To my fellow introverts: Are you confined in a small space with family members who play loud music, conduct Zoom calls in common areas, and insist on discussing every quasi-interesting internet headline (or whatever else may wander through their minds)? You are not in hell, though it may feel that way. You are in month 11 of COVID quarantine.
This is not a period engineered for those of us who crave solitude and quiet reflection. For our family—two extreme introverts, two raging extroverts, and my wife in the middle working to keep the peace—COVID is a throwback to our first sobering encounter with the introvert-extrovert divide.
In 2016, the Wheelan Family left Hanover, New Hampshire, for a “family gap year.” Although we would eventually travel across six continents, the irony of the trip is that our daily existence was similar to what many families are going through now. We spent nearly every hour of every day in close proximity to one another: in small apartments, on long bus rides, around the table for every meal. We were even doing online schooling for two of our children, years before most people knew that was a thing.
What caused our first complete family meltdown (defined as three people crying at once)? It was not insects or intestinal problems or cold showers with lousy water pressure. It was the introvert-extrovert tension that simmered for more than a month and then blew up on the banks of Lake Titicaca.
Like all families, we were aware of our personality differences before circumstances pushed us together for most hours of the day. I am introverted. My wife Leah is modestly extroverted. When the holidays come, Leah plays canasta late into the night with her extrovert siblings. I find a quiet place to read.
I have kept a journal since I was in high school. Our oldest daughter, Katrina, who was 18 at the time of our trip, keeps a journal as well. For us, this is a way to reflect and process one’s thoughts. Quiet time is essential for recharging.
My son CJ, 13 at the time of our travel, resides at the other end of the introvert-extrovert spectrum. Why keep a journal when every possible thought has already been processed out loud? CJ’s friends nicknamed him “Wally” in fourth grade when, after he had been separated from the class for excessive talking, he allegedly began conversing with the wall. (Our other daughter, Sophie, the second extrovert, had not joined us on the trip yet.)
Budget travel, like COVID quarantine, forces the introverts and extroverts together for unnaturally long stretches of time. Each personality type considers the other to be the problem. For the introverts, the incessant talking and other social distractions are like a jackhammer to the brain. For the extroverts, there would be no problems if the introverts were not so sensitive.
Our travel explosion came at a charming restaurant on the banks of Lake Titicaca in Bolivia. The proximate cause was CJ’s purchase of a small canister of Pringles. However, to blame the Pringles for the subsequent hour of sobbing would be like attributing World War I solely to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. It went much deeper.
Aggrieved by the Pringles purchase (which pushed us over our food budget for the day) and exhausted by CJ’s incessant talking, Katrina declared that CJ was no longer allowed to sit within five rows of her on any bus. I rushed to support her, offering my best impression of what it felt like to be seated near CJ on an 18-hour bus ride: “Is that a goat? That is a goat. Hey guys, don’t you think goats are cute, especially baby goats? Then again, all baby animals are cute, really. I wonder why that is. What do you guys think? I’ll tell you what I think . . .”
CJ objected volubly to the bus ban. (There was no period of quiet self-reflection.) He began wailing that we were being mean to him. (True.) Leah, a middle child and the peacemaker in our family, defended CJ and chastised us for ganging up on him.
Katrina and I argued that when Leah defended CJ, she abetted his annoying behavior (Also true).
When the waiter came to our table to offer us menus, we were all yelling at each other. “I will come back in a moment,” he said in Spanish.
“How do you think CJ feels when you tell him that you won’t sit near him on a bus?” Leah asked Katrina.
“Bad,” Katrina said, her eyes welling up with tears.
“It does make me feel bad,” CJ blubbered.
Leah turned to CJ. “Do you understand why Katrina finds it hard to sit next to you on the bus?” she asked.
“Sometimes I can’t help talking,” he said, tears streaming down his face.
Leah, still channeling her inner Oprah, looked at Katrina and me: “How do you think it makes me feel when the two of you don’t want to be with the rest of us?” Katrina and I apologized. When the waiter reappeared, we were all crying.
Does this feel familiar? (Forget the Pringles and the Spanish-speaking waiter.) The introvert-extrovert divide is like the Cold War of personality types. There have been modest attempts at peacekeeping, such as Susan Cain’s wonderful book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. In normal times, introverts and extroverts find equilibrium, sorting themselves into professions and roles and situations that best suit their personalities, e.g., academic and writer for me.
These are not normal times. COVID has disrupted the equilibrium: online schooling; offices closed; adult children returning to the nest; and meal after meal at home. Pre-COVID, I found peace working at the King Arthur Flour Café across the river in Norwich, Vermont. Not only is the café now closed (other than for takeout), I am not even allowed in Vermont without quarantining there for a week.
During our travels, we learned to adapt. CJ never stopped talking, but he did become more aware of others around him. I began working every day on a novel, mostly as a solitary morning ritual. (Remarkably, The Rationing, which was published in 2019, was about a global pandemic.) Katrina became more comfortable wandering off to a café when she needed alone time. Leah strived to hold everything together, like the conductor of a needy symphony orchestra.
We returned from our trip in 2017, but when the coronavirus arrived, the introvert-extrovert schism erupted anew. Once again, we have faced it down. I regularly commute into my empty office. Katrina has been doing a lot of cross-country skiing, even at night. CJ has learned not to walk into a room where people are working and turn on the Rolling Stones (while simultaneously watching a Trevor video on his laptop).
The vaccine will liberate us, both from COVID and from our close confinement. In fact, I think CJ is talking about the vaccine right now.
Charles Wheelan is the author of the best-selling Naked Statistics and Naked Economics, and, most recently, We Came, We Saw, We Left: A Family Gap Year. A former correspondent for the Economist, he teaches public policy and economics at Dartmouth College and lives in Hanover, New Hampshire, with his family.