The Introvert’s City

It’s the weekend (finally!). After a long, tiring work week, you’re in a funk and looking to reenergize. How do you go about it? According to conventional wisdom, if you’re an extrovert, you hit up a bustling restaurant or go to a crowded party. If you’re an introvert, you hibernate indoors with a good book and lots of silence, or if you feel like socializing, you go to dinner with a good friend. While extroverts gain energy from others, an introvert’s energy is sapped by people and crowds. But why? According to a 2005 study, extroverts have heightened emotional responses to unexpected positive outcomes and may be more prone to seek them out. In other words, they want newness and thrills. They indulge in adventure, uncertainty, new friends and risky sports. Introverts, on the other hand, are often content with what (and whom) they already know and love.

How does all of this play out in the big, bad city? It would seem NYC would be filled with only extroverts. It’s loud, chaotic, and rife with the possibility of the unexpected. We know, though, that’s not the case. The neurotic New Yorker is a long-used film and literary trope for a reason. I imagine thousands, if not millions of the city’s residents are wed to routine and are anxious if things don’t go exactly as planned–a trait, if not the defining one, of an introvert. There are also true introverts who live here, but seek out quiet corners where they’re able to hide away and unwind.

But what of the many introverted residents or visitors who, somewhat counterintuitively, relish the electricity of the crowds? What of people like me? I am in many ways an introvert. Small talk, parties with people I don’t know, being the center of attention–these tend to make me nervous. I’m fairly soft spoken and those who meet me would probably describe me as shy. On the other hand, being alone for an extended period of time tends to tire me out. How do I reconcile these seemingly conflicting traits? How do I recharge?

What works best is a walk down NYC’s streets, preferably in a crowded section of the city. A park bench is also ideal. There, I can feel the rush without feeling compelled to actually engage with anyone. Unless I want to engage, in which case the lack of necessity for conversation makes the act of conversing much less stressful.

Being out in the midst functions like a shot of espresso to jostle and excite me. (I’m not actually a coffee drinker, but I’ve heard things.) I’m an observer by nature. I study people–their mannerisms, their facial expressions, their conversations. In another life, I probably could have been a private detective. I imagine it’s why I’m drawn to writing, the ultimate observer’s profession.

The city is an observer’s dream. And, unlike the classic introvert who’s observant because that’s how he or she learns and engages with others, I observe because, like a classic extrovert, I’m looking for outside stimuli–something potentially inspiring or unusual to break up the everyday. Is the totally sane-looking man dressed in an old-timey prospector’s costume on a random Tuesday going somewhere or does he choose to dress this way because he enjoys it. Does the man wearing a Rangers jersey singing opera in the subway feel accepted by his family? I want to know! Tell me! I want to know everything. I often wish tourists would ask me for directions just so I can find out where they’re from. We can share a short, unencumbered chat and be on our way.

I guess the real difference between me and a true extrovert is that the knowledge itself is enough. I don’t actually need to be a theater star or wear extravagant look-at-me clothes or skydive or rock climb. It’s enough to know and learn. And the city, she’s a pretty great teacher.

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