How Introverts and Extroverts Are Handling Self-Isolation Differently

“Solitude is isolation that feels good, and loneliness is isolation that feels bad.”

Exciting news: The Next Big Idea podcast is back with a special miniseries, “Rethinking Big Ideas.” The first episode features host Rufus Griscom in conversation with Susan Cain, bestselling author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. In the excerpt below, they discuss introversion and extroversion in the time of COVID-19, and reflect on why a rendition of “Ode to Joy” moves us now more than ever.

Rufus: I like your distinction that solitude is isolation that feels good, and loneliness is isolation that feels bad. And it may be that we each have different thresholds—like hopefully everybody feels a positive sense of aloneness initially, and at some point, that converts into a negative experience of loneliness.

Susan: Yeah, that’s very much my experience. I’ve found that over the last couple of weeks, there’s been a black-and-white way in which people have been talking about the way introverts and extroverts must be reacting to this new experience. The idea is that introverts will love it because it’s all this alone time, and extroverts will hate it. And there is truth in that, but introverts also have this threshold where it tips over from solitude into loneliness.

I’m lucky to be in this quarantine situation with my family, but if I were younger and single and living in a small apartment in New York city, I think I would have tipped over into loneliness quite quickly.

Rufus: This is a great moment for introvert humor. I have a lot of friends who self-identify as introverts saying, “I’ve been social distancing for decades just to prepare for this occasion!” Do you think there’s a real distinction between how introverts and extroverts are navigating this? The stereotype would be that extroverts are having a harder time.

Susan: That’s probably true on average, but I think the more apt question is, “Were you at the right threshold beforehand?” The other day I got an email from a friend of mine who is the leader of a large organization, and he’s an introvert. And he’s just so happy not to have to go into the office anymore—for him, that’s really ideal. Whereas if you were an introvert who had worked out the right balance before this happened, but now you’ve had to adjust that balance, it’s still probably going to be difficult for you. And the same is true for extroverts—it’s just more likely, I think, that the extroverts’ balance before was ideal and that this one is not. And I have a lot of empathy for that, because we all know what loneliness feels like. It’s a horrible, horrible feeling.

There’s this expression from Proust where he talks about reading, being “the fruitful miracle of communication in the midst of solitude.” I think that’s probably the experience that introverts have been seeking out all their lives, because it’s a way of feeling connected without feeling overstimulated. And now there’s a way in which extroverts can creatively look for new ways to have that sensation of the fruitful miracle, even in their solitude.

Rufus: Can we talk for a moment about the YouTube video of the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra performing “Ode to Joy” from their homes? I’ve watched it a half-dozen times, and my eyes moistened like clockwork every single time. What do you think it is about this video that’s so affecting?

Susan: For people who haven’t watched it yet, it’s almost like the coronavirus version of a flash mob. It’s the various members of the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, each of them playing their part of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” from their own homes, and then it’s all spliced together to make it into one glorious orchestral sound.

You see all these musicians, and all of them have an incredible humanity and humility to them. These are people that have devoted their lives to perfecting the ability to make something beautiful. And now they’re sharing that with us at this moment when we all feel completely vulnerable, and alive to the fact that we’re all mortal. There’s something about the beauty of the sound they’re making where it’s like this reaching for the heavens, but they’re simultaneously expressing the fact that we’re all mortal—and there’s something so incredibly beautiful about that.

Rufus: The other detail I love is that it opens with each of them doing these solos, so you’re introduced to person after person, each wearing a different outfit in a different place in their home. Some are next to a painting they clearly love, or a bookshelf filled with CDs. There’s one guy with a “vegan power” baseball cap. So you have all these expressions of individuality, the individuality of each instrument of each person. And then the video pulls back into this checkerboard view, and you have this beautiful crescendo where they all become one. It feels like individuality dissolving into the collective whole of this moment.

Susan: You’re right, it’s this big acknowledgement of the collective situation that we’re all in with this pandemic. But we’re also collectively in the situation of being human and being mortal and loving beauty. There’s something about those musicians all together on the screen that makes all of that plain.

Rufus: You told me that Beethoven wrote “Ode to Joy,” one of the most beautiful pieces of music that’s ever been written, when he was almost deaf.

Susan: Yes. I’ve always been struck by the fact that this music is called “Ode to Joy,” because if you listen to it, it’s so obviously bittersweet. It’s not just pure joy—it’s more like joy and sorrow, all mixed together in this beautiful thing.

When Beethoven was writing this, he was really losing his hearing. And when it was first performed in a symphony hall one night, he was on stage with the conductor, with his back turned to the audience. When it was all done and they were finished playing, the audience erupted into cheers and tears.

But he didn’t know that. He couldn’t see, because his back was still turned to the audience, and he couldn’t hear that it had finished. So finally, one of the members of the orchestra put her hands on his shoulder and turned him around so he could face the audience and see the tears streaming down their faces. I just feel like you can feel all that when you listen to the music.

Listen to the full conversation on the Next Big Idea podcast.