Why Apple’s “Sullen Youth” Ad Works, You Snide, Heartless Jerks

Maybe, like me, you’re not all that great with big family get-togethers during the holidays. Maybe, like me, you find yourself a little overwhelmed by all the reuniting, all the catching-up, all the big expressions of emotion. And maybe you’re even a “sullen teenager,” as I was many years ago, who is still figuring out how to behave around this weird mix of adults and children. Maybe you don’t always feel like you really know them, or know yourself, and maybe, like me, you just don’t thrive in that environment.

And maybe, if you’re like me, you also still love all of them a whole lot, and would like a way to show it.

That’s why Apple’s ad works. Technology and the Internet, represented in this ad by the iPhone, is what can allow us introverts to feel safe, and express ourselves more sincerely than we otherwise would be able. It’s not a crutch, it’s the amplifier, the translator. 

Maybe that sullen youth, who really does love his family, is more comfortable fiddling with his phone than “experiencing” everything so fully and physically, but you know what? That’s just who he is, and his family loves him too.

But you can go ahead and be snide, heartless jerks about it. Me and this fictional sullen youth who exists only in this corporate advertisement for a consumer product are used that.

www = IRL

No doubt you’ve seen some manifestation of a species of essay wherein the author goes cold turkey on the Internet for some length of time, and proceeds to discover themselves anew or some such. The proliferation of these pieces, and the moral or revelatory high ground they often claim often makes me roll my eyes so far back that I can read my own thoughts. That’s why this piece by Nathan Jurgenson was such a breath of fresh air. (Well, would have been a breath of fresh air, but for some of the dense and mostly-unnecessary in-text scholarly references — isn’t that what footnotes are for?) See here his take on this particular meme:

This concern-and-confess genre frames digital connection as something personally debasing, socially unnatural despite the rapidity with which it has been adopted. It’s depicted as a dangerous desire, an unhealthy pleasure, an addictive toxin to be regulated and medicated. That we’d be concerned with how to best use (or not use) a phone or a social service or any new technological development is of course to be expected, but the way the concern with digital connection has manifested itself in such profoundly heavy-handed ways suggests in the aggregate something more significant is happening, to make so many of us feel as though our integrity as humans has suddenly been placed at risk.

But has it? Certainly one can be on the Internet, or on one’s smartphone or what have you, “too much,” but what exactly that means has more to do with what one is doing while online than the percentage of one’s day is spent doing it. If you’re browsing Facebook for 12 hours a day, you have a problem, but the Internet’s not it.

Anyway, more to the point I want to get to, here’s Jurgenson again, talking now more generally about the position that somehow we’re all overdosing on iPhones, and the “disconnectionist” gurus who blatantly avert their eyes from Retina displays while aloft their high (and very real-life) horses:

The disconnectionists see the Internet as having normalized, perhaps even enforced, an unprecedented repression of the authentic self in favor of calculated avatar performance. If we could only pull ourselves away from screens and stop trading the real for the simulated, we would reconnect with our deeper truth.

This is what always bothers me about these types; the assertion or suggestion that we’re not being truly ourselves online. And as someone who has found the exact opposite to true, indeed, as one who has in many ways been redeemed by the Internet Age, I say, fuck that noise.

As I’ve now documented ad nauseum on this blog (and shall again!), I am a fairly severe introvert. Personal interaction in “the real world” with human beings corporeally in my presence is exhausting and stressful to me, even when said humans are those I love and trust. This has lead to a great deal of energy wasted on hiding myself, be it trying to blend in unnoticed in hostile-seeming situations (like school or when something horrible like sports are taking place), to presenting a falsely extroverted version of myself in evaluative situations like job interviews, or as a person who really enjoys small talk and networking, or any number of awkward, gawky masks — like those worn by actors of Ancient Greece, but so absurdly top-heavy as to make me stumble and topple over mid-choral ode.

With the exception of performing as an actual actor or musician on stage, the real world has been stifling to whoever or whatever the hell it is I “really” am.

Online I’ve found a taste of liberation. Not only do I feel more free to expound upon all manner of subjects, to make dumb jokes, and to promote myself with a sincerity I could never muster in meatspace, but perhaps more importantly, I more often feel at ease in simply explaining things about myself as a person, to talk about my kids and my day to day life, to unpack some of the mundane stuff as well as the heavier things. Behind the screen, at the keyboard, at the flick of the scrolling display, even in the midst of the cacophony of the Internet, I can communicate without so much of the same noise within my own mind, where each synapse second-guesses the next.

It’s not so much that I get to use the Web as some giant confessional with “like” buttons, but that I can just relax a bit more and talk about even boring and trivial things about myself, and even find it easier to be curious about others’ and their own trivialities, which I rarely am in physical space. I can breathe.

I’d be curious to know whether many or most of the folks who espouse disconnection are extroverts, if they are biased by their own inclination toward revitalization through in-person human contact, all within a “real world” already largely constructed around extroverted predilections. If I’m on to something, well, of course they see the online life as valueless, or as phony. It doesn’t serve their own needs. But for me, and I suspect for my kind, it’s the means of expression, the gateway into general society, that we’ve been waiting for. We’re damn lucky it came about it our lifetimes, and you better believe that for us, it’s real life.

Creativity and Personality for Cash

Thomas Frank pores over the literature on creativity, and pins down its themes, motivations, and its intended audience:

Those who urge us to “think different” . . . almost never do so themselves. Year after year, new installments in this unchanging genre are produced and consumed. Creativity, they all tell us, is too important to be left to the creative. Our prosperity depends on it. And by dint of careful study and the hardest science — by, say, sliding a jazz pianist’s head into an MRI machine — we can crack the code of creativity and unleash its moneymaking power.

He determines that this literature sells creativity as not simply a personal trait that brings meaning and fulfillment as it helps create lasting, substantive work. Instead, it’s a “class virtue,” and the “property” of the professional-managerial class (not, say, artists, writers, or performers):

Creativity is what [the professional-managerial class] bring[s] to the national economic effort, these books reassure them — and it’s also the benevolent doctrine under which they rightly rule the world.

Now, I’ve just begun reading Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in the World That Can’t Stop Talking, and it begins with a short recent-history of the rise of extroversion as a self-evident virtue, describing a move from societal reverence for character to personality. And the gist is not that “personality” — being personally “winning” or extroverted — is a way to a happier and more meaningful life, but the domain of the professional class to advance itself financially.

It begins to seem like these two things, creativity and extroversion, are being treated as two sides of the same coin. And that coin is huge and made of platinum. These are not traits for self-actualization, they are commodities to be harvested and cashed in.

And here’s the really big dissonance for me: What I think of as “creativity,” or at least of the “creative person” (and I hope I am one), enormously overlaps with introversion. It’s the folks who are sick of making small talk and want to be left alone to do their own thing who are creative, because for god’s sake who can be creative with all this chatting and networking and whatnot going on? That’s my prejudice, anyway.

Then you have Alan Jacobs who says:

[T]he problem is that there’s actually no such thing as “creativity.” It’s a made-up concept bearing no relation to anything that exists. It’s a classic case of what the Marxists used to call “false reification.” Let’s never speak of it again.

Well, I guess “money” doesn’t actually “exist” either. It, too, is a (false?) reification. So maybe it all makes a kind of twisted, extremely disappointing sense.

Introverts: We’re *Genuine*, Not Jerks (Or, Genuinely Jerks)

Is there some kind of “introversion is the new black” thing going on? It’s probably due more to confirmation bias on my own part, but it sure seems like the more interested I am in the subject of introversion as perfectly valid way-of-being, as opposed to some kind of affliction or condition to be fought or hidden, the more I see written about it. Well, good then. I will consume this content, all by myself of course. Om nom nom.

Huffington Post has this listicle up — gah, I can barely even stand typing “listicle,” with it’s that’s-not-really-a-word ugliness, like it’s some half-assed word that isn’t even trying, not to mention that the format feels so cheap — where was I? Right, there’s this HuffPo listicle (gah!) on 23 signs you mightsecretly be an introvert, and despite the insipid structure and dubious title, it has a few items that rang little bells of familiarity in my head.

But first, to address that dubious title. “Secretly”? Nothing in here has anything to do with being closeted, which is implied by the word “secretly,” like you’re intentionally hiding your wallfloweriness. “23 Signs You May Be an Introvert and Not Know It” would have been more accurate. Okay, I’ll leave that there.

Really, it was two particular items that are really of a piece that got my attention. The first was on finding small talk “cumbersome,” explained thusly:

Introverts are notoriously small talk-phobic, as they find idle chatter to be a source of anxiety, or at least annoyance. For many quiet types, chitchat can feel disingenuous.

“Let’s clear one thing up: Introverts do not hate small talk because we dislike people,” Laurie Helgoe writes in “Introvert Power: Why Your Inner Life Is Your Hidden Strength.” “We hate small talk because we hate the barrier it creates between people.”

The other was on the dreaded necessary evil of networking:

Networking (read: small-talk with the end goal of advancing your career) can feel particularly disingenuous for introverts, who crave authenticity in their interactions.

Obviously, the theme here is an aversion to being fake. First, we take as given that any social activity is, to use an overworn cliche in the topic of introversion, “drains batteries,” as opposed to extroverts who “recharge” through social interaction. And this includes social activity we enjoy and have sought out! We had a couple of our closest friends over this weekend, and last night at dinner, after a full day with them, I could feel the switch go off in my head that said “you’re empty.” I could feel myself shut down, get silent, and I probably looked morose. I love these folks, and was having a lovely time, but like it or not, I was out of power.

That being the case, imagine how much more energy is expended in pretending to give a damn about what people are talking about, in actively participating in what feels like a bad piece of theatre in which we all stand near each other, and ask inoffensive and banal questions about each other’s lives, either to simply fill space, or, gag, to “network.” It’s unbearable to me, but I often have no choice. And it’s absolutely exhausting, I can barely stand an hour of it, let alone a day’s worth.

And what’s more, it feels phony, like a huge lie, and it makes me feel bad about myself on several levels. For one, I feel bad for being so bad at something so common and necessary as small talk and networking. Also, I feel morally dirty for pretending to such a degree, faking this level of interest and investment in an interaction I know in my heart I’d rather run and hide from. And additionally, I feel like a bad, narcissistic person for not being more interested in what other people have to say, in asking them questions to get to know them better, but I just don’t. That must mean, the thinking goes, that I must be some kind of jerk. (And I may be!)

This even ties into number 14 on the listicle (gah!), that you screen your calls even from friends. Well of course! A phone call is akin to someone walking into your house unannounced and expecting your undivided attention as you stop whatever you’re doing. Friend or no friend, that’s social interaction that will likely involve an unhealthy dose of small talk, so whether I like you or not, I’m still putting a buffer between me and any unsought telephony.

Anyway, it’s probably too generous to introverts (or to me) to chalk it up to this: introverts are just too genuine and sincere to stand being phony. But it’s closer to the truth than “there’s something wrong with us,” or, “we’re just selfish or narcissistic.” There are likely elements of all of these sloshing around in the mix. I probably am a little narcissistic (hello, actor!), a little too self-aborbed, and a little too uncurious about other human beings. But it’s also true that small talk and networking and any social interaction is crushingly exhausting to me, and that engaging in that interaction in an insincere way, quadruply so. Maybe just knowing that can help.

You Are a Wonderful Person, But Now Please Shush

Following my previous post on introversion, the delightful Emily Hauser directed my attention to a piece by Jonathan Rauch from 2003 that not only acknowledges the difficulty of being introverted, but also advises extroverts on how to help the introverts they love.

First off, he makes a refreshing clarification: we’re not, by virtue of our aversion to social situations, dicks.

Introverts are not necessarily shy. … Rather, introverts are people who find other people tiring. . . . after an hour or two of being socially “on,” we introverts need to turn off and recharge. My own formula is roughly two hours alone for every hour of socializing. This isn’t antisocial. It isn’t a sign of depression. It does not call for medication. For introverts, to be alone with our thoughts is as restorative as sleeping, as nourishing as eating.

When it’s put like this, it doesn’t sound so bad, does it? I mean, hey, extroverts, you like eating and sleeping, right? Well guess what.

But of course, the extrovert in question would have to take our word for it, that this is simply how we get by. And, well, they often just can’t.

Extroverts have little or no grasp of introversion. They assume that company, especially their own, is always welcome. They cannot imagine why someone would need to be alone; indeed, they often take umbrage at the suggestion. As often as I have tried to explain the matter to extroverts, I have never sensed that any of them really understood.

Same here, and that very much includes those closest to me, who love me most. At best, I can manage to squeeze from them a kind of resigned acceptance, a humoring, with a loving dusting of benefit-of-the-doubt. ‘This is just what Paul is like, and if I want to know and be with Paul, I suppose there’s no changing this.’

There is, of course, always the expectation that, despite my feelings, I will play along with the extroverts. They are the standard. When in Rome, etc. Rauch gets this, noting that it is the extroverts who get to be the ones to put in place social norms–and how could it be otherwise? Being primarily those doing the talking–showing up, as it were–the idea of extroversion as a self-evident virtue naturally ascends and remains firmly fixed.

And as for we introverts? Whether or not we play along, we must lead our lives of quiet desperation, the extroverts all the while blissfully ignorant:

The worst of it is that extroverts have no idea of the torment they put us through. Sometimes, as we gasp for air amid the fog of their 98-percent-content-free talk, we wonder if extroverts even bother to listen to themselves. Still, we endure stoically, because the etiquette books—written, no doubt, by extroverts—regard declining to banter as rude and gaps in conversation as awkward. We can only dream that someday, when our condition is more widely understood, when perhaps an Introverts’ Rights movement has blossomed and borne fruit, it will not be impolite to say “I’m an introvert. You are a wonderful person and I like you. But now please shush.”

And not only would uttering such a sentence be a social felony, but the simple act of non- or half-hearted social participation itself is a misdemeanor, or, at best, a symptom of some horribly unpleasant (and slightly disfiguring) condition.

But think again of the analogy to eating and sleeping. Personal interaction is the food and slumber of the extrovert. Imagine someone you knew, and even loved, told you that, well, they actually don’t like to eat or sleep, and actually try to do as little of them as possible. And if they must eat or sleep, they actually need to recover from it. Yeah, you’d think that was a bit odd. You certainly wouldn’t feel inclined to rewire the world or rejigger your own life to accommodate them.

So as much as I want articles like Rauch’s to encourage the extroverts who dominate our world to better understand and appreciate their quieter associations, it’s also helped me understand why extroverts, like my wife, for example, can’t quite wrap their heads around why we are the way we are. It’s unfair that extroverts got to write the social rules to begin with, but it’s not like we tried to stop them, and it’s nobody’s fault now.

So anyway, what can the conscientious extrovert do to be humane to their introverted loved one?

First, recognize that it’s not a choice. It’s not a lifestyle. It’s an orientation.

Second, when you see an introvert lost in thought, don’t say “What’s the matter?” or “Are you all right?”

Third, don’t say anything else, either.


Interestingly, Emily, who directed me to this article, noted that it turned a lightbulb on for her about her own son, 4 years old at the time. The fact that she realized this when her boy was so young is remarkable to me, for I don’t think my introversion would have been at all apparent to anyone, myself included, at that age. Indeed, I am told countless stories of my brazen openness to interaction as a toddler and young child, my constant efforts to win attention (which still exists, but not socially). Mostly what I recall from those years is a lot of positive reinforcement for who I was and how I behaved. It was not until he age of 10, sixth grade, when my family moved to a new area, that my life became very, very dark socially, with a constant strain of torment from my peers, when I had no choice but to retreat for fear of a kind of personal annihilation.

But, I suppose, too, I began to notice a slight difference between myself and others a little before then. Even in the idyllic part of my childhood, before our move, I recall inclinations toward the indoors over the outdoors, and quieter, more imaginative, and less populated activities and games over mad childhood scrambles or sports. Now that I think of it, I think I did at least begin to prefer being alone.

So perhaps I was already primed toward introversion, but I also have to assume that the barrage of negative reinforcement in middle school and onward, they daily flood of fight-or-flight chemicals in the bloodstream of a meek, thoughtful, generally sweet little boy, vaulted me well into all-out social aversion, where I remain encamped today.

I denied it for years, for decades. It was an illness to overcome, I thought, a fault in my personality to be corrected.

I don’t quite feel that way anymore. I am, if not proudly, at least affirmatively, an introvert. And if nothing else, I’m out.