Some days, when the phone rings, I feel aggrieved. Which is not at all ideal because I am a reporter and my job depends on it. Those are the days when I turn to a colleague and muster all the despair at my fingertips: “I am in the wrong line of work.” It’s not that I am articulating my unhappiness with journalism. Quite the contrary; I don’t know how to do anything else. It is my one true love affair. The comment springs from incredulity: How on Earth could someone so exhausted by interacting with people choose a career which turns only on your ability to deal with everyone?
I am yet to find an answer.
Introverts, like IKEA’s building instructions and best intentions, are often misunderstood. I am neither shy nor anxious, although I can be. I am not loud or the life of the party, although I can be. I am not afraid of people, just wary of the effect they have on me. Being introverted and dealing with people face-to-face is like running underwater. You can do it, but it’s kind of tiring.
Extroverts are like reptiles; they have an inability to moderate their own energy levels. They need an external source: others. Introverts, on the other hand, are drained by such experiences but are perfectly capable of regulating and recharging when left alone. It is an energy equation, no more.
Early in life I was shy, but that was almost certainly environmental. I grew up on a 1,000-square mile cattle station and spent the first seven years of my existence almost exclusively with my mother, father and brother. Visitors were rare and, when they came, you could spot the plume of dust behind their vehicle from the second story of the homestead. Back then, it felt — and the sensation is as vivid today — like we were being invaded. Toyota Landcruiser or Mongol horde, what’s the difference? A pack of gentle brumbies or the mailman? The fun went on for minutes.
It probably didn’t help that in these early days negotiating strangers for the first time my father offered — jokingly, who knew? — to sell me to a man with a flat tire for the price of a Wagon Wheel chocolate. I was mortified, both at the exchange rate and the prospect of having to converse with a person I did not know in perpetuity.
We did “school of the air”—distance education for kids who lived in the Outback and too far away from actual schools. I was taught by my mum and occasionally a governess, and once a week we’d have a lesson over walkie-talkies with a teacher 500 kilometers away. If you knew the answer to a question, you had to press the button on the mic and yell your name. It worked best if you pretended you were giving launch code instructions to a bomber.
By the time we moved to a small country town and I was due to start my first day in a real school — with all of 120 students — we decided it best I walk there with my cousins. While I let them move ahead of me I ducked into a garden shed where I promptly pretended to be a rake for the next two hours. It was hardly an elaborate ruse, but one I felt to be entirely necessary.
Whether this is genetic or not is hard to say, although my father considered a town of more than 100,000 people to be the city and the boundary beyond which he becomes truly uncomfortable. He was the kind of man who viewed conversations as something that happened only to people who were too slow to get out of the way.
Mum is still threatening retirement on a mountain top, far away from any of us with only a vegetable plot and chickens for company. She is the kind of person who views conversations as something you are also able to have with chickens.
In time, my actual fear of social interaction melted away and by high school I was debating, public speaking and running the cross country in 35 degree heat in a kangaroo outfit to boost morale. Incidentally, I now know precisely how Australia’s actual kangaroos feel, no doubt shaped by the unique empathy of the introverted.
There are those who would tell you being this way is career-limiting for a journalist, which might be right if I didn’t see a notepad as a shield. With it, nothing is out of the question. You can confront crime figures, attempt to infiltrate bikie club houses, talk with the grieving, the corrupt, the vulnerable and the powerful.
The truth is, I quite like people. I find them fascinating. Yes, I would prefer to study them from behind glass at a zoo or a safe distance, but they pique my curiosity all the same. Some reporters are phenomenal networkers who can work a floor like a Roomba. They are efficient and build contacts quickly. My contacts arrive slowly but fully formed. Neither approach is wrong, although each offers benefits the other doesn’t.
Social affairs is my bag and, I would argue, the ability to really understand what motivates people is inseparable from the goal of being faithful, accurate and nuanced. Any reporter worth their pay places a premium of breaking news and shedding light where previously there was only shadow. That’s the way it should be. But I try to combine that with the ability to tell stories and being sensitive to the faces, moods and humanity of others in that project is a windfall. Occasionally people will even be surprised that a journalist could be so…not a dingbat. Interviewing is half the craft. Prying a piece of guarded information is critical. But so is, you know, hearing what the person is saying.
The author covering Australian bushfires
Author Susan Cain wrote a bestselling book on the subject of introverts called Quiet. In it, she introduces us to Harvard University psychology lecturer Brian Little, who coined Free Trait Theory. It essentially means people can act outside themselves in the pursuit of “core personal projects.”
“In other words,” Cain writes, “introverts are capable of acting like extroverts for the sake of work they consider important, people they love, or anything they value highly.”
This transformation is not duplicitous, necessarily. Just an adaptation.
I work for a national newspaper in Australia, so when I travel interstate it usually involves a series of back-to-back meetings with new and old contacts—crucial face-time. The very idea fills me with dread. There are those who crave the sourcing of information first and for whom the task of compiling it and writing it is a chore. I like the challenge of the former but the latter is the part I actually enjoy. Regardless, reporting always leaves me feeling as if I have run a marathon or woken up with a collapsed lung.
I am as prone to meerkatting as anyone else. Meerkatting is what journalists do when they find an angle or realize a yarn and stand up to scan the newsroom so they can find someone to tell immediately. It is a sweet, addictive reward.
None of this is a particularly huge problem when you’re working one-on-one and amassing contacts like a methodical bowerbird. When you’re in a room filled with people, that’s the danger zone. I was in Pittsburgh a couple of years ago, the sole Australian journalist covering an international convention with the likes of Bill Clinton and Kofi Annan. There was a drinks night for the media and, despite my internal misgivings, I went along.
Small talk is torture. In a perfect world we’d skip it, but for whatever reason some seem to like talking about the schools they went to or how their puppy Xavier is the only animal ever to have opened a jar of treats. In that hotel ballroom in Pittsburgh, if I could have crawled into an air-conditioning vent and escaped, I would have. They should just build laundry chutes but for introverted people to pour themselves into while in function rooms.
Thud, thud, thud. What’s that? The inevitable tumble of the tired.
When my friend and I were newspaper trainees we relished the parties, if only for the free alcohol and food. There were weeks when our pay had run out and we managed to eat only by the good grace of function catering. Invites were coveted. My early career was a conglomerate of awkward interviews and those little quiches that no one ever seems to make outside of corporate functions. It’s amazing how substantial they felt but, then again, the world seemed a lot bigger back then.
Now that my income manages to match my lifestyle, I’ve dispensed with events altogether. It’s so liberating. And, thankfully, events feature little in the kind of journalism I get to practice. It only took a decade and a litany of those fucking quiches.
So, in a trade that is loud, I managed to find a way to be quiet. I can hear so very much.
Rick Morton is a 27-year-old journalist who writes for the national broadsheet The Australian. He has scarcely any time left over for anything else. He tweets @SquigglyRick and writes at Medium, where an earlier version of this piece was published.