Our Lips Are Sealed: Understanding Social Introverts

Sometimes I confuse people. It is not unusual for folk to remark that they ‘don’t understand me’. Which (a) is confusing for me, since I don’t set out to willingly be enigmatic (b) I don’t think it’s necessarily a good thing.

It is to do with being an introvert. There are two main patterns of non-understanding that happen to me. The first is that people think I’m shy or very quiet…but then I confidently make a witty remark in a social setting and that doesn’t tie in with their perception of me as being socially-withdrawn. Or, people think I’m a fairly extroverted person because I’ve been fairly talkative and appear confident in social situations…then the situation changes and my behaviour changes abruptly, which makes them realise that I don’t completely conform  to their perception of me as an assured extrovert.

I’m a scientist. I think about the world in a logical, science-informed way. I believe that – like a lot of scientists – I have a stereotypical introverted scientist brain, and that I would classify myself as ‘strongly’ introverted. But there are a lot of people out there who don’t understand introversion, or don’t understand what introversion does/doesn’t involve.

It is for these reasons that there are a coupla things I want you to understand about introverts.


A. Introversion. Shyness. Social Awkwardness.

These are three completely distinct things. Social awkwardness is when you don’t really know how to behave in a social setting – what you should and shouldn’t say to someone. Shyness is when you would like to say something in a social setting…but are too nervous to do so. Introversion is when a social setting takes the energy out of you.

These three traits are not mutually-exclusive, even though individuals can have more than one of them. Just because someone is an introvert it does not mean that they are scared of speaking. There is at least one person I know who calls himself an introvert, but doesn’t seem to realise that his behaviour really comes under the category of social awkwardness.

Although I can be shy in some situations (like most of us can!), I don’t think that a huge portion or me is shy or socially-awkward. I don’t have a problem going to parties when there is a high chance that I won’t know anyone. I recognise social conventions and can read other people quite well.


B. Group Size and Interaction Level

This can definitely be quantified in a scientific equation.

Outspoken-ness of introvert = Familiarity with group members/Group Size (N)

Or whatever. In any case, an introvert with 1 or 2 people they know is going to be chattier than when the conversation is joined by 5 or 6 strangers.

The familiarity thing can not be under-sold. It makes a massive difference to the amount of talking that I do – even if I’ve only met the other people once or twice before.


C. Quiet Pauses

I’m sure I can quantify this one as well:

“The degree of introversion in an individual is directly proportional to the length (t) of pauses before they speak.”

What often happens to me at parties is that the conversation moves on before I have a chance to say what I’ve been formulating in my head. If I’ve got a lot to say then you can hear the new paragraphs beginning. The main indicator I have that someone is an introvert is that there are large pauses in our conversation between what we say and the other person’s response.

That said, I’m often quiet at parties because I like listening to other people’s conversation. I’m OK with enjoying the flow of someone else’s conversation without necessarily seeing the need to interject with some dialogue of my own.


D. The Absence Of Noise.

The stereotypical extrovert is a person who loves rowdy gatherings, who plunges headfirst into chaotic deafening nightclubs screaming “Now that’s what I’m talkin’ about!”. Where are the stereotypical introvert is viewed curled up in a library with books, maybe indulging in a bit of low-volume classical music.

This has to be connected to a difference in noise-level tolerance between introverts and extroverts.

I’m OK with nightclubs and listening to heavy metal at max volume on my laptop: that’s because its only one thing I’m concentrating on, and the noise is very organised. I’m getting progressively worse at coping in loud bar settings (or equivalent) where not only is everything LOUD but there are hundreds of sounds competing with each other discordantly and I can’t hear myself thing, let alone hear what the person next to me is saying. Which makes me think that introverts just have lower noise-tolerance limits than extroverts, or have a harder time de-coupling multiple sounds at once.

E. The Public-Private Sphere

I have a strong aversion to strangers chatting me up. Strong enough that I will say nothing and pretend they aren’t there. People might well assume that I’m not interested in men. Nonsense – I love men! Men don’t get over-excited and exceed my noise-tolerance limits with their high pitched screeching.

It’s to do with the public-private divide. When I’m in Starbucks, buying groceries or at the gym I’m in the public, stranger sphere. In public I keep myself to myself: I’m not sharing a lot of information about myself; I’m keeping a respectful distance from other people who are happily doing their own thing and it would be rude to interrupt. If a Starbucks barista wishes to ask me about my dreadlocks or accent I will naturally oblige them with answers…but I won’t initiate conversations or provide more information than I am specifically asked for.

In the private sphere I’m around people I know and thus willing to share information. Friends I define as the people who I think are interested in hearing unsolicited personal information about me, and won’t begrudge me sharing my feelings and all that crap with them.

A stranger attempting to chat me up or ask me out is a very jarring violation of the public sphere rules. “Oh hey, are you from round here? I like your dreads. You look so interesting – tell me about you.”  This approach is unsolicited 98% of the time – I haven’t even looked twice at the guy, much less had time to decide if I’m like the look of him.

How can guys possibly know if an introvert like me is interested in them, then? Well, if I’ve not gone completely quiet and am staring 10 inches to the left of my foot I’m probably willing to talk to you. If I proactively move into your vicinity and start a conversation with you, then I like you. I’d say that if an introvert comes over to talk to you then that it actually quite a significant thing – friendship or otherwise.



Honestly, I don’t think that introverts are that inexplicable: their behaviour might be subject to more clauses, regulations and exceptions than the average extrovert…but they still make sense to a scientist.

Tidal Waves

Before the tsunamis come...

Before the tsunamis come…

There are two re-occurring dreams in my life. They come back to me every now and then.


In the first dream I am back in Crail, looking out the living room window. At the bottom of our sloping garden is a footpath, a brief cliff and then the sea. The sea stretches away into the distance.

In the dream I watch a tsunami approaching us. Often there are stormy waves that crash into the shore, over the cliff, up into our garden and smash into the house. This would be impossible in real life – our house is to high above the shoreline (and too far back) to get struck by tidal force. However, in the dream I am bracing against a massive, violent tsunami that I know is coming for us.


In the second dream I am losing my dreadlocks. They dissolve in my hands – perhaps I accidentally put conditioner in them. The dreadlocks slowly unravel back to smooth hair, and I know that I’m not going to be able to salvage them. This is an unhappy dream.

Most of my dreams are neutral or positive. The dream where I lose my dreadlocks is not positive at all.


I think that I will always worry about who I am as a person. Am I good enough? Am I too much of a selfish asshole? Did I do the right thing? Back in May 2012 I was sitting on a gorgeous leafy balcony in Switzerland, seriously questioning my worth as a scientist.

And if I question my worth as a scientist, it means I am also questioning the years (decades) of choices I made, and my own self-awareness of who I was: because I had spent all these years thinking that I was suited to being a scientist.

Now it feels like I have undone the damage caused to my sense of self-worth, and I can accept myself as a competent scientist once more. But instead I am now uncertain about other things. I want (deeply!) to survive grad school and get my PhD…but I worry about the price I am paying to do that. I learned back in Switzerland that I needed desperately to speak up and articulate my desires…now I am trying to bite down harder on my tongue. I want to be a person who speaks out…but I fear I’m swinging too far towards ‘Confrontational Bitch’.

It’s hard, sometimes. When to bite down, when to speak up. I hope that I get it right more times than I get it wrong.

Slow Burn Summer

Sunset On Edinburgh

Sunset On Edinburgh

The DoE Expedition Experience

The DoE Expedition Experience

There is something deeply, deeply satisfying about sitting in the middle of the Scottish Highlands at the foot of a tree; your back pressed into the curve of the bough as you shelter from the passing evening showers, thoroughly engrossed in “A Walk In The Woods”.

In the three days I was out on that DoE Expedition I not only started and finished the Bill Bryson, but I burned through Neil Gaiman’s “American Gods“, too. I know I’m a fast reader, but I absolutely devoured those two books with the relentless hunger of one who hasn’t had the time to read for pleasure in over 12 months.

Although I’ve encountered numerous people over the years who couch their Chemistry Grad School experiences to me in terms remarkably akin to PTSD…one year in and the PhD still hasn’t beaten the enthusiasm for knowledge out of me.


I’m becoming more and more convinced that the key to success in grad school is perseverance. Intelligence, dedication and stamina are all really helpful…but the most important make-or-break trait is how well you stick at something. I’m at a point in my research project where I really need to persevere: I don’t mean “persevere” in the sense of “repetition until it works”, but that I have to keep up the same momentum of new ideas, different approaches and diligent analysis, tackling the problem from every single new angle until I crack it. Sounds like it takes a lot of mental finesse, right?


No guarantees. At the end of the day, it might just be that the fundamental science is stacked against me.



There has to be a reason why I keep on returning to the DoE Expeditions. I began to help out on them in 2006…I’ve now been helping out on the school’s expeditions longer than I was even in school. It satisfies me, I think. Going out into the Scottish Highlands satisfies me on a lot of levels.

I love to sit in air-conditioned Starbucks during the summer, drinking strawberries & cream frappuccinos and watching the street scenes. That was a habit I picked up in the States. That doesn’t diminish the fact that the Scottish part of me wants to get out into the remote wilderness to camp. You can tell by my reading material – two sizeable books that I lugged along on my back – that the American psyche fascinates me. I’m living in a new country where I can do more, buy more, be more. I have disposable income for the first time in ages – I went to a farmer’s market to buy vegetables just this week – I don’t have to worry about not being able to afford things!

And yet Americans sometimes frustrate me. They don’t seem to realise how privileged they are, how self-entitled they seem to outsiders. I think that 98% of then time I get along great with Americans…but now and then an encounter will happen that makes me wrinkle my nose and think “…Oh man. DID I REALLY JUST HEAR THAT?! Gosh.” I know we share a common native language, and I look remarkably similar to an American…but I’m still a foreigner. And I think that the fact I “pass” for a native makes me feel even more foreign, at times. America is the melting point, so I adapt, code-switch when talking to my parents, and hold on to the parts that make me Scottish.



On the whole I feel that I am doing well in the USA. It is the sustained adaptability, perseverance and ability to shake off grad school (albeit only now and then) that is keeping me afloat. I hope that it continues.






Driving Forward

Philadelphia - the usual place.

Philadelphia – the usual place.



Life goes well. The warmth of summer makes everything better, calmer.

On the academic front, things have gone well for me. I won a competition and was accepted onto a rather cool program that covers all expenses towards the major national chemistry meeting amongst other things. My first publication was submitted to a well-regarded scientific journal (acceptance pending). I got to the end of the academic year with an adequate GPA (lowering the risk I will get kicked out of the program).

This semester was also the one where I joined a gym – unaffiliated with the university, for added peace and quiet – and resumed fitness work. Not that grad school has become any quieter, but I simply decided that my fitness wasn’t something I was willing to put on hold until I obtained my PhD. Besides, the boost to my mental health/energy levels is  good for my academic life, too.



I am also finally committing towards driving lessons. I had something of a shock to the system when the supermarket I frequented went into the red and hastily closed down this month. This supermarket was located right in the middle of downtown New Brunswick, easily accessible by (free) public transport with convenient hours. After it shut down I realised that there were no other medium-to-large supermarkets that I could easily access for my weekly food shops: the rest were all out on the mall strip or deep in the surrounding suburbs. It made me realise that without a car, I really am stuck.

Not that I’m going to starve…but until/if a new supermarket chain opens in the same store, my food choices will be limited to what I can find in the downtown RiteAid, or what can be packed into my rucksack for a 30 min bike ride (i.e., not much fresh fruit or veg). Which isn’t ideal.

Damnit, America! You finally beat me. I’m getting a car!


Life Pulse

The world turns towards summer

The world turns towards summer

The world is a far better one when there is more sunlight. Sunlight relaxes me. At the same time it causes me an acute degree of – pain, I guess – to walk around at night in the summer. When I hear the soft clicking of crickets, catch those brief flashes of fireflies and breathe in the thick humid air, it makes me hurt for older times.For that time when I first came to America: I never realised how different the air could taste in other countries, how richly different the sound of a summer night was.

What I hurt for is that sense of magic wonder when you first discover something amazing. When you first feel something that you could never have felt before if you lived your life on just one continent, in just one country.

Maybe it is the feeling of walking through a summer night on the metropolitan east coast of America. Maybe it is the sight of a vivid purple and yellow sunset as you cycle home over the Thames in the heart of London – which makes you want to scream at the top of your lungs because there is no other way to express how glad to be alive you feel at that exact point in time. Maybe it is that feeling when you commit the first 30 minutes of your life to talking in a foreign language, refusing to switch back into English at any cost…and then experiencing dizzy elation when you pass your test.

A word I’m hearing a lot amongst my peers is “intense”. It is a versatile, popular word. I’m now going to apply it to my grad school experience. Grad school has been intense. And yet when I crash home in the evenings I am usually burning for more. I am a person who gets a kick out of stress, hard work and intensity: I do not know if this is especially good for me, but that is clearly the way it is.

There have been some bad, upsetting times this semester. There have been weeks where I only got a chance to look at sunshine from behind a window. And yet the world hasn’t lost its magic.

In a couple of weeks the semester will end and summer will begin. Summer is good. I am looking forward to summer.

Grad School Calm

Sundays are good days. I get to resume my Coffeeshop Hobo persona, breathe in some fresh air and drip a bit of sunlight onto my body.

[Domestic Stability]

I renewed my current apartment lease for another 12 months. I know that I wanted to get off campus and find a 1 bedroom place to really call my own, but at the same time I also really wanted to just stay put for more than 12 damn months at a time. I’m tired of moving my stuff about. I will probably keep saving and try to get into my own place next year, but for now I intend to focus on configuring my personal space to minimise the beige. At present that means tacking up cheap colourful scarves onto my walls, and cutting out beautiful photographs from old calendars as arty decoration.

[Professional Calm]

In the UK it is fairly common for science undergraduates to gain full-time professional industrial experience before they graduate. The penultimate year of studies often involves a 1-2 semester exchange, or else the “Year In Industry”. In the USA I think it is a lot less common: there is more fixation on Grade Point Average (GPA) and fulfilment of a greater number of major/minor/dual major class requirements to complete, so science students slave away on campus for the duration of their degrees. Not all universities are like that – I can think of one example of a newer, more “vocational-orientated” university that had a really thorough internship program for its scientists – but most of them are.

I would strongly endorse any prospective science PhD students to get their asses out of academia for a bit and work in an industrial R&D setting. Even for a single 3 month summer internship. Recently I’ve found myself witnessing a variety of problematic scenarios in the grad school settings and thinking to myself – “Man, that whole situation could have been avoided or mitigated if they’d just had a bit more real world experience.” If the only semi-professional experience a person has is as an undergraduate researcher in an academic lab, then it is hard to bring a more balanced-perspective or alternative approaches to common academic problems. Do an exchange to a foreign country, work in an environment more professional/skilled than your local Starbucks, take up a hobby that gets you off campus – life experience one of the best survival tools you can ever own.

[Academic Calm]

Things aren’t as crazy or as scary as they were.

Last semester I got nervous before teaching. I would pace around the classroom waiting for the session to start. This semester I’ve experienced none of that: I’ve become familiar with the lessons and I know what is coming and what can go wrong. The marking goes quicker. I make fewer screw-ups.

This semester I only have 1 class. The added time difference is significance. Maybe I’m less stressed about course-work too – I’ve got a good idea of what constitutes solid B-level work.

This semester my research project is working. In fact I’m not far off getting a publication out of it. I’m applying to conferences, travel awards and keeping on top of deadlines. I feel like a legitimate academic scholar.


It is still hectic and crazy…but in a more manageable way. 

Green Tea & Cupcakes



I was told about this in advance. When I applied to various graduate program in Europe and the States, the current PhD students described the typical first year experience: “You work really hard trying to get your project working – once it is up and running you can relax a bit.”

I thought that my first semester was bad. I had to adjust quickly to the teaching, learn how to run quickly from the classroom to the lab, get settled. Then in semester 2 I was handed my research project and told – crack on with it.

In a science PhD, the research projects will make or – mostly – break the grad students. If you have a series of unsuccessful research projects then your graduation could be delayed by a year or more, or  you’ll grow fed up and quit. On the other hand, early success on 1 project means plenty of opportunities for successful projects to grow out of that…then bam, you have your thesis. It also makes life easier when you come to draft the research proposal necessary to advance into PhD candidacy.

Right now, life is composed of stupid-hour days and too much bad food from the student centre. Winter has turned my skin into cracked, itchy parchment. The snow has mostly gone (…for now), but I don’t have much opportunity to enjoy the fresh air and sunlight. I get up early, knock back too espressos before I leave the apartment each morning. I come back late, decompress for a bit on the internet and then go to sleep.

I’m holding up. The research project is actually working. I guess that is worse, in a sense – because I have no excuse to ‘just call it a day’ or ‘try sleeping on that problem’ – but more importantly the reason I’m working so hard is because I want to, not because I’m being forced to. As I prepare conference abstracts, format spectral data and draft journal manuscripts I feel that I’m finally hitting the “legitimate academic researcher” jackpot.

Slowly I’m passing out of the data gathering phase of this particular project and moving into the manuscript prep – the former is labour-intensive and time-consuming; the latter can be accomplished in a coffeeshop whilst listening to Paul Simon albums. I’m also beginning to (re)appreciate that working 7 days a week at a sustained intensity just isn’t productive and not really necessary.

I’ve passed through the worst of the first year craziness – I hope that calmer times are to come.