkward.

I’m in my second year at a not very socially cohesive university (read: not typically American, students “seen and not heard”), and while I could never give up my program, or my life in this city, I sometimes feel really isolated, and this bothers me. I live with two lovely roommates, who are good friends, but one is moving out soon, and the other one, like my family, has her own “issues” to contend with, for lack of a better word. I’ve joined a school club and met some people there, but it’s only helped a little.

I’m also worried that my lack of social skills is preventing me from really growing up. Although I’m working now, finding jobs has been a problem, at least partly because I’m really not good at interviews. Also, I would someday like to think about dating — a euphemism, since I don’t think people my age really go on dates. The first and last time someone asked me out (to watch a movie in his dorm room), I wound up, for some reason, declining and telling him all about my German class, because I erroneously believed that he was very interested in studying German. Naturally, we didn’t get very far, and it was well after the fact that I realized his real intentions.

Now, at this point in my life, I really want (and possibly need) some practical advice, nothing about “meeting the right person” or “coming out of my shell,” or … you get the idea. I’m 20 years old and I’ve been this way my whole life, almost regardless of external circumstances, and I know I’m not likely to change radically any time soon. I’m just afraid that my life is going to be diminished by something I intuitively feel is not really under my control.

Some Weird College Kid

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Dear Weird College Kid,

I appreciate your taking the time to write.

The most practical advice I can give you is to learn all you can about the psychological phenomena of introversion and extroversion.

You’re not weird at all. Most likely you are strongly introverted. Many famous, brilliant and successful people are strongly introverted. It poses challenges, but it also gives you special powers. Your role in life, should you choose to accept it, is to learn to use those powers for the good of mankind!

That’s how I see it, and the sooner you find out about this the better off you will be.

Since Jonathan Rauch published his now-famous Atlantic essay “Caring for Your Introvert,” thousands of people who formerly considered themselves just weird and geeky have discovered that they are in fact introverts. Read the ongoing discussion about introversion and Asperger syndrome. Steve Silberman’s Wired article about the connection between Silicon Valley geeks behavior and Asperger syndrome is also quite interesting. My decidedly unprofessional view is that extreme introversion and Asperger syndrome exist along a continuum — at the edges of which they share certain characteristics. I am by test a highly extroverted male, but under stress I tend to act a little like Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man.” So don’t be scared or start thinking you have a disease. We’re all a little fuzzy on the edges.

The discussion the Jonathan Rauch article generated shows that you are not alone; your personality type is familiar to many; it is predictable and manageable. You aren’t crazy. There’s nothing wrong with you.

To say there isn’t anything wrong with you is not the same as saying you don’t need help. We all need help. That’s what education is. It’s help. So you have to educate yourself.

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It’s not true that introverts do not like to socialize in groups. They do, in small doses. But the activity drains them of energy. “Jonathan Rauch’s article highlighted the most important phenomenon associated with introverts,” writes a commenter at the discussion mentioned above. “It is not that they cannot socialize in groups, it is just that it exhausts them to their core to do so. This is why they are so misunderstood, and, usually, grumpy. People meeting my husband in a social setting at first do not realize he is such an introvert — he can be witty, extremely bright and engaging in short bursts. However, we have never, ever, in eleven years of dating and two years of marriage, attended a party or event in which he did not want to leave before I was ready to go. He just cannot sustain that level of interaction for more than a couple hours, even then needing several breaks to recharge.”

If this sounds a little like you, take heart. It is normal for an introvert.

As to the challenge of being an introverted woman: “On ‘is it harder for a woman to be introverted,’ I suspect yes,” writes another correspondent in the Rauch discussion mentioned above. “Women are expected to be warm, nurturing, ‘people’ persons, willing to talk and listen to others for hours. As a female in management, I have been criticized for not being like this at work. As Mr. Rauch said, one becomes very good at putting on the social act, but it takes energy. I need hours and hours alone to recover.”

The key is to learn to take care of yourself.

I would like to focus just a little bit on one sentence you wrote: “I’m also worried that my lack of social skills is preventing me from really growing up.” The American bias toward extroversion as a sign of maturity is a dangerous but little-discussed political phenomenon.

Let us consider how dangerous this bias is. It requires that the introvert abandon her particular genius in order to join the crowd. Consider the extroverted leader who values loyalty above clear thinking; consider the dangers we are led into by a coarse, unsubtle extrovert who distrusts the loner, the doubter, the thinker. Consider recent history. Consider the appalling behavior of Congress leading up to the Iraq war. Notice how our political system rewards extroversion and punishes introversion. If there were more introverts in Congress, unconcerned with how their fellows vote, might we see this country on a more balanced and thoughtful course?

But that is a larger, more long-term question. For now, we ask: What can you do to get through your college career and find productive work and a happy life? You can forge ties with other introverts. You can begin learning all you can about the joys and pitfalls of being an introvert. You can use the Internet. One of the best tools for understanding the interaction of various personality traits is the Myers-Briggs Personality Type Indicator, based on psychologist Carl Jung’s theories about personality type. Just for fun, you might consider taking this short test, and see if what it says makes sense to you.

Life is harder in certain respects for deeply introverted people but it is not a disease or malady; it is simply a way of being.

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Dammit, don’t tell me I need to be more “assertive”!

 
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Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, SEP 15, 2004

You’d think a Ph.D. in Renaissance literature from an Ivy League school would count for something in the business world.


Dear Cary,

On paper, I am talented, bright, creative … almost perfect. I am 33 years old; I have a Ph.D. in Renaissance literature from a prestigious Ivy League university. I’ve been married for 10 years to a wonderful husband. However, if you met me, you would not be able to surmise any of that based on how I look and act.

I work as a copy editor for a small company. I have the most credentials of all my co-workers and yet I am constantly passed over for promotions or leadership roles in projects. Time and time again, my reviews have indicated that I need to be more assertive and confident. I’m very shy and rarely speak in meetings.

I was the same way in graduate school. Yet not only did I manage to earn my degree, but I also taught undergraduate classes and presented papers at conferences. Basically, when it was time to perform in public, I somehow gained the strength and got through it. But these experiences seemed like walking on fire. I dreaded them. After graduating I had several promising interviews for teaching jobs. But I failed horribly and never received an offer. Five years and several degrading jobs later, I am now in my present position. Instead of being proud of my education, I have come to resent my Ph.D. I feel like I wasted those 10 years on graduate school. When I meet new people, I no longer tell them I have a doctorate for fear that they will look at me like I am a freak.

I want desperately to be confident and possess the spirit and aura that befit my achievements. I know I can do better, but I am paralyzed. I’ve taken more public speaking and assertiveness classes than I can count. They have not helped. I’m beginning to think it’s genetic and I am destined to be underemployed and miserable forever. Please tell me I’m wrong.

Cubicle Dwelling Ph.D.

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Dear Cubicle Dweller,

Of course you don’t have to be underemployed and miserable. You just need to find a place where you fit in. If I were to meet you on the street, I’d know for sure, but just from your letter, I’m going to guess that you are an introverted intuitive type. That would explain a lot — why you were so successful in academia, why your interviews went poorly, why you’re slaving away in a job that you’re probably doing very well but not getting credit for, and why people keep telling you to be more assertive.

If my hunch is correct, telling you to be more assertive is like telling a cat to bark. It’s not that you lack self-confidence; I’m sure you’re quite confident in your own abilities. But you’re stuck in a world whose symbols are alien. Business is burlesque! Competence is signaled symbolically. You go around acting all confident and assertive and people go — Look! She’s confident and assertive! We’d better promote her! Business is filled with people who aren’t really thinking straight. It’s full of voodoo. If I were you, I’d get back into academia fast.

But first, let’s talk about your type. Perhaps you have never given much thought to your underlying type. Perhaps “type” seems mundane or shallow; perhaps you find the idea distastefully deterministic. Perhaps you think of Jung as cultish. But I have found it useful to learn about Jungian types as they are simplified and codified in the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator.

The introvert is the ruler of a vast interior dominion. For the introvert, everything happens there. Who else would get a Ph.D. in Renaissance literature? Who else would live in a world accessible only through art? We extroverts out here in our hiking shorts and blazers don’t get to see what’s going on inside that head — whose eyes are sometimes cast slightly downward as if trying to see inside themselves. It bugs us that we can’t tell what’s going on in there, and that she won’t just come out and explain how she got to where she is. When the introvert speaks, sometimes it seems to come out of nowhere. What is she talking about? It seems as though she’s jumped from A to Z.
The introvert doesn’t share her feelings with us in that easy, cooperative extroverted way that we snowmobilers prefer. She’s not going to say, Hey y’all, come on in, let’s all do therapy together, let’s tinker with my dreams! Paradoxically, the introvert doesn’t really notice her interior world as something distinct from who she is; to the introvert, the interior is real. We extroverts crow about our grand excursions into psychic space, but we’re just tourists there, handling every object with dumb amazement: Look Ma, I’ve found an intuitive connection! The introvert sits on her porch and watches with detachment — or perhaps mild annoyance — as we bumble through her domain.

You get what I’m saying? Some of it may ring true, some may not. There are degrees. I’m winging it. That’s my talent. I’m an improviser. It’s an extroverted talent. I don’t mind getting up here and winging it. I’m a bit of a showoff, something you probably don’t like in a man, but there it is, we’re different. The thing is, though, I know who you are. And I know you don’t belong in an office full of people who think you should be more assertive.

So if I were you, I’d begin looking again for employment in academia. If you cannot find a teaching job, take another job in academia. That is where you thrived. That is where you belong. That is where you will be appreciated. If you can’t get a job in academia, then look in fields where intellectual talent is valued above a go-getter’s bravado — in research, for instance, or publishing, or journalism. Look for a firm where others with advanced degrees also work; chances are if they are happy there, you can be too.

And then, once you’ve secured a new job, go to your old boss and say, “Hey, motherfucker, get this: I don’t do ‘assertive and confident’! I quit! I’m an introvert, damn it!”

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