The Difference between Shyness and Introversion

I am an introvert; I am not shy.

These are two factual assertions some people I have met find contradictory. This post is for everyone, because even if you are not personally an introvert, you definitely know someone who is. It pays to understand the people in your life. It pays to understand yourself.

Susan Cain notes in her widely acclaimed 2012 book, "Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking," that cultural assumptions fuel a misunderstanding about the difference between shyness and reserve.

The latter -- which I would refer to as a personality-based tendency to "reserve" our limited social energy for our most fulfilling friendships -- is a quality introverts (hello, fellow writers) often possess in abundance.

The former is an anxiety-based social behavior with many possible causes. On, for instance, the clinical description of shyness shares space on a page with a link to the clinical descriptions of several anxiety disorders. It seems to me that shyness is not about personality so much as it is about anxiety, fear and, unfortunately, sometimes misplaced shame.

Full disclosure: So far, I have not read Cain's book. I have read pieces of Cain's PDF for those who want to teach "Quiet" concepts. I also enjoyed listening to an interview with the author on NPR's "All Things Considered" in 2012.

What 'introvert' means to me

Like Cain says she is, I have always been a person who prefers to invest in a few rich, deep, lasting friendships, rather than amassing many friends.

For me, this is not about exclusivity or hauteur. It has to do with a key point mentioned earlier: limited social energy.

What this means is that I restore my soul when I replenish my inner reserves. From what I can tell, an extrovert restores his or her soul when in the company of people, whether old friends, new friends, acquaintances, strangers -- or a mix of all those groups.

Here's the beautiful thing: Extroverts are wonderful. They are fascinating people to watch in motion. I see many a co-worker laughing, exuding joy, learning new co-workers' names, inquiring of their hobbies and getting their numbers for texting/hanging-out purposes after hours. I find these things to be so genuine and special -- for them.

It would be a step outside the norm for me to routinely make new friends so quickly.

On making new friends

Here's an example from Wednesday. After three years of membership at my local YMCA, I finally made a gym-only friend -- actually, two in the same day. It's not that I had tried and failed. It simply wasn't something I wanted to try until last week.

I recently began exercising more frequently, and I switched to morning exercise.

In the process of building this habit, I have overheard several scintillating women's locker room conversations. They were about ordinary life happenings, but told with gusto, flair and wit.

At first, I began to amass notes on my iPhone to use as quote fodder in social media posts, or to save and use for creative writing inspiration someday. Then, I began to feel a bit guilty.

I didn't feel the guilt because I thought what I was doing is unethical -- I'm well aware people-watching is a great source of inspiration for creators -- but rather because it felt like I was looking at these women's conversations as curiosities rather than getting to know the pretty interesting talkers.

So, last Wednesday, when I was feeling very energetic, I finally verbally acknowledged the presence of one of the two women mentioned.

She is about 50, and she has a daughter named Kelsey getting married in October. She was standing next to me doing her hair at the mirror. I asked her a few good questions, shared a bit about myself, and it felt like she was noticing me at the Y for the first time. I was noticing her as a person instead of just an anecdote generator.

Later that same morning, a 70-year-old woman from my Tuesday morning yoga class, who I've been smiling and nodding to when we pass in the halls, approached me. She asked if she could share a funny anecdote about a penny sitting on her locker shelf in the same spot for seven straight days. She left it there to see what would happen. No one claimed it or bothered to move it. We both giggled over it like it was Guinness World Record potential.

The grandmotherly woman's name is Lauri. I have not yet asked the middle-aged woman for her name. I'll ask when I get my next burst of energy. :)

Want to know more?

Are you an introvert or an extrovert? If you can't figure it out, take this quiz at Susan Cain's website. Just for fun, here's my result:

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