“Something really big came up; I am so sorry”.
“Work was hell today. I’ll catch up with everyone later!”
These are the rallying cries of the female introvert.
So often, even as we become more aware of the importance of psychological traits like introversion, we fail to realize how gender plays a role. It’s become clear to me that female introverts face a barrier that male introverts just overwhelmingly don’t have to deal with.
Male Nerds Acceptable
The introverted male engineer is a cliché that is well-accepted enough now that we understand and mostly accept the somewhat prickly male intellectual. Plenty of male nerds seem to be able to get away with ranting in public about feeling distant from people, or wanting to step outside of conversations.
We see these Internet personalities like xkcd’s Randall Munroe, Zero Punctuation’s Yahtzee, and The Oatmeal’s Matthew Inman. They’re able to proudly value scientific endeavors or video games over social interactions, or publicly make the fact that they just don’t get people, very much a point of pride.
But I have seen a very different pattern amongst all of my female introverted friends. So many of them either feel tremendously guilty when they do try to get some individual space, or find themselves forced to go to social events that they despise or are not looking forward to.
Be a Bitch or the Crazy Cat Lady
Women so often have society place upon them the duty of being the smiling hostess, the patient caregiver, the compassionate teacher, the den mother who takes everyone in.
For them, maintaining their face, seeming as if they have a sunny disposition always, is important to being a good woman or a good person. And if they fail, if they let annoyance slip through, they become “a bitch” or “a crazy cat lady”.
“I have to cook dinner for the family.”
“Sorry I can’t make it out tonight; you guys have fun!”.
Those little vignettes above apply mostly to women. Sure, there are plenty of women who will openly say that they are just not feeling a social gathering. And plenty of men do feel a need to be the sociable and outgoing ones, even when that particular stirring of the soul just happens to be absent. But that need to “fake it until you make it” is so much more powerful for women, because their defined social roles are based on caregiving and social organization. It’s the women who arrange the bake sale, the women who provide the snacks, the women who bandage skinned knees at the church track and field event.
Females Must Be “On” at All Times
One of my dearest friends works as a trivia host at bars.
Now, let’s put aside how often she gets accosted by men who seem to think that, by dint of her being a beautiful woman and being at a bar, she must owe them sex.
No matter how little she wants to be “on” that night (seemingly like an extroverted light of the world), she know that it’s a must, as this is how she will make part of her income. She has to flirt with customers, and make it seem authentic. She has to “perform”, to put on her face.
But her male coworkers in the same environment do not need to fake being flirtatious. They may need to be at least somewhat charming, but they don’t need to dress up, and they certainly don’t need to interact with customers any more than is strictly required by the job.
Guilty “Me Time”
One of the things that is often most difficult for us to accept and understand about introverts is that they can love people very dearly and yet not want to spend a lot of time with them.
The introverted wife and mother may find the constant needs of her children or husband to be deeply grating at a place somewhere deep inside her heart, but she has to simply bide her time until she can get some “Mommy time”.
Even many extroverted women will find themselves offering lies and excuses in order to get themselves some precious time when they can be themselves. And, again, a lot of men do have to deal with this too. But men’s status in society, the way that others perceive them as good or bad people, is just not as threatened by being aggressive, or prickly, or unfriendly, or distant. In fact, to some extent, those traits are valued in men: They’re signs of being “tough”.
Women aren’t supposed to be tough nuts with an unbreakable shell. They’re supposed to be delicate flowers. So suck that shell deep inside, ladies! Smile and pretend to care about the fifth member of someone’s screaming brood of children because you’re a woman and women love kids!
Men Don’t Have to Fake It
Sociologists talk about the cost of “face”. Anyone who’s worked in a service profession knows that. Some days, we want to tell the other person, “No, I’m not going to remake your sandwich because you think (however stupidly) that that bread has been laying out for too long even though I personally cut it and put it aside not five minutes ago. “Take the sandwich or leave it”. However, when we have to put on that mask, no matter the context, it can cause us to feel so deeply dishonest and inauthentic that we become angry at those who are demanding our performance.
But extroverts have an advantage here. I’ve never much understood how artificial that “face” is for some people. For me, service professions are opportunities to get to meet people. I felt that there was a duty in each sandwich I made or each bag of groceries. I could make someone’s day better.
However, I’m both a man and an extrovert. I recognize that it is just easier for me to be the service person. If I fail, my value to humanity is not imperiled.
And when I come home, I can turn off that service face. I can lay back and play video games quietly. If I had to do domestic duties, I wouldn’t have to fake liking to do them. An introverted woman who has the “great surprise” of family members coming and staying over for the weekend has just hit a truly awful double whammy. Not only does she have to be nice and smiling, she has to cook and clean too!
If I ever do have a truly bad day where I no longer care about the whining of morally degenerate people, I can indulge that day with very little cost. A woman cannot do the same.
The Female Introvert in Our Society
Female introverts bear a disproportionate cost. American society isn’t easy for introverts in general. But women, even introverts, help keep the world together. They’re the ones who wipe bottoms, make potato salad and make sure that the household runs. When women also have a job (as most in the era of declining wages have to), the amount of “Me” time that women can get becomes as rare as a scintillating jewel.
So this does return us to the idea of education. The fact that society, thanks to the efforts of people like Susan Cain, is beginning to understand that introverts exist and can be perfectly healthy, is definitely a start. The next step is to educate people on the differences that people feel in their social obligations as a result of gender.
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