Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Energy Givers and Energy Sinks

I saw someone pushing How To Live With Introverts yesterday as a good explanation of how introverts work, and the particular explanation of the energy conservation of introversion set off a chain of thought about the way social interactions work.

First off, I'm not big on the extravert/introvert dichotomy, simply because I'm not big on dualistic systems. A spectrum is a much more interesting and accurate way to examine how people "recharge", although that wouldn't be as convenient for cartoonists and self-help gurus who garner 100+ comment threads by caricaturing extroverts as manic monsters and introverts as idiot children. But the example in the above cartoon of introverts giving their energy in social situations made me think: spending your energy on social interactions is not the same thing as contributing energy to social interactions.

Consider: certain types of people suck the energy out of any interaction, whether it's a one-on-one situation or a group setting. They're difficult to talk to, and they're difficult to sit quietly with, because they're needy. This can manifest in various ways, and it's not confined to one side of the spectrum. A loud, dominating personality might try to drag all the energy in the room to himself, requiring people to either throw up shields or be bombarded by an excess of energy that only exhausts; a silent, parasitic personality might constantly absorb energy without giving any back. Interacting with energy sinks is wearing whether you veer toward introversion or extraversion, because there's no way to recharge energy and nowhere to hide.

By way of contrast, let me present to you my brother. He doesn't have to be loud or crazy; he gives energy to any situation he enters just by entering it, whether he's in high spirits or completely, quietly worn out after a long shift. He gives energy to a room even if he's sleeping on the floor at 2 am. He neither sits around waiting for affirmation nor gets up and demands it. He can be boisterous with the loud ones and peaceful with the quiet ones and succinct with the surly ones as needed, but in everything he just is himself, adding life to gatherings large and small, wild or solemn, simply by being there.

Social energy-givers can be active and chatty, or quiet and serene, or anywhere between these two poles. They don't demand an investment of everyone else's energy; they don't requisition attention; they are at ease with themselves and so able to put others at ease. Energy sinks, on the other hand, are often nervous and insecure, whether they're calling attention to themselves with antics or gossip, or trying to influence social perception of themselves by overstated opinions, or desperately trying to fit in, or sullenly begging for bones of affirmation. Some people shift between giving and taking; some are mostly energy-neutral; some are dependably one or the other.

This is not very technical language, of course, but merely my disorganized reactions to the hamster ball analogy of the post above. For a more systematic, virtue-based analysis of what makes a person agreeable society, see Brandon's discussion of affability.
Affability, affabilitas, is also called amicitia, friendliness, but I think that, despite the fact that 'affability' in English usually indicates a matter of temperament rather than character, it is in some ways potentially less misleading. Affability is, roughly, the virtue of making one's interactions with others suitable for friendship; it is not friendship itself, but the acquired disposition of acting outwardly in a way that does not rule friendship out. It is one of those virtues that is widely recognized as a virtue but little discussed, perhaps because it is often classified as a 'lesser virtue', as being very little more than sociable manners taken to a high degree of polish; as we shall see, it is not so clearly minor.


Anonymous said...

I think that's an interesting distinction.

I've never like classifying myself as either an introvert or an extrovert, in that there are times when I feel like I get a lot of energy from being around people and times when I feel exhausted by being around people.

However, thinking about it, I think that's more a function of the sort of people I'm interacting with than me changing. And it's definitely the case that the energy givers/takers divide does not tie off neatly to whether people seem extroverted or introverted.

mrsdarwin said...

I think self-confidence is one of the marks of an energy-giver. Sure, everyone's known the egotist who dominates or ignores with total conviction, but more common are people with low self-esteem who are either acting out for attention or acting in, if you will, from awkwardness and social terror. I sympathize, but man, the absolute effort required to interact with such people makes me feel like I'm becoming false myself.

Brandon said...

It's an interesting way of putting it. I think one weakness of the whole introversion/extraversion thing is that people end up falling into these categories for different reasons. I think a lot of people end up categorized on the introversion side because they have difficulty reading people or difficulty figuring out what is appropriate in unfamiliar situations; but I end up on that side mostly because I am very wary of people I don't know well, and of myself around them, not because I'm actually all that reserved by temperament. And my case doesn't seem to be all that uncommon among 'introverts': quiet until they've put themselves forward, at which point the problem becomes holding themselves back when they should. So they really end up being mish-mash categories.

mrsdarwin said...

I'm generally put in the extravert category, and that's mostly accurate, I guess -- I've certainly never felt moved to claim that I inhabit a big hamster ball and that the onus for making me socially comfortable is on everyone else, at any rate. But although I can draw energy from groups, I like to be able to get away at some point and analyze everything with someone trusted, preferably Darwin. If I didn't have that outlet, I don't know whether I'd sink into total life of the mind territory, or if I'd be one of those people who are always on the phone. Probably the former.

Enbrethiliel said...


I personally love the introvert/extravert model! Dichotomy, spectrum, whatever: I think it works.

Another way to look at it is sensitivity to stimuli. I was listening to a lecture by Susan Cain (author of Quiet) and she said that if you put a drop of lemon juice on people's tongues, the more introverted ones will salivate more. Any stimuli, not just social interactions, will get more of a reaction from introverts.

Foxfier said...

hm, the "gets more reaction" part would explain why I feel so overwhelmed by groups I don't know well, but adore things like family gatherings and large chattering geek groups.

Mrs Darwin-
I don't know if self confidence is or not-- possibly the appearance of it?
I know I don't feel self confident at all, but it's one of the first things folks use to describe me (which is really odd when you're writhing with doubt inside) and a confusing number of folks seek interaction with me. Maybe I just attract the needy folks, it'd explain some other things.... of course, I could just be a social leach that folks feel drawn to talk to out of good manners.

It seems like "introvert" and "extrovert" need to be defined each time they're used, the dual meanings of "gets energy/needs to rest after socializing" vs "is boisterous/is quiet" get kinda confusing.

I like the "adds energy/drains energy" metric as an additional qualifier.

Jenny said...

I am always on the introvert side of the scale, but it is interesting to think about why. Public speaking does not bother me and in certain situations I can be very chatty. Pithy is not my strong suit.

One way I am a major introvert is my reaction to noise. I cannot think in noisy environments. Loud parties, movies, clubs, loud background music, and screaming children are paralyzing to me because I cannot form coherent thoughts in my head. I also wonder if I have some minor hearing damage from all those years in band because I also have a difficult time hearing conversation in loud places. Mostly that means if I'm in a loud place, I'm probably sitting to the side wondering when I can go home.

But in smaller groups or casual conversation, I am not usually uncomfortable. However if I don't know you relatively well, I do tend to be quiet for two reasons. 1) Like Brandon said, I do not have the greatest filter in conversation. In college my friends used to say to me, "Don't hold back, tell us what you really think." 2) I hate repeating what others have already said. In classes I rarely answered many questions because it seemed redundant to what others had already offered. I guess I am like Clarence Thomas in that regard. No need to repeat something just to hear my own voice.

Jenny said...

I think the spam filter ate my comment. I don't think it likes it when I post sans profile, but I'm too lazy to log out my husband and sign in myself.

MrsDarwin said...

Jenny, when I was 14, someone told me, "You have a comment for everything, and most of them don't need to be made." It was probably the most useful piece of advice I've been given in my life, and though I don't follow it perfectly every time, it's helped me develop a strong internal editor. Which has been very useful, because I too am not a naturally reserved person

bibliotecaria said...

I find the infographic interesting, but it is definitely an over-simplification. Spectrum is by far the better word. And I would agree that you have to interact with people based on multiple axes, not just that one. Introvert/extrovert, energy-giver/energy-taker, self-confident/lacking in confidence are all different axes that affect how a person interacts with you.

But one thing is true -- I HAVE to have my alone time. Otherwise I get cranky.