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Instant Messaging for Introverts

From time to time, someone I know asks me an ordinary and reasonable question: “What’s your iChat (or Skype) ID?” My usual reply is to give them the information along with a big disclaimer: I’m almost never logged in. In fact, let me be completely honest and say I thoroughly dislike instant messaging (IM) except in a few specific situations. For months, I’ve been thinking about why this is – both the technological and psychological aspects – along with whether it somehow exposes a fundamental character flaw, and whether it’s something I should attempt to change. Having experimented with a variety of approaches to instant messaging (as well as its close relative Twitter) and having done a considerable amount of introspection, I’m
inclined to think that my personality type is fundamentally ill-suited to instant messaging. Specifically, I’d like to advance the thesis that – for some people at least – an aversion to instant messaging is a natural consequence of one’s temperament, and that this is neither good nor bad in and of itself, though it does of course have consequences.

This notion has been difficult for me to come to grips with, because I’m a self-professed computer geek since way back when, someone who lives and breathes technology. For me not to be excited about a common modern mode of communication seems contradictory in some way. In addition, my dislike for IM has caused – well, continues to cause – practical communication difficulties. So I wanted to explore what’s underneath this, partly for my own benefit, but also as a courtesy to others out there who may find themselves in a similar situation and would like to commiserate, share their experiences, or simply know they are not alone. And I want to offer suggestions from my personal experience that may help others to make peace with instant
messaging, to one extent or another – or to better understand those who seem to have the same trouble with it that I do. Ultimately, I can’t offer a solution that will magically and perfectly bridge the gap between IM lovers and IM haters, but I hope I can at least shed some light on what the situation looks like from both sides.

I Is for Introvert — Let me begin by stating that, like 25 to 50 percent of the world’s population (depending on who’s counting), I’m an introvert. A common misconception about the word “introvert” is that it means someone who’s shy, withdrawn, afraid of crowds, or lacking in social skills. If you’ve ever seen me give a presentation to a large Mac user group, you’ll surely know that description doesn’t fit me at all! I will happily stand in front of hundreds or thousands of people, give a speech, answer questions, make jokes, and generally take charge of keeping the group interested and involved. If anything, I have a reputation for being long-winded in social
situations, telling stories that go off on one tangent after another – and for being among the last to leave. I like people, and I think I’m reasonably competent and comfortable in a crowd of any size.

However, given the choice, I do generally prefer to be alone. If you asked me which would be more fun – going to a lively party where I’d be socializing with a couple dozen other people or sitting in a quiet corner reading a book – I wouldn’t even have to think about it: I’d much rather sit alone and read. All things being equal, I prefer smaller gatherings to larger ones, and I prefer solitude to company. To put it differently, being around other people seems to drain my energy, whereas being alone (or with smaller, quieter groups) gives me more energy. When I’ve spent hours around other people, I need to be alone to recharge, whereas for an extrovert, it’s typically the opposite: being alone saps energy, and being around other people
restores it.

Psychologist Carl Jung (himself an introvert) first developed the notion of the introvert/extrovert distinction as a way of describing whether a person’s focus tends to be more inward or outward. The categories don’t represent simple binary states; there’s a long continuum between wholly introverted and wholly extroverted, and everyone falls somewhere in between. In addition, a person may exhibit introverted characteristics sometimes and extroverted characteristics at other times. A variety of personality tests reveal where on the continuum a person’s tendencies lie – whether you’re strongly or weakly introverted
or extroverted. One such test is the popular Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, which employs the idiosyncratic spelling “extravert” rather than “extrovert,” and which uses the terms primarily to indicate one’s manner of spending and drawing energy. Another good example is the Kiersey Temperament Sorter.

Introversion and extroversion are often referred to as “preferences” or “attitudes,” but such terms misleadingly suggest that either characteristic is merely a matter of choice. In fact, being an introvert is much like being left-handed: even though you may have another fully functional hand that you could use, you didn’t choose for your left hand to be dominant and therefore the one you can use more naturally, comfortably, and effectively. Although the influence of nature versus nurture in the development of introversion or extroversion has been much debated, research strongly suggests that introversion is in some sense “hard-wired” in the brain. Once a person has developed one tendency or the other, it’s as difficult to conceive of
changing it as changing one’s dominant hand.

In decades past, left-handed people (like my grandfather) were forced, sometimes violently, to write with their right hands, based on the belief that right was right and left was abnormal and therefore wrong. Today, even though lefties are still very much in the minority, most people think such attitudes are ridiculous and even offensive. But comparable enlightenment about introverts is dawning more slowly. I routinely hear people talk about introversion as a problem that needs fixing or as a trait that one should actively try to suppress and change. True enough, extroverts tend to be the movers and shakers, the squeaky wheels, and the stars. On the other hand, many introverts have famously risen to positions of wealth, influence, and
authority – both in the real world (Warren Buffett, Albert Einstein, Bill Gates, Al Gore, Julia Roberts, Barbara Walters) and in fiction (Batman, Jane Eyre, Dr. Jean Gray, Harry Potter, Mr. Spock). The point is: there’s nothing wrong with being an introvert, and this characteristic need not keep anyone from success or happiness. Introverts can learn to work with this trait rather than against it, while extroverts would benefit from understanding introverts better and in some cases making accommodations to interact with them more effectively.

I learned about introversion and extroversion the same way I learned about Macs: by experience and by reading. If you’d like to learn more, I suggest (in addition to the links already given) reading the book “The Introvert Advantage” by Marti Olsen Laney, Psy.D., as well as “Caring for Your Introvert” by Jonathan Rauch in The Atlantic; “Introverts of the World, Unite!,” an interview with Rauch by Sage Stossel; Extraversion/Introversion by Susan A. Santo, Ph.D., of the University of South
Dakota; and Spectatrix, a blog my wife runs about life as an introvert. (And, no, that’s not a contradiction!) And if you’d like an easy way to find out where you fall on the introvert-extrovert spectrum, try Quick Quiz: Extraverted or Introverted? at Your Office Coach.

From considerable reading and from personal experience, I’ve learned that introverts have a number of other tendencies. And taken together, these traits may shed some light on why I (and numerous other introverts I know) have a hard time with IM, Twitter, and the like. For example, introverts typically need to concentrate on just one thing at a time, and are often particularly sensitive to interruptions and distractions. Now, I happen to think “multitasking” is a concept that should never, ever be applied to human beings (regardless of personality type), but be that as it may, I can certainly say that I’m easily distracted, and having more than one thing to think about actively at any given time is sure to make me both ineffective and
grumpy. Chatting online while also working on another task, therefore, is unthinkable. (For additional perspective on what multitasking might mean to an introvert, read Personality Types and Multitasking by Carol Kallendorf, Ph.D., at BizWatch Online. Note that I’m not only an “I” (“introverted”) in Myers-Briggs terminology, but also a “J” (“judging”), which apparently makes me the personality type least amenable to multitasking!)

Another typical introvert trait is wanting to compose one’s thoughts carefully before sharing them (either verbally or in writing). Once again, while this doesn’t prevent me from carrying on verbal conversations at a normal speed, it makes rapid-fire online textual conversations rather unnerving. For me, interacting with other people in real time online is just as draining as interacting with other people in person. So my feelings about participating in, say, a lively multi-person chat are about the same whether we’re talking about iChat or a party. I can hold my own in the conversation and it’s generally fine, but because it takes a lot of energy I prefer not to do it very often.

Although I can’t speak for every introvert in the world, I can say that I genuinely enjoy connecting with other people. I like to know what my friends are up to and I like for them to know what’s going on in my life. But when modes of communication like IM and Twitter become the default way of sharing this information, that leaves us introverts in a pickle. If we’re never logged in to iChat or rarely post on Twitter, our friends and colleagues may assume we’re avoiding them, or that we aren’t interested in their lives. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. The disconnect manifests itself by way of technology, but the reasons behind it are much deeper.

Quiet – I’m Thinking — The introvert trait of not dealing well with interruptions comes into play in a couple of different ways with IM. First, naturally, is the whole notion of something popping up on one’s screen demanding an immediate conversation. Let me give you a personal perspective on this. Unlike many people, when I’m in front of my computer, I’m working, which means I’m concentrating on something. I’m writing an article, or a book, or an email message, trying to come up with exactly the right way to phrase some sentence or express a certain point. Or I’m programming, trying to solve some logic problem. Or I’m reading an article. Whatever the activity, it’s
something to which I am predisposed to devote my entire attention. If the phone rings, or my wife asks me a question, or an iCal alarm goes off, it breaks my concentration in a way that’s frustrating to recover from. I lose my mental place, and it takes me a long time to get back into that same train of thought and finish whatever I was working on. I’m not saying I need to write an entire book without any interruptions, but when my mind is actively juggling information, I need to complete that particular thought (or block of code, or paragraph) before moving on to something else.

This is why I love email as a mode of communication. I get many dozens of messages every day, but I can answer them whenever I want. I don’t have to look at them right in the middle of this paragraph; I can wait five or ten minutes – it doesn’t matter (though in practice, I usually answer email very quickly). Voicemail can make handling phone calls similarly convenient. But instant messaging isn’t like that. If my status shows that I’m online, then people expect an immediate response, and even though I could choose not to respond, I’d still have the blinking, bouncing, or beeping notification interrupting my train of thought – it isn’t an improvement for me.

So in terms of IM status, I never consider myself “available” in the sense of “interruptible.” Ever. There is no time of any day, under any circumstances, when I think to myself, “I really don’t mind being interrupted now.” If I’m not at my computer, then most likely a phone call or a knock at the door won’t seem like an interruption. But if I am at my computer, I’m concentrating, which means I’m not “available” – I do mind being interrupted. And if my status shows that I’m unavailable, as it invariably does when I’m logged in to iChat, most people will refrain from trying to start a conversation – meaning I might as well be entirely offline. (Of course, an “unavailable” status does convey some information, but I’ll return to
this in a few moments.)

(As an aside, if you guessed from the foregoing that I’m also not the kind of person who is constantly making and receiving cell phone calls, you’re exactly right. I do own a cell phone, but I spend maybe 10 minutes a month talking on it. I don’t follow the typical mobile urban lifestyle – I don’t have a commute and dislike being considered “on call” when I’m not in my home office. Sure, I’d love to have an iPhone for the remote Web browsing, email, and all the rest, but I’ve come to accept the twin sad facts that I can’t justify the cost of an iPhone given the amount of calling I do, and that I’m unwilling to carry around both a cell phone and an iPod touch. Oh well.)

Can I IM You Now? However, even though I’d theoretically prefer never to be interrupted, there are certainly urgent situations in which interruptions are not only acceptable but absolutely necessary, and IM may be the handiest way to get someone’s attention in a hurry. Being perpetually unreachable can irritate your coworkers and lead to misunderstandings. Unfortunately, current IM software – and iChat in particular – hinders me from making myself provisionally available for “just in case of emergency” interruptions. Let me explain.

I’ve tried using iChat’s security features to grant or deny access to certain people – for example, letting only important colleagues see when I’m online. That prevents interruptions from random people who just want to make small talk, but it forces me to keep iChat updated with my status, and that’s a real problem. Some people manually change their iChat status constantly – you can be sure that it always reflects not only their availability but the exact task they’re working on at the moment. I’ve tried doing this myself, but invariably I either forget to change my status after a few hours or simply get fed up with having to keep telling my computer what I’m doing. I can’t be bothered to inform iChat of my current mood or activity over
and over throughout the day.

Of course, iChat can automatically change my status from “Available” to “Away” when my computer is untouched for a certain period of time. But I never want to advertise myself as being “available,” so that doesn’t help. iChat can also indicate that I’m “idle” after a period of inactivity, but only if my status was previously “Available” – so that’s no help either. I could create a custom “Away” message (say, “Busy”) and stay logged in all the time with that status. But because “Busy” never changes to “Idle,” my status then provides no clue as to whether I’m at my computer – it only says that my computer is turned on and iChat is logged in, which could be the case 24 hours a day. If I always logged out or put my computer to sleep when I
stepped away, a “Busy” status would provide more information, but once again, that forces me to do extra tasks that I wouldn’t ordinarily do and will in all likelihood forget.

Apple (or perhaps an enterprising third-party developer) could solve this problem for me by making the “Away” setting behave the same way as “Available” – automatically switching to “idle” after a few minutes without input. That way, I could stay logged in all the time – with my red-badged “Don’t Disturb Unless Absolutely Necessary” status – but colleagues would still be able to tell whether I’m actually at my computer without my having to update iChat manually every time I get up.

(Adam Engst also addressed part of this issue in his article “iChat Status Report” (2004-03-29) – namely, the fact that iChat offers too few options for setting one’s status. Alas, Leopard’s iChat is in no way improved in this regard.)

A Little Birdie Told Me — So far I’ve been talking about status in the simplistic sense of “Am I interruptible?” But even though many people use their iChat status to indicate things like their mood or what they just ate for lunch, that isn’t the best tool for the job. Enter Twitter, which makes it very easy to supply your friends with exactly those sorts of brief “what I’m up to” updates. Other TidBITS staffers have voiced varying opinions about the service. Adam Engst didn’t like Twitter at first (“Visions of the Sublime and the Inane,” 2007-06-18) but, after seeing how it was used at the C4 conference, he came around to
thinking it was useful after all, as he explained in “Confessions of a Twitter Convert,” 2007-10-07). Tonya quickly followed suit, though she uses it somewhat differently (“Twitter Turns Out to be Fun and Useful,” 2007-08-24). Glenn Fleishman liked it but then decided it was too overwhelming (“Conversions of a Twitter Revert, 2008-01-02) – and then got sucked in yet again, as a way of maintaining some social interaction after officemate Jeff Carlson started spending more time at home with his new daughter.

Twitter is a way of learning what other people are thinking and doing (and telling them the same about yourself) with a minimum of effort. Unlike IM, receiving a tweet in Twitter doesn’t obligate you to carry on a conversation, so even if, say, Twitterrific is running in the background and pops up every time someone I’m following has something to say, I find it much less intrusive and bothersome than IM. I don’t always read the tweets, but I often do, and I learn some interesting things that way.

However, when it comes to the flip side – posting my own stuff on Twitter – my introverted nature causes problems again. For one thing, being the inward-focused type that I am, the very thought of constantly telling the world what I’m thinking or doing makes me tired and gives me the vague sense of not having enough solitude and privacy. I like feeling as though I’m snug in my comfy cave, minding my own business and getting my work done. Having to (virtually) poke my head out at regular intervals to announce what I’m up to requires too much energy. It also feels like a self-imposed interruption, and like all interruptions, it breaks my train of thought. Needless to say, no one has to post every hour or even every day, and in practice I
generally lurk with quite infrequent posts, but then that defeats the purpose of the system by not letting the people who are following me know anything useful on a regular basis.

I realize, of course, that Twitter’s 140 character limit strikes most people as being so brief that it requires essentially no thought or effort at all to post a tweet. How can that be an interruption? For me, it’s not the number of characters that’s the problem, it’s the need to mentally shift gears and add another task to my list – “Decide what to say.” You’ll recall that introverts like to choose their words carefully and deliberately, and so for me, even a one- or two-sentence tweet requires thought and consideration. That ends up being another task on my already full schedule, so it happens infrequently.

Two years ago, none of my friends or coworkers would have expected these sorts of frequent glimpses into my mental state throughout the day, because Twitter didn’t exist. But now its use as a networking and community-building tool has become so common that some people have worried that I don’t like them if I don’t interact with them regularly on Twitter! This troubles me – of course I still like you! – but it’s tricky to solve the problem in a way that respects the needs of both “innies” and “outies.”

The View from the Other Side — To this point, I’ve been saying that introversion is a normal, healthy state for a great many people, and that it could help to explain why some of us find otherwise useful technologies – IM and Twitter – uncomfortable or even distasteful. The implication is that all the introverts of the world should (quietly) stand up (in a corner) for their rights and insist (in a carefully and kindly worded letter) that the other half cut us a break and lay off all the beepy flashy instant messages. (Or, to put it less kindly, “Hey, we don’t need to change – you change!”) Well, it’s not necessarily that simple.

Several people I discussed this issue with expressed dismay at having had relationships deteriorate due to an unwillingness on another person’s part to adapt to changing technology. For example, people who don’t use email don’t get evites, and so they end up being excluded from parties. Once someone has adapted to a new mode of communication, it becomes harder to communicate with people who use the previous standard, so more often than not, we won’t make the effort. (How many personal letters did you write on paper and send in the mail last year?) For better or worse, the wave of technology sweeps us all forward, so if you avoid assimilation – no cell phone, or no IM, or no whatever-the-next-thing-is, you’ll find yourself left out, and
perhaps misunderstood. And for certain tasks, regardless of your issues with a particular technology, there just isn’t another suitable way to get the job done. (Try getting a pizza delivered to your home without using a telephone or a Web browser.)

Without a doubt, there will be times when even the most introverted among us has to just suck it up and deal with the unpleasantness for a higher good – say, maintaining a relationship or keeping a job. And almost certainly today’s versions of IM and Twitter will be greatly improved, or replaced by entirely new paradigms, within a few years, so perhaps the problem will improve on its own. But in the meantime, I’d like to suggest that the decision is not merely “you do it my way or I’ll do it your way.” Introverts and extroverts (or let’s say, more broadly, those who think IM is icky and those who think it’s great) can meet in the middle.

Suggestions — Despite my complaints about instant messaging from my viewpoint as an introvert, I don’t refuse ever to use iChat. In fact, I find it a wonderful tool for doing certain tasks, not the least of which is giving remote presentations (see “Using iChat Theater for Remote Presentations,” 2008-02-20). But for my own sanity and well-being, I can’t be logged in whenever I’m using my computer, and I can’t keep my status constantly updated. Similarly, I do use Twitter, just not in the way that some people expect. If you’re an introvert struggling with IM, here are some things I’ve tried that you might try as well.

  • Get It Out in the Open: If someone is expecting you to communicate via IM or Twitter and you’re struggling with it, talk the problem over. If you feel that the reason you’re uncomfortable derives from introversion, say so. It’s nothing to be ashamed of, and you can help to educate your extroverted friends about what communication feels like to a large segment of the population. Point them to this article, or to one of the books or Web sites mentioned above.

  • Ping Then IM: Speaking only for myself – not for introverts as a whole! – I don’t consider email messages interruptions, because I can put off looking at them until my brain is ready to switch gears. In practice, I’m usually very speedy about replying to email. (I believe in keeping an empty Inbox, so I can virtually guarantee that messages won’t go hours or days without being read, assuming I’m awake and in physical proximity to my computer.) Chances are I’ll come to a convenient stopping point in whatever I’m working on within a few minutes and look at any email that has recently arrived. So for me, one way of addressing the IM problem is simply to say to those who might wish to use iChat with me: if you need to discuss something
    with me in a hurry, send me an email message asking me to go online and chat with you or give you a call. In real life, this will probably result in a delay of a few minutes beyond the instant reaction you’d expect with IM, but only a few – and you’ll be doing an introvert a tremendous favor. If I don’t respond quickly, that most likely means I’m genuinely unavailable. And if even that brief delay is unacceptable given the urgency of what you have to discuss with me, call my cell phone. I have plenty of minutes left! (Obviously, the person on the other end can’t know for sure how quickly I’ll respond if they can’t see my status – and this would not be a good suggestion at all for someone who’s slow answering email – but this is at least a
    step toward compromise.)

  • Schedule Chats: If I’ve scheduled a chat with someone in advance (whether “advance” means minutes or months ahead of time), then I’ll be happy to be online at the designated time and devote my full attention to the conversation. See if your friends and coworkers will extend you the courtesy of scheduling chats, or at least of setting aside certain times of the day during which you can be safely offline without incurring anyone’s wrath.

  • Keep Chats Self-Contained: I’ve participated in chats involving half a dozen TidBITS staffers that have gone on, in fits and spurts, for hours. That means every time anyone posts something, I hear a sound or see a visual alert of some kind, and I have to redirect my attention to the iChat window to see what was said. This may happen hundreds of times over the course of a few hours. If I ignore the messages for a while, I have to scroll back to see what I missed – invariably including several questions directed at me. So practically speaking, if a chat is open, that has to be the only thing I’m doing. Switching back and forth doesn’t work for me. The moral of the story: if I participate in a chat, I need to be clear that I’m
    going to have a conversation and then leave. Open-ended chats, especially with multiple people, are a recipe for unhappiness.

  • Use Twitter to Announce Blog Posts: On those infrequent occasions when I post a tweet, it’s usually with a link to a post I’ve just written on one of my blogs – killing two birds with one tiny stone. (I happen to know that lots of people who follow me on Twitter don’t subscribe to the RSS feeds of all the blogs where I post.) If you prefer the slightly more ponderous schedule of blogging, use Twitter to bridge the gap with people who like more instant updates.

  • Think Local, Act Mobile: My lifestyle doesn’t involve texting or chatting on the go, and it’s possible that if I spent more time away from my computer, I’d feel differently about IM and Twitter – and use them in a different manner. Having an iPhone, BlackBerry, or other always-online gadget in one’s pocket can be convenient, and can enable some people to spend their time more efficiently by, for example, taking care of correspondence on the bus or train. But it can also be extremely tiring for introverts to feel as though they’re perpetually involved in a conversation. Unless your profession requires you to be reachable by anyone at any time, make the Off button your friend – take deliberate breaks from being connected to gather
    your thoughts and recharge.

The discussions I’ve had with other TidBITS staffers while working on this article have made it clear to me that the question of how personality types affect the ways one communicates is a complex one; it’s a topic that tends to produce strong but mixed feelings. I don’t pretend to have all the answers, or even an entirely satisfactory solution for myself. And, of course, I can’t prove that my theories about why I feel and behave the way I do are correct. But what I hope to have done is shed at least some light on an increasingly common source of grief. If you have opinions or experiences of your own you’d like to share, I invite you to discuss this topic on TidBITS
. Just remember: introverts may be in the minority, but then, so are Mac users. There’s no reason we can’t all get along!

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