Friday, February 28, 2014

Here's Johnny! A Celebrity Introvert

Recently I watched the PBS documentary, Johnny Carson: King of Late Night. Johnny once told a Tonight Show guest that he was an introvert. She asked why he thought he had an introverted personality. His response: "I ordered it from Omaha." To me, this was a perfect answer to a silly question. It may be hard to believe that public figures can be introverts, but it is true. On camera, Johnny was one way - quick, loose and funny. Behind the scenes he was a loner - private and aloof, a hard man to get to know.

During his nightly monologues, Johnny was the center of attention - a place that is often very difficult for introverts. You could see signs of introversion in his body language; at times he looked stiff and uncomfortable. But he also had the self-confidence that came from practicing his craft. As a child, he learned magic tricks as a way of getting social approval. On The Tonight Show, he turned on the extroverted charm long enough to perform in front of an audience five days a week. Yet because he was an introvert, he needed to retreat to his private sanctuary to recharge his batteries. 

After watching this documentary about a famous introvert with very different public and private faces, I found myself reflecting on a couple of questions. Just how changeable is introverted behavior? And if you can change introverted behavior, should you? 

Although people tend to think of introversion and extroversion as polar opposites, the personality types are better described as degrees on a continuum. The image below, from the LonerWolf introvert or extrovert test, depicts the different degrees of intro- and extroversion. Another website, Celebrity, has a Myers-Briggs type personality quiz where you can see the names of famous people who share your personality type, for example ISTJs (my type).
Image from
Scientific research suggests that we're born with a particular personality type, but I think we can change our innate behaviors, at least temporarily. I think of it as adjusting a volume control, like the output volume on my computer. Introverts, especially those of us on the far side of the spectrum, have to try really hard to silence the inner voice that urges caution in social situations. We may feel like we have to adjust our natural social behavior because the American culture values and rewards extroversion over introversion. If we want to succeed in school or at work or to fit in with a group of extroverts, we have to pretend to be extroverted. We have to make ourselves uncomfortable.

The ability to appear extroverted when you are not is known as "passing" or being a "closet introvert." Some people are adept at appearing to be one way or the other around different groups of people. Recently I found out that one of my sisters considers herself introverted. I always thought of her as one of the most extroverted people in our family. She is bubbly and quick-witted and seems to make friends easily. Yet she says she is not comfortable around people she doesn't know. I have also read that you can be both introverted and extroverted, particularly if you are creative
There is something about being on stage, in a role of actor or musician (and maybe public speaker?), that shifts the experience of introversion
Even though it is possible to hide introversion or temporarily act like an extrovert, I think introverts should learn to appreciate our strengths and do what we need to do to conserve our energy. The world is a better place because some of us are introverted. We concentrate, we're cautious, we're creative, we're persistent. There are neurological reasons behind our behavioral differences, our responses to dopamine and serotonin, for example. Introverts avoid being over-stimulated by our environments because we have so much going on internally already. We're wired for deep thought.

Although introverts don't respond to social interaction in the same way that extroverts do, we still desire to connect with people. Angelina Chapin, an introvert, wrote a blog post about the surprisingly best way to tell whether you are an introvert or extrovert: do you save your energy for meaningful conversations or do you find small talk stimulating? Regardless of what your personal preferences are, "keep in mind each is probably making the best choice about using or conserving his or her energy to form actual connections."

I think Johnny Carson understood this as well as anyone. He accepted his introversion but didn't let it keep him from interacting with people on his terms. With practice, he learned to be comfortable in front of a crowd because he wanted to connect with people and share his gift for comedy. He didn't just talk, he listened.


  1. I'd say that most members of our family lean towards introversion, though a few do not. So perhaps it's genetic?

    I'd say one way to tell whether you're an introvert or an extrovert is whether you're comfortable being the center of attention or not. We all like attention from those we know, but extroverts even want attention from strangers.

    Just because one's an introvert doesn't mean you can't will yourself to interact with others. But introverts choose with whom they interact, and how; with the right person even an introvert can become a babbling fool. Introverts tend to rehearse their sentences when speaking to people they don't know; their best conversations often occur in their heads. They often use their words sparingly, making sure each one counts. Introverts need alone time and can find it even within a crowd. They just withdraw into themselves until they feel comfortable interacting again.

    Introverts worry about whether they're too introverted. Extroverts never worry that they're too extroverted.

    1. There do seem to be more introverts than extroverts in our family. It would be interesting to find out if it is genetic. I love reading about the science behind introversion. I think the reason introverts worry about whether we're too introverted is because our culture acts like there is something wrong with us if we don't respond to social interaction the same way that extroverts do. Schools and business environments are geared towards extroversion. I believe there is a reason that people are wired in two very different ways - both personality types have advantages. I am learning to appreciate min.

  2. Read Party of One. Some of us are more than introverts. It's called loner. It's the way we are.

  3. I visited the author's website and Party of One looks like a good book. "No two loners are alike, but all of us have one thing in common: we like to be alone." I have always enjoyed being alone but I also like being around other people, in small doses. I don't like crowds. Unfortunately, our culture treats those who like being alone as if they are flawed in some way.