Introversion, Sensitivity, and Travel

Audiobook cover for Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain

Standing in the Miami airport, waiting for my connecting flight home to Orlando, I started chuckling self-consciously. There I was, headphones in my ears, listening to an audiobook about introversion. White headphone cable trailing off into my jeans pocket, easy-to-remove sneakers on my feet, and a backpack on my back, I didn’t exactly stand out in the terminal. Then again, I was the only one in the area who wasn’t seated. Standing beside a pillar, backpack wedged beside a display so as to be out of the way, I watched the activity of the waiting area curiously as I mentally tried to be anywhere else. I probably looked more out-of-place than I felt, drawing attention to myself as I tried inwardly to disappear. My situation was a perfect reflection of Susan Cain’s examples: cases where people need to focus inwardly to find calm and presence of mind, yet they were placed in environments based on outward expression and constant stimulation.


generic symbol for people in a queue

The waiting area by the gate had been filling up and was getting rather noisy. Between the announcements and the television and the children and the conversations, I was being inundated by noises that begged for my attention. It became difficult for me to filter out the other noises and focus on my audiobook, which was literally being pumped directly into my ears. So I left. I wandered around, looking for an out-of-the-way place, somewhere with ambient sounds but where I could avoid chattery noise, crowds, and bustle. I eventually chose a random wall on the second level, positioned between two escalators used to get to and from the terminal’s Skytrain shuttles. The hum of the machinery calmed me down and helped drown out the distractions from the main level. Passing people rarely had conversations, as they were trying to find how to get to their gates before settling down. I had found my space, and I spent a few delightful minutes engrossed in the book I was reading.

Once onboard the plane, I got to point in the book about sensitivity. Cain made a connection between introverts and our response to stimuli, suggesting that we basically react more to everything around us than extroverts do. Cain provided several examples of comfortable environments for introverts, her own experiences finding or creating these environments, and reasons those environments are conducive to clear thinking and productivity for introverts. She then discussed what she calls the “sweet spot” of just enough stimulation to energize but not overwhelm. I could have narrated that part of the text based solely on my experience in the terminal, looking for an ambient space where I was able to focus better.

I experienced similar frustrations with distraction while touring Rome. Specifically, I got frustrated inside the Sistine Chapel and the Pantheon. In both cases, numerous signs and public-address announcements asked visitors for silence. But when you crowd several hundred tourists into one room with sound-reflecting walls, the noise has a way of building on itself and being amplified to a roar. Like I was in the Miami airport, I was unable to feel connected to the space I was in. The noises distracted my attention from the buildings and artwork, and I felt I couldn’t appreciate the rooms for the artistic and architectural monuments that they were. My instinct to want to disappear and withdraw took me out of the moment and prevented me from enjoying those places as much as I had hoped. Of course crowds are inevitable at major tourist destinations. As an introvert, I find it unfortunate that those who thrive on saturated, stimulating environments win by default in these locales. I should start a tour-guide company aimed at introverts: We’d reserve quiet times for reflection and solitary pondering in the well-traveled destinations. Wonder if that would take off.


standardized signage requesting silence — profile of head, hand extending index finger to lips

Despite my distaste for crowds, I find that travel can be delightfully rewarding for my introverted temperament. While other, more gregarious people may prefer to fill their travel agendas with active, group excursions to fun-filled events, I’m more satisfied by simply walking through the streets of a new place, taking in the feel of the community and connecting with the environment, atmosphere, or culture. I don’t feel like I “get” a new place if I’ve been shown it on a tour. I need to wander at my own leisure and explore the sites on my own terms, building my own impression of what’s what.

The first time I traveled abroad, I went to several capital cities in northern Europe on a cruise. I spent most of my time on the ship looking for the out-of-the-way quiet spots that were cozy and inviting; I never once went to one of the late-night clubs. But in the cities, I took a couple tours (such as the ones in St. Petersburg, which were a prerequisite for going ashore) and wandered on my own in other places (like Helsinki and Copenhagen). To this day, I have fonder memories and a stronger connection with the cities that I browsed on my own than with those I was led around by a guide.

In Quiet, Susan Cain discusses the differences in how extroverts and introverts reach decisions. In short, she says that introverts ponder and think before acting, while extroverts are comfortable acting on too little information, being comfortable with gut feelings or instinctive reactions. I see reflections of this difference in how I respond to places I’ve visited. If I’m given time to reach my own conclusions about a city, I feel a stronger connection with, and better understanding of, the place I visited. But if I’m toured around a city on someone else’s agenda, I feel like I’m being handed an opinion, and I seem to trust it a bit less. I question whether my impression of the place is genuine or manufactured. I’d like to see a survey of tour-group customers to see how they fall on the introversion/extroversion spectrum, and to see if there’s a difference based on who made the booking. I’d be equally curious to survey cruise ship passengers to see whether their extroverted passengers book more excursions than the introverted counterparts.

The Myers-Briggs uses travel as a key indicator for the judging/perceiving temperaments, but I’d wager that introversion and extroversion are equally influential in the way people approach the act of vacationing.


Hi, I’m Chris. And I’m a fan of scotch.

That confession should set the right tone for this part of my discussion. When returning from Europe recently, I was sure to pick up a bottle of The Glenlivet, which is my favorite line of single-malt scotch. I’ve tried three varieties of that label and thoroughly enjoyed every one of them, and I’m curious to explore others. The duty-free shop in the Heathrow airport happened to have a delightfully thorough display of The Glenlivet, a couple expressions that aren’t available in the states, and a delightful employee more than willing to provide samples of several
parts of their collection. I started out curious, and she provided samples of two bottles I hadn’t seen before. We had a brief conversation about the differences between and merits of the two varieties she poured. After I wandered the rest of the store for a bit, I returned. The employee picked up on my lingering interest and decided to entice me with a couple other samples. This worked in her favor, as one I hadn’t tried before ended up being one that I purchased. But we talked more about the differences in how scotch comes across. I enjoyed finding the right words to describe the differences in the samples I tried.

When I got home, I took a look at some of the marketing collateral they provided at that display. In it, tasting notes appear for each of the eight different bottles sold at duty-free shops. I can’t help but be amused by the vivid detail with which scotch is described. Attending to the color, nose, taste, and finish of eight different styles of scotch from the same distillery seems a daunting task. Yet each description was distinctive, and they matched my recollection for the ones I had tried. For something so complex, subtle, and individualized as a reaction to the flavor of a drink, there does seem to be a degree of accuracy involved, and there must be a method to the process.

While looking up information about other distilleries, I came across recommendations for how to properly taste scotch from the self-named “Scotch Doc”. In order to properly appreciate a 1½-oz pour of a single malt scotch, he suggests waiting two hours after eating or smoking (to clear the palate) and allowing half an hour for the tasting process itself (to appreciate the nuances). In a super-sized culture that emphasizes quantity and speed, the thought of drinking at a pace of twenty minutes per ounce seems absurd. Yet his suggestions make sense. Distilleries spend years or even decades preparing the contents of a bottle, consumers pay a premium price for those bottles, and it would make sense to drink the contents slowly, stretching out the experience as much as possible.

The idea of drinking something so slowly, and of paying deliberate attention to every element of the tasting process, to the point of ritualization, strikes a chord with those of us with high levels of sensitivity, those with what Cain calls “high-reactive personalities”. And I think that connection between sensitivity and deliberate attention is why I’ve taken a liking to scotch. It’s a drink I enjoy not just because it tastes good but because I can appreciate the taste as an experience and discuss the experience with others in a process of personal reflection. Scotch is a drink perfectly suited for highly sensitive introverts.

At the Heathrow airport, I decided to purchase a bottle of The Glenlivet, a 15-year-old variety not available domestically. The sample I tried suggested a more mature, complex flavor than the 12-year I consider my standard whisky. There was a surprising fullness or richness to the flavor, and I’m very much looking forward to sitting down for thirty minutes some evening to properly experience the first pour from this bottle as only an introvert would.

Silence and Queue icons courtesy Design of Signage. (The Silence icon was used on signage related to the Sistine Chapel, which is what brought it to mind for use here.)