(Hi, everybody! Who the hell shared what out there, and suddenly made my pageviews jump by almost 50%? It's nice to see you all, and I would like to take the opportunity to point out, briefly, that I have a Patreon account and am currently running a GoFundMe campaign, the details of which are on their respective pages. Pledge drive over, back to your regularly scheduled content.)

I am amused and bewildered at the response Colbert's Myers-Briggs experiment got. According to TV Tropes, which posted the results about five nanoseconds after it aired, a lot of people were surprised that he wasn't declared an Extrovert. I wasn't; I expected him to come out Ixxx, and would have expected INxx if I'd thought about it, which I didn't -- that's the classic 'watchy thinky social scientist' class.

The idea of an introvert going into a public profession like performing is confusing to that class of extroverts who have a lot of instinctive empathy. They absolutely believe us when we say social interaction is exhausting, and cannot fathom why we'd volunteer to do it if it's so trying.

The answer is that it's fun. People do lots of tiring things for fun. They play sports and run races and dance and organize events and march in parades and so on and so forth. Exhausting isn't the same as unpleasant. If you did the exhausting thing every day you'd absolutely wreck yourself, which is why we don't. We leave parties early for the same reason you flop down on the grass after a good hard game of soccer: Because that was great but now we're done, and it's time to go home and chug a lot of Gatorade and have a shower. No more soccer right now, because my legs have turned to jelly, but sure more soccer in a few days, after I'm fed and rested. Although absolutely not if I catch the flu, because that shit hurts, and if you try to chivvy me along into more soccer anyway, the only reason you will remain unstabbed is because knives are really heavy, and you intelligently stayed just out of reach.

The reason I assumed Colbert would come out an introvert is because, like most sociable introverts, he has the charm on a switch, and I've seen him power down. When he does OOC events like group panels or press with people who are chattier than he is, he spends a lot of time not talking. Introverts are caught in a double-bind when on stage -- you have to think a bit before talking, and digesting whatever else is going on means having to turn some of your focus inward again, but monitoring your social presentation also takes a lot of juice, and a lot of the time it's not possible to do both at once, even if you do have a brain the size of a planet. You drop into power-saver mode when the focus is on someone else, and that's what Colbert does when other people are talking: He goes still, staring at nothing in the middle distance (to cut down the amount of social signalling he has to process, as opposed to looking at the speaker, which gives another data stream that isn't important just then), and doesn't do anything attention-getting until he has something to say. He's a more willing to speak up when he's on stage with people he knows well -- particularly Stewart, who knows enough to look over and check on him from time to time -- but he still spends most of his time keeping his yap shut so he can listen.

The profile GQ ran made me go blinky-blinky a lot because of this. At the time of the interview, Colbert had been going full-bore for a number of months, gearing up for The Late Show, and additionally had been up most of the night before interviewing Eminem on an obscure public access chat show somewhere in Michigan, because Stephen Colbert. The resulting piece was a great deal more raw than anybody expected. It's not that he wasn't witty, or that he's normally dishonestly slick when he talks to people, but all the ragged edges and flashes of unexpected emotion are classic signs of an introvert hitting the wall. You have to pipe the contents of your brain-meats through a lot of filters before you can make them understood without confusing or alarming the people outside your head, and unrefined stuff was starting to slop out around the edges. He was losing his grip on the social interface mask.

Normally, what you do when this happens is try like hell to plaster over it and hope nobody mentions it before you can get away and shut yourself into a small dark room to recover. It's an uncomfortable state to be in. Intellectually, it feels like failure -- other people can do this in their sleep, and normally you might even be pretty okay at it, but for some reason right now you are flopping around like a seal on a wet Teflon boat deck and it's embarrassing as fuck. On a more instinctive level, you are so overtired that you can no longer keep up with all the information coming in, and as it more and more of it piles up you fall into this helpless grind of bottlenecks and disk-access delays. It feels completely out-of-control, and you end up having a lot of very short, very alarmed thoughts like no and ack and stop and help.

When I see it happening to others, I tend to go over and insert myself into the conversation, proceeding as if we are all of course going to pay attention to me and politely ignore the poor introvert who is scuttling off to hide in the bathroom and text all their friends 'fucking going home NOW, ttyl'. Most people follow my lead. If I'm the one floundering, I've resigned myself to just being rude. Developing a reputation as an inscrutable eccentric helps.

I do not think I can properly convey the amount of willpower it takes to do what Colbert did, which was explicitly acknowledge what was going on, and then -- having given the probably-clueless journalist fair warning -- just let go of any attempt to get it back under wraps.

That's scary. That's freefall. That is abandoning the outcome of the interview to the hands of what you really hope is a loving God. When you are very smart and very weird and very not-externally-oriented, you get it beaten into you early (and sometimes literally) that you have to curate what comes out of your mouth. It's not that you can't tell anyone anything, but that you have to read your audience well and communicate with incredible precision, or the penalty is exile. Just spilling the contents of your brain out into the open works about as well as opening a JPEG in a text editor. All the information about your picture is technically there, but without the intervening layer of the graphics viewer to interpret it, it doesn't make any sense to anybody, and frankly makes people worry that you might have broken something important.

Colbert's only being sort of funny at the end of the Myers-Briggs piece when he squinches up and goes, 'and you swear if I talk to people they'll like the real me?' because you really do learn quickly that if you don't use the interpreter, nobody can figure out what the fuck you're talking about. Once you also learn that you can guide people's reactions by being selective about what you say, it's really, really hard to decouple the interpreter from all the filters. They grow together in one big self-protective mass. It works unfortunately well. The filters bounce back a lot for further processing, and most of the time that's good, but the sensitivity tends to drift high and the specificity sags a little low. Figuring out how to shut them the fuck off every once in a while is both incredibly difficult, and incredibly worthwhile.

It's uncomfortable for me to watch someone fumble and drop their public mask. Paparazzi photos make my skin crawl for exactly that reason. I cannot but have a great deal of respect for Colbert for taking a deep breath and deciding not to pick it back up again. It is incredibly and emphatically intentional to do that. In front of a reporter, no less. My honest reaction to reading it is something like, Holy fuck, and the feeling that I ought to have proper reverence for the work it takes to sort your own self-referential tangle of brains out to the point where you can make that decision, knowing it will probably terrify the hell out of you when you do it.

This is also normally the sort of thing I keep to myself, except that to judge from Twitter, I was not the only person to have this reaction to the GQ piece. Just one of the few who bothered to articulate the whole thing in more than 140 characters.


  1. I linked to the post on my LJ - it's locked because of carriers of Bad Stuff From The Past who often prowl round to see what I'm doing, but the text was

    I have always been a bit dubious about Meyers-Briggs, but the way Arabella Flynn explains it, it actually makes some sense. Arabella Flynn is one of those people on the internet who makes me think 'Damn, this person is smarter than me' so it was almost a relief when she turned out to be fallible by misdiagnosing Ross Noble as Scottish. I can't speak for the bits of the article that are about Stephen Colbert, as I get a weird feeling that's almost second hand embarrassment but not quite about people who have a persona that also goes by their real name and don't make it clear which is which when switching and also I have limited bandwidth and US-centric current affairs comedy is not high on my list of things to spend it on, but this is the first time any of the divisions besides 'introverted / extroverted' have made any sense at all to me. Mostly, as far as I can tell, because they're ineptly and confusingly named. What does being intolerant of people messing me around when we've already made plans have to do with judging, for goodness sake, except in that I file some people away under 'well, they're never going to be on time' and I suppose that's a value judgment?

    I can't see that getting you more than an extra fifty page views or so, but I saw a couple of people pass the link on.

    Thank you for the post, anyway: it made sense to me in the way that Myers Briggs never had before, and I am usually relatively good at understanding social stuff because of having to work it out from scratch.

    1. Aha! I think it's you and an unrelated message board, then. You're the one responsible for the random LJ referrals, which are confusing because they lead back to other people's Friends feeds -- by the time I can follow the breadcrumbs back, I'm no longer on the current page, and it gets confusing.

      Sorry about Ross Noble. :) I haven't chased down his work, and my mental filing system for UK accents is not as good as it ought to be. I've seen him on QI, where he sounds like no one else, and isn't half bad at the quiz part.

      FWIW, Stephen Colbert is doing his current show as himself, and not as the character "Stephen Colbert". He has a Performing Host Mode that is distinct from the one he presents when he's the subject of the interview, but the latter is more or less just a lower-key, somewhat more serious version of the former, and he doesn't really distinguish the two. (He uses the same pronoun split for the idiot pundit character that I and a lot of other actors do -- "I said/I did," because I'm using my body to carry out the character's actions, but "he thought/he felt," because the character's internal state is a separate, confabulated personality.) It turns out he's actually pretty WYSIWYG, for a certain weird genius kid value of WYSIWYG, which may not be obvious to people who are not of a similar (scary) intelligence level and consequent background.

    2. Hey, thanks! I've now discovered that I had totally the wrong idea about Stephen Colbert all these years - I'd somehow got it into my head, probably because of background annoyance with a friend who kept cheerleading about him and just would not take 'I have to get up to speed on politics over there to understand this? I get tired and distressed enough following politics over here' for an answer, that he was one of those people who was perfectly capable of conducting himself in public but just enjoyed saying or doing troll-y stuff and then sitting back, watching the hornet's nest explode, and saying 'ha ha, only persona!' like Jeremy Clarkson. Which gets me in the same 'nope get away from me you are wilfully trying to fuzz my perceptions and I won't have it' place as men who approach women with Schrodingers' Pickup Lines and only decide whether to claim they were joking when they get a response. Anyway. It seems like Stephen Colbert is ALMOST THE REVERSE OF THAT and if I can get hold of his show over here I will give it a try.

      Ross Noble is not precisely from Newcastle-on-Tyne but it's close enough, and it's a very distinctive accent - an old flatmate of mine was from a similar bit of Northumberland and occasionally got misread as Irish, which I think was down to some of the vowel sounds but I'm not sure. He is also hysterically funny on Would I Lie To You, particularly when he comes up against much more staccato fellow professional Northerner Lee Mack. It's like seeing someone trying to fire a peashooter at an ouroboros.

    3. His old gig, The Colbert Report, was pretty heavy on politics, because it was a spinoff of The Daily Show, which is a news and current events satire. It's not really necessary to have a lot of detailed background to follow it, though; being on the internet with Americans probably gets you enough to get the gist. If it's important, he'll generally give you enough information in the monologue to understand why he's mad enough to pick on something.

      The Late Show is only political insofar as he really, really loathes Donald Trump, and our two big political parties are gearing up to pick their candidate for the 2016 elections right now. Otherwise, his guests are skewing heavily geek. He has a multi-year contract locked down and took it on condition of as much creative freedom as he could legally get on broadcast TV, and he's using it more or less as a research grant. He shows up five days a week and does some stand-up at the start of the show, and he gets to be a nosy polymath on CBS's dime.

    4. Here are a few links you should be able to get to from outside the US--


      He's snarktastic and insanely quick with a comeback -- he has a background in improv theater -- but he's much more silly than he is mean, and mainly startles people into laughing. It's a variation on the secretly-very-smart dumb blonde routine that Gracie Allen used to do (and Sarah Millican!), where you have to know what the right/expected answer is so that you can avoid it and shoot off into left field.

      One of the reasons he decided to stop doing The Colbert Report is that it upset him rather a lot when the pundit character accidentally won a debate with one of the guests. The whole point was that he was an idiot and the guest was supposed to disabuse him of his ignorance. There's a pre-interview and an audience warm-up segment that you don't see in the aired episodes, where Colbert came out and specifically told everyone 'I'm about to get into character, and the character's an asshole; PLEASE do not take me seriously'.

      Off-camera, Colbert is notoriously sweet and friendly. He used to bewilder the unpaid student interns on the Daily Show by doing things like learning their names and having actual conversations with them, rather than just considering them part of the coffee-delivery system. He is also one of the few openly-religious media figures over here who is happy to talk about it as a personal or intellectual subject, without just wonking you over the head with it over and over. Somewhere in the infinite reaches of the mulitverse, there is a timeline where this man saw great success as a Jesuit.

    5. Thank you! I can see I will be glued to YouTube for the foreseeable.


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