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Why Social Situations Exhaust Introverts: A Programmer's Take

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Why Social Situations Exhaust Introverts: A Programmer's Take

Edited and published in blissful silence while sitting in a solitary room away from my coworkers.

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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 have 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 the 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 the 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), an 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 say 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.

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