On Being An Introvert

Try and imagine a conversation where someone who is exceptionally loud is told, “you’re a bit loud aren’t you” or are told “you talk too much” within the first few minutes of meeting them. It’s almost unimaginable isn’t it? It’s almost too rude to contemplate such a thing happening in any social situation.

Yet, if you are quiet natured this has probably happened to you at some point in your life and probably more than once. It was perhaps more common when you were in your teens, but it still happens, although probably less frequently in adult life. People usually have a bit more control over the first thoughts that come into their mind when they get into their mid 20s.

I have been called many things in my life. Shy. Quiet. Introverted. These have often been inserted into phrases such as, “you’re a bit quiet aren’t you” or “you don’t say much, do you” or “why are you so shy?” Sometimes these are just general statements but they can often be delivered with a clear and perceptible undertone of negativity or even pity from the speaker.

AxCat

Of course in the 21st century, to be labelled as quiet is one of the most least masculine traits that a man can possess. In the lexicon of unmasculine phrases it probably ranks above “light weight”, “vegetarian” or “emotion”, although not by much.

Even when I was growing up I wondered why I was so quiet. I absolutely abhorred presentations in front of class at school and even university. I was happiest in my own thoughts, liked small gatherings, had a close circle of friends and didn’t like social situations where there were large numbers of people. (i.e., a party, as I believe they are called). I didn’t enjoy team sports, not only because of my introverted nature but also because some of my schoolmates acted like they were in the final of the World Cup. I also preferred it “on the benches” talking about computer games with a school friend of mine.

Even in social situations I prefer to hover about on the periphery of the proceedings rather than being in the centre of the action, sort of like an male wallflower version of Batman. A silent guardian, a watchful protector. The hero the party deserves, but not the one it needs right now.

At family gatherings, the kitchen served as a particular refuge for me. It also had the added bonus that you could also overhear my aunties bitching about other family members in there. It was sort of like the “green room” at a theatre, but at my grandparents house, with a selection of finger food and bowls of crisps.

For years I had felt that there was something wrong with me. Why was I like this when the majority of other men weren’t, or at least didn’t appear to be acting like they were?

It wasn’t until I read the fantastic book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain that it really all feel into place. These were the traits of an introverted person. They were normal and I should be comfortable with them. I had a unique set of skills that were useful and needed. There wasn’t anything wrong with me at all. I may not be able to approach strangers comfortably, deliver a presentation or think on the fly when asked a question, but I made up for it in other ways. At the risk of sounding melodramatic, it was what I was and it was a revelation finding that out.

I was more expressive with the written word (I think). It was part of the reason that I set up this blog and started writing posts for it. I had a more empathetic mind and can relate to people’s emotions a bit more. So much so, that I’ve even felt “secondary embarrassment” on behalf of total strangers before. I can focus on tasks for a long time when necessary. I prefer deeper conversations and meaningful topics (at least to me) rather than more superficial conversations. After I’ve used that staple of the British conversation handbook: the weather, I tend to make my excuses and leave as swiftly as possible. I can sometimes pad things out by mentioning the cuts to the local authority budget and empty shop fronts, but this will usually only buy me a few more minutes.

However, this doesn’t matter as nowadays men have to exude a constant and sometimes almost over-bearing confidence. Look at the way the media portray the ideal man. Full of swagger, sure of himself, confident in all situations. He’ll get that job and that woman. He’ll ace that presentation in-front of the clients from Zurich, dine with his future in-laws and then meet with a gathering of his clones, with matching £150 haircuts for a few drinks, all while looking good, acting confident and making sure nothing gets in his way. All this while looking like he just stepped straight out of a Hugo Boss catalogue.

Alpha-male-confident-man
Yep, never questioning what you say or do sounds great for society.

It’s an issue that woman have been tolerating for decades and with undoubtedly far more severity than men ever will, but the rougher sex appear to be catching up.

Unfortunately, this kind of thinking seeps out into the rest of society. To be quiet now is almost to be ostracised from society. If you aren’t loud people don’t tend to notice you’re even there anymore. I have slipped out of meetings without any of the attendees even noticing I was gone. Most workplaces and seminars are geared for more extroverted people. They rely on clear and confident public speaking to get your opinion across, although on occasion there may be some fluorescent post-it-notes available for you to scribble some thoughts onto.

But society doesn’t particularly value more introverted traits. When was the last time you wrote “quiet introspection” or “empathetic ability” onto a job application. Unless you’re applying to be the ship’s counsellor on the Starship Enterprise, about to embark on her latest five year mission, I expect that application wouldn’t get you to interview. Even if your employment required you to sit in a hermetically sealed room for seven hours with no human contact, you would still be required to say that you “prefer working in a collegiate atmosphere” and that “public speaking is a key skill that you have developed”.

When did you ever see someone adding “self reflection building” or “quietness classes” to a corporate team building agenda? These may be labelled as “mindfulness” nowadays but you see my point. However, there are a multitude of “confidence building” courses available, one of which also instructs you on how to build your “personal brand” (I threw up a bit while writing that, excuse me) as well as confidence.

Another reflection of how introversion is viewed it to look at the synonyms for the word “introverted”. These include reclusive, cool (I expect as in the temperature, not as in “daddy-cool”), withdrawn and offish. Some terms such as shy, collected, bashful and modest are a bit more neutral and could be viewed as positive traits. Trying the same exercise with “extroverted” gets you a plethora of positive associations: congenial, gregarious, personable, sociable, cordial and friendly.

But what is wrong with having a quite confidence nowadays? Since when did confidence become equated with being loud or outspoken? It’s perfectly reasonable to be quiet and confident in your own mind and abilities. You can still be gregarious with a small circle of close associates.

Basically, you are what you are. To an extent everyone modifies their behaviour to fit the social environment. I’m sure even the most gregarious extrovert would tone it down for a funeral. Like wise, I’m sure introverts can manage feats of extroversion on occasion. I even managed to take part in canvassing outside a major supermarket chain once. We need extroverts as well. They are the party masters, the organisers, the ying to the introvert yang.

But I don’t believe that you should try and change your personality to fit in with some vague feeling that you aren’t talkative enough or feel bad because you can’t deliver a presentation to a room full of people. To finish, I would like to quote the great 21st century philosopher, Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta: “I was born this way hey! I was born this way hey! I’m on the right track baby I was born this way hey! I was born this way hey! I was born this way hey!”.

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My British Identity

Even though I was born in Scotland, my parents moved to England when I was five years of age. After six years in England, my mother returned to her home town in rural South Ayrshire, with me closely in tow.

My initial time spent in the southern county of Dorset in England was originally met with a spate of bullying, which is now only dimly remembered but was speedily dealt with after my mother alerted the school authorities to it. I remember the Headteacher delivering a sermon at the school assembly about how it was wrong to treat people differently because they have an accent that is different to yours or to pick on someone who comes from a different country. I vividly remember all the perpetrators apologising to me for their behaviour even though we were all only five or six years old at the time.

Upon return to Scotland and entering Primary seven, I don’t remember being bullied for being “English” although I was asked on my first day if I was a Catholic or Protestant and was later accused of being “half-English” on a few occasions. I don’t recall my answer to these questions as like most normal children national identity and sectarianism weren’t issues that had entered my thinking at the time. But clearly in some areas of Scotland religious affiliation was still an important signifier of identity.

However, I had the vague feeling somewhere out on the periphery of mind, as my cognitive abilities developed that I was never quite “Scottish” enough, not born and bred as it were. I had lived in the land of the ancient enemy and was now tainted. I even remember caveating some conversations at secondary school with “yeah, but I was born in Scotland” when people asked me where I had lived and I replied that I had previously lived in England. As if being born in another nation in the UK would have been an offence.

Without realising it at the time and with the benefit of hindsight “Britishness” appeared to offer a new place for me and one that I have identified with my entire life. One that allowed the possession of a new identity, above mere English or Scottish.

Identity itself can provide a multitude of facets and very rarely do people solely possess just a single domineering one. Many people from the Scottish-English border may identify with “Borderer” or even “Reaver” and then their respective national identity followed by British. Someone from Shetland or Orkney may be an Islander first and a Scotsman second. A citizen from the United States may identify with his home state of Nebraska or Utah before the actual nation of their birth.

Over the last few years, since the “Yes” campaign brought the issue of identity politics to the forefront in Scotland, I have witnessed the gradual erosion of Britishness in the northern half of the United Kingdom continue unabated. The SNPs sweeping, landslide victory in the 2015 general election has not helped the issue and has exacerbated an already worrying trend.

In the long and attrition like campaign masterminded by the SNP in the years preceding the 2014 independence referendum I could have been tricked into believing that I was living in a nation that was on the verge of struggling free from the jackboot of foreign oppression that had been stamped firmly on its neck and was destined to be the second part of the English “inner empire” to regain its nationhood and self respect rather than what a Scotland actually is; a member of one of the most stable, peaceable and most prosperous states that the earth as ever seen, with a rich history and vibrant culture.

The sheer volume of saltires and blue “Yes” stickers on windows, wheelie bins and cars was overwhelming and very worrying for someone who views themselves as British. National symbols are all well and good. I even contemplated putting up a British flag in a very prominent window in my house but this would have been a descent too far into the nadir of crass nationalism. Something that the “Yes” campaign were all too happy to plunge headlong into but that only a few years ago would have been totally foreign to Scotland and ultimately, something that I thought better of.

In a spontaneous burst of open mindedness, I even attend a small presentation by the “Yes” campaign in early 2014. The speakers were entertaining and I always enjoy a seasoned political veteran or a keen amateur deliver a speech or lecture with passion and enthusiasm, regardless of where they sit on the political spectrum. But I was struck with a certain level of pettiness throughout the proceedings. One of the presenters, a trade unionist if I remember correctly, complained that Scotland has contributed millions of pounds to the construction of the London underground and that this was “Scotland’s money”. Apparently, he believed that this was something of a travesty. I got the impression that he would have dug up the Jubilee Line if it was feasible. A tri-fold pamphlet at the same event stated that Scotland could be the most powerful nation in Europe. I assume this would have happened after independence rather than acknowledge the fact that Scotland is already part of one of the most powerful states in Europe, namely the United Kingdom. Someone should probably inform Angela Merkel that Germany is about to be taken down a notch.

The same level of pettiness applies to many nationalists when you meet them face-to-face as well. I was once asked, after a work meeting, in an accusatory and belligerent tone, “why I wanted my taxes going down to London” when I mentioned that I voted  “No” during the referendum. I had no reply on this particular occasion but I would have replied that I don’t mind my taxes going to support any place in the United Kingdom from Aberdeen to Armagh to Aberystwyth to Aylesbury. I don’t even mind them going to help people abroad or to be used in humanitarian projects sometimes. I also quite like having a tax base of 29.4 million people.

My experiences as an active campaigner for Better Together were not much better and we were told to “Fuck off” from someone’s doorstep on our first attempt at canvassing. A few doors later, a shirtless gentleman came to his door and informed us that, “I remember Thatcher, you lot can fuck off”. At least that time we were given a clear explanation of why we should “fuck off”. Perhaps the lion rampant tattoo on his left arm with “Saor Alba” underneath should have given us a subtle clue to his voting intentions, but it was too late by that point.

I live in a small town of eight thousand people and in the run up to the referendum I was the only person who had a Better Together campaign poster in my window. Only in the last few days before the 14th of September 2014 did I see some very belated but most welcome British flags and “No thanks” posters start to appear.

Larger cities were not much better. I remember the area around Kelvingrove in early August 2014 was filled with “Yes” stickers, posters and other associated paraphernalia. This shouldn’t have been surprising as Glasgow was one of four areas of Scotland that voted for independence but 46% of the electorate still voted “No”.

It genuinely felt that I was in a shrinking and timid minority in my own country. Even a trip to the cinema for some light entertainment offered no respite from the background of belligerent and vapid nationalism as one middle aged man heckled a pro-union/British advert by spluttering: “is this being sponsored by the fucking English” while eating his Ben and Jerry’s.

Britain’s place in the world is not unsullied. From the Irish famine to the Indian Mutiny and to contemporary foreign policy disastrous such as the Iraq War, Britain and Scotland (something that nationalists like to forget in their revisionist rhetoric) have been at the forefront of this and this must be acknowledged and remembered.

But is it fair to reduce the United Kingdom to its darkest deeds alone and to shun the very notion of “Britishness” for our respective, smaller national identities?

This is the nation that has halted the hand of despotic, authoritarian and murderous dictators on the European mainland three times, once in living memory. The place where the cry of “am I not a man and a brother” were not merely words but served as a call to action often decades before anywhere else. The nation where an organisation such as the Salvation Army, originally founded to help the poor and destitute of London in the 1860s now operates on a truly global basis, bringing help and relief to all those in need.

Where Mary Wollstoncraft wrote A Vindication of the rights of women, forming the modern basis for feminism. It was a slow process but The Married Women’s Property Act was passed in 1882 allowing women the same rights as men to own and run a business and hold property. This started a clarion call later taken up by the Suffragette movement. It’s easy to scoff at this, but the majority of woman around the globe still do not have such rights.

Where social concern during World War Two led to the publication of the Beveridge Report in 1942 that served as the blueprint for the welfare state and the foundation of the NHS and the notion that people shouldn’t be penalised because of circumstances outwith their control and that all individuals, regardless of social background, are worthy of a safety net in difficult times.

The place where the divine right of Kings was not only challenged but eventually constrained and transformed into the constitutional monarchy of today.

Where engineering marvels such as the worlds first iron hulled ocean liner, the SS Great Britain was constructed by Brunel. Where the Englishman Thomas Newcomen’s atmospheric engine was later refined by the Scotsman James Watt to lay the foundation of the industrial revolution. Where the Jet Engine, an invention that would revolutionise leisure time and be at the forefront of the compression of time and space that now characterises the 21st century lifestyle was invented in the 1940s by Frank Whittle.

Being Scottish, I can lay claim to the works of Adam Smith, Alexander Fleming, David Hume, James Clerk Maxwell and Robert Burns. Being British allows me to lay claim to the works of Bertrand Russell, Beatrice Webb, Charles Dickens, Charles Darwin, Joseph Lister, Oscar Wilde and Tim Berners-Lee as well.

For many Scottish nationalists, the holy trinity of grievances are Westminster (or “Wastemonster” if you prefer), Trident and the Iraq War. They are entitled to their opinion on these issues and to campaign against them. They even have much to say that resonates with committed unionists as well. But to focus all their attention onto a small number of issues, most of which occurred in the space of a human lifespan is a bit short-sighted and totally ignores the larger historical picture of Britain and the benefits it has brought.

For the quieter and more thoughtful, possibly more introspective Scots, it may have seemed that we were outnumbered during the referendum, but we never were. Being loud, belligerent and insulting on occasion does not make your argument any more potent or valid. Completely disregarding British history, culture and achievements, not only does a disservice to Britain but also to Scotland’s many achievements as a partner in union with England, Wales and Northern Ireland.