Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Are Genealogists Introverts?

With the arrival of Fall—and, with it, the obligatory accompaniment of germs, sniffles, and ailments—I suppose it was no surprise that I paid my dues early with a mandatory day spent in bed. And since I simply cannot sleep twenty four hours straight, it also meant spending a good amount of time with my face in a book.

My current read is a 2012 New York Times best seller—I told you I was behind the curve in my backlog of reading material—written by corporate attorney and negotiations consultant Susan Cain: Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking.

Not that I'm finished with it, already. Another aspect of my personal manifesto is that I revel in reading slowly; I want to suck all the essence out of a book. Flying through the pages simply can't accomplish that. So, in all that time since I first mentioned reading the book, I've managed to only conquer the first hundred pages. Hint: over another two hundred some-odd pages to go.

I offer that as a caveat, in case my observations today seem premature to those already in the know about this volume. Still, what the author is saying has gotten me thinking. And you know the route my thoughts will take have to do with my passion: genealogy. In particular, genealogical societies and their place in this post-Bowling Alone world.

After gleaning Susan Cain's definition of introvert—after all, any good debater must first define her terms—I happened upon a statement that made me perk up and think about its application:
Connecting people to fix the world over time is the deepest spiritual value you can have.

That statement was attributed to a man who, for seventeen years of his adult life, was a systems engineer for IBM. Before that, he confessed to interests in dinosaurs, chess and physics. One could think of a cerebral science devotee as someone likely to "fix the world over time." And yet, as Cain puts it in the hypothetical if-you-sat-next-to-him-on-the-plane scenario, he would not be one of those chatty, put-you-at-ease types of extroverts we all see as successful leaders.

In fact, his claim to "fix the world" might only indirectly have come from his skills as an engineer. That aspect provided the process, but it was the content—and the platform that universalized that content—that comprises his claim to fame. This nose-in-a-book engineer has managed to be the means for helping stranded families find homes in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. He was the influence behind helping New York City commuters find rides during the 2005 transit strike in that city. He has, indeed, found a way to beneficially connect people.

The man behind those accomplishments—making everyday life a little more bearable, or at least a bit more convenient—is Craig Newmark. If that's not a name you recognize, the device he created will be: Craigslist.

Regardless of what negative remarks you may have read about Craigslist users, Craigslist clocked in as the seventh-largest English language website in the world a few years back. Not bad for an introvert with a goal of "connecting people to fix the world over time."

And Susan Cain's conclusion after sharing that vignette about one introvert?
Social media has made new forms of leadership possible for scores of people who don't fit the [extrovert leadership] mold.

But what about us? You know, those genealogists who prefer sequestering ourselves in the back corners of research libraries? Are we introverts?

If introversion were a brand, its advertising buzz words might include "reflective, cerebral, bookish, unassuming, sensitive, thoughtful, serious, contemplative, subtle, introspective, inner-directed, gentle, calm, modest, solitude-seeking, shy, risk-averse, thin-skinned." At least, those are Susan Cain's labels (I cheated and took a peek at the back of the book—page 269, if you're wondering). Of course, that shopping list might not be what each of us introverts ordered. Humankind spans a wide spectrum of both cultural and psychological expressions. But most of us know where we stand, whether provided with labels or not.

It seems to me that many of the people that pursue their family history fall within this more quiet realm. Granted, we can get really jazzed about finding a long-sought document that affirms connection of one brick-wall ancestor to a specific family, but for the most part—other than said shouting and Snoopy-dancing—we tend to be quiet researchers who can muster an incredible amount of concentration in pursuing our quest.

So, let's fast-forward from the genealogist, gladly plying his or her solitary research skills in the leading libraries and archives of the world, to the potential member of a local genealogical society. Assuming that said researcher is an introvert, what beneficial reasons can be offered to coax said solitary researcher into joining up with other like-minded folk to form a local society?

Does the solitary researcher get the feeling of being submerged in a sea of gregariousness upon walking into a meeting of your local society? What can be done to mitigate that overwhelming feeling?

I like Susan Cain's observation that, unlike the mode of traditional leadership—seen incorrectly by many to be the sole domain of the extrovert—social media is opening up new avenues for collaborative work, allowing introverts to become part of the conversation. Craig Newmark being a capital example.

Cain also brought up the concept of "Connectors," a term she borrowed from Malcolm Gladwell's writings, which he offered as people with a "special gift for bringing the world together." Cain believes it is possible, through a form of quiet strength, to accomplish this goal of bringing the "world" together as an introvert, too. While I have yet to encounter her explanation of just how this can be accomplished—I am, after all, just shy of devouring those first hundred pages of her book—I look forward to exploring how to conduct genealogical society meetings so that the more vociferous among our members won't co-opt those less extroverted.

One avenue I think has the most promise: special interest groups, where a subset of a society's membership gathers to explore one specific research interest. I've seen some societies offer groups focused on research techniques for specific countries, ethnic groups or regions—for instance, British Isles, or African-American. I've also noticed special interest groups focused on process-oriented goals: using various tech solutions to research, or a family history writers' group.

No matter what the research domain of the group, by virtue of its smallness and focus, it ushers in a more intimate setting allowing members to ease into a more relaxed level of participation. This is much better suited to the introvert (although sometimes a challenge for the facilitator who needs to balance the contributions of those more than willing to monopolize conversations with those whose tentative offerings could so easily be run over by insistent volume).

And what about Cain's observation that online avenues—her example was social media—can afford the more reticent of our members an equal footing in participation? With genealogical societies seeing a growth in non-local membership—our northern California group includes members from Virginia and Florida, for instance—perhaps online chats about specific topics might be the vehicle to engage members from far-flung reaches of the continent in discussion with fellow members they might otherwise never have the opportunity to meet.

No wonder Facebook genealogical interest groups are flourishing! That's a perfect example of Cain's surmising that online conversations may open doors of participation for members who might otherwise shy away from sharing their work.

While what we are doing as we explore these online utilities at our fingertips may not be as much a case of "fixing the world" as that accomplished by participants of Craigslist, for instance, we are entering a world of possibilities for expanding the services of genealogical societies. And, considering many of our potential constituency see themselves firmly rooted in the realm of the introvert, this may be a timely development for genealogical societies.

Above: "The Letter," painting by American Impressionist artist Edmund Charles Tarbell; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.


  1. Check out the work of Grace Lee Boggs and her late husband Jimmy. Grace just passed last week at age 100, so you should be able to find newspaper and on-line leads.

    1. Thanks for the recommendation, Geolover. When it comes to a long lifetime of work to change the world, I guess that could be said about her.

  2. I suspect the "quiet" is more due to "well, it's my family, why would anyone else care to hear about what I learn(ed)?"

    And I suspect Engineers would fix the world far faster and far better than any collection of Politicians ever would. But I'm biased... being an engineer!

    1. I thought you might see it that way, Iggy! But I'm also awakening to the possibility that maybe we prefer this quieter life of research because, well, some of us just like to be quiet.

  3. I think they are just more focused than others:)

    1. Well, that's for sure. It takes a lot of focus to keep those multiple generations of data straight in one's mind!

  4. Great post Jacqi!
    The book you are reading intrigues me - I've been accused of being an introvert all my life and I'm just fine with that. Think I will head over to Amazon and download a copy.
    I do like quiet research and don't particularly enjoy large groups of noisy people however I do like connecting with other like minded researchers and social media lets me do that without braving a crowd.
    The other thing I've noticed lately is that life seems to be so much busier than it used to be and the time I have free to spend on my personal interests seems to happen at times that are not particularly socially acceptable. I like that I can still keep in touch with other family historians on social media in my spare moments and I'm pleased that my genealogy society has begun doing regular online webinars since I very seldom can find the time to attend a society meeting these days. Listening to a speaker on a webinar is almost like being there.

    1. Oh, Barbara, I hope you'll take a look at the book. I'm still in the process of reading it, myself, but found it quite validating. I think we sometimes think all humans were--or "should have" been--designed as extroverts, when in fact it is quite possible (and just fine) to be vastly different than that. It's been quite eye-opening to see the topic through the eyes of this author, herself an introvert with a keen dread of public speaking.

      Thanks for stopping by and sharing your observations. You are in good company with your perspective.

  5. Have you seen Susan Cain's Ted talk, "The Power of Introverts"? I love it. When I first saw it several years ago it was my first clue that maybe more than shy, I am an introvert. (At your recommendation, I just downloaded a Kindle version of Susan's book!) Somewhere awhile back I read something that suggested few genealogist had participated in team sports as children. Whether it was a statement by research or an observation or even just a lighthearted joke, I am not sure, but I wouldn't be surprised. I spent the bulk of my time as a kid curled up with a book and that is still my preferred entertainment.

    I find it interesting however that genealogist will attend and love huge conferences such as Rootstech, which are massive. But I've heard others describe it as an opportunity to interact with those that are likeminded and I admit that while I do not like big crowds, I really do enjoy those opportunities to visit with those with whom I share my passion of genealogy. I wouldn't want to do it every day, but it is a welcomed opportunity.

    Social media offers an opportunity to interact "as needed" and while we are truthfully interacting among many others, it has aspects of doing it without the crowds while we sit quietly interacting from the security of our own homes.

    1. Michelle, one thing I appreciate about Susan Cain's book is that she fingers certain details about introversion and shyness that our culture tends to lump together as one amorphous mass. As she points out, introverts are not merely averse to all social interaction. There are just some types that they find more maddening or repulsive. Small talk, for instance, is difficult. Having to talk at a shout in a large place overloaded with sensory stimuli is not something introverts would gladly sustain for never-ending periods of time.

      However, settle two introverts together with a mutually-admired topic to discuss, and I suspect even they can tune out the jarring environment. It's that "My Eyes Light Up" phenomenon I notice among genealogy lovers that comes into play at events like RootsTech: it's a time and place where we can come together to share the very topics we are focused on and enthusiastic about. Somehow, that supercedes many of the interpersonal drawbacks of introversion or shyness.

      When I was doing some background research on Susan Cain to prepare for these posts on her book, I ran across a description of her TED Talk. I think it was among the top 20 TED Talks, internationally, in number of downloads after it was presented. No surprise there. I think she's struck a chord that resonates with a lot of people who had yet to find their voice. She has apparently helped them find it.

  6. I read somewhere once, that Extroverts need to be with others to get their energy, while introverts' energy is sucked out when with others so need quiet time to rebuild it. That describes me. I enjoy being with others, but only for a short time. I need a quiet place where I can reflect and recharge. I also need time to process information before I can regurgitate my ideas--which makes it hard in a class discussion. I think that is why genealogists tend to be introverts. The extroverts in the groups are those out there in the spotlight--speaking, etc.

    1. One of the surprising things about this book--which, incidentally, supports with research many of the observations you made, Lisa--is that it explained how, for instance, some people in public speaking might not necessarily be extroverts. The author fingered shyness apart from the concept of introversion/extroversion, and illustrated how some people could be not shy but introverted, while others could possibly be shy but extroverted.

      Of course, in this small space, I'm not doing her explanation justice. It just resonated with me, because I consider myself an introvert but have absolutely no problem getting up on stage. I guess if one is fascinated with one's topic, all things may be possible!


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