Suddenly it’s ok be an introvert. This is welcome news; American culture has not always been so tolerant. Preferring quiet reflection to social banter has, for decades, been seen as personal eccentricity, if not a sign of social anxiety or indifference to others. Extroverts, who represent perhaps 70% of the population, have dominated our celebrity-focused culture. But recently, the personality trait of introversion has received fresh attention, because, surprise, it turns out to benefit society.
Extroversion is the social norm, describing the habits of people who like to chat, tailgate, and to think out loud, animated by a posse of collaborators. Introversion, the habit of going inward for inspiration, and sheltering from noise, had been pathologized. Introverts need to go hike in the woods to replenish the energy expended in having a rich social life. There is much mutual misunderstanding. Being an oddball introvert doesn’t imply loneliness or depression, though feeling like an outsider much of the time can send you down that road. Truthfully, pure introverts and extroverts are rare; most people secretly harbor elements of both traits.
It turns out that social bias favoring extroverts has cost society heavily, according to Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking.
The bias against introverts starts in childhood classrooms where group projects are emphasized over solo work, in which introverted kids excel, and emotional nurture is provided at mandatory pep rallies. Introverted kids conform as best they can, sacrificing their distinctiveness in the hope of fitting in. In adult life, quiet employees, just like quiet schoolkids in the classroom, are often overlooked in the workplace, and so are their gifts. American society needs to value its introverts differently, says Cain, who was recently interviewed on National Public Radio “Quiet, Please” (January 30), as well as FastCompany.com “The Fortunes of Solitude” (February 7). Last week, Time Magazine’s cover story was “The Upside of Being an Introvert”.
It’s always refreshing to hear that your personality type, while nonconforming, is no longer a problem, but even, in fact, fascinating to others. Society’s unexpressed apology is accepted. Introverted people do enjoy being included in the social world. Their love of quiet is not due to coldness or fear of rejection; it’s just that for them, home is their complex inner life.
For introverts, reclaiming personal power requires finding a second home in the world of extroverted people, while remaining faithful to the love of Gregorian chant. Introverts’ native eccentricity brings fresh perspective. But even if the larger culture becomes more hospitable to introverts for its own sake, introverts must also reach out, to become better understood. Instead of faking extroversion, those of us who love solitude in the midst of daily life, can express our authentic traits more boldly. Here are some possibilities.
1) Be visible. Introverts tend to be less attention seeking than extroverts, and may humbly accept marginal roles. Instead, bring your unique viewpoint into daylight. Introverts in positions of leadership, as it turns out, tend to use attention differently; introverts tend to empower others, rather than dominate by strength of personality. Hello, Zuckerberg. Becoming more visible, and audible, can express the introvert’s focus on the work itself, rather than the person who gets credit. Think about Gandhi.
2) Set clear boundaries. Deal with noise intrusion in a way that makes clear that your request for quiet is for something you value; it is not rejection of others. Communication must be clear, with neighbors whose talk spills into your work space. There are times to not be silent.
3) Take more risks. The strength of introverts in listening well, and thinking carefully before speaking, can sometimes become a liability. We prefer to perfect our thoughts before speaking. If we can tolerate imperfection, we can share a bit more readily with our extroverted associates.
4) Repeat yourself. Interrupt, in a friendly way, if you are not heard. Communication styles of introverts and extroverts are very different. Attention drifts to louder voices, and shifts rapidly as extroverts revise their thoughts aloud. Louder is not necessarily more valuable. Your contribution is worth repeating.
5) Pause the action as needed. Your need for quiet is legitimate, and as essential to your wellbeing as is the need for conversation and exchange of ideas. The value of solitude is difficult to explain, though others may be drawn to yours. Do not accept unfair characterizations, such as that introverts, by being quiet, are not contributing, or self absorbed, or thinking too much. Do not allow others to define you.
The introverts around you may offer surprising gifts, when they feel worthy of notice. The introvert lurking within you may, as well. Curious to discover it? You may wish to try an online personality test for introversion/extroversion here.