It was Susan Cain who first drew public attention to the Power of Introverts, but psychologists have for years been on the trail of the positive social qualities of people high in introversion. Although for decades, researchers tended to cast aspersions on the social skills of introverts, at least one 1935 study by Davis and Rulon suggested the opposite. Introverts, they found, were as interested and involved in the social happenings around them but, unlike extroverts, they didn’t translate their observations into idle gossip. This was one of the first indications in the literature about the positive social skills of people high on introversion. Introversions may be pretty good companions after all: you can trust that they’ll keep your secrets.
Because they listen more than they talk, people high in introversion may also draw out their social companions more easily into conversations. We know that introverts make good leaders when the people they’re leading are internally motivated to produce. In these situations, the introverted leaders know when to stand back and let others shine, all the while allowing their supervisees to achieve more than if they were told what to do.
It’s important to recognize, however, that introversion isn’t a unitary trait but instead has several facets. Furthermore, you’re not either an introvert or an extravert but are often somewhere in between, despite what some popular personality tests might indicate. With this qualification in mind, let’s look at some new research on the introversion-extraversion dimension and its relationship to people’s behavior in social situations.
In a 2014 paper, Belgian psychologists Sofie Frederickx and Joeri Hofmans asked a sample of 168 college student participants to record daily conversations that they initiated. To measure personality, the researchers used a popular Five Factor Model questionnaire that gives people scores on an introversion-extraversion dimension, along with scores on other factors such as neuroticism. The participants rated the conversations they initiated on three qualities: 1. how familiar they were with the topic, 2. whether they were talking to an acquaintance or a stranger, and 3. how one-sided the conversation was.
As you might expect, people high in introversion were less likely to initiate conversations than were those leaning toward the extraversion side of the scale. Combining this result with other findings, this suggests that introverts not only appear more reticent in social situations, but that they may be less drawn to social situations than are extraverts. According to the congruency hypothesis, people seek out those situations that are consistent with their personalities. What’s more, extraverts love social situations which, in turn, reinforce their outgoing tendencies.
Once people high in introversion find themselves in social situations, however, they show some tendencies that make them better conversationalists. They stick to topics about which they know something more so than do extraverts. Frederickx and Hofmans found that introverts were less likely to start a conversation about topics with which they were unfamiliar. Extraverts will talk about almost anything; introverts will speak up only when they’re on safe ground.
This finding from the Frederickx and Hofmans study is also consistent with earlier studies showing that introverts stay away from social interactions that are likely to head in a negative direction. Imagine that you’re at someone’s house for a casual dinner and someone brings up a controversial political subject. Are you likely to jump into the fray? Researchers suggest that, if you're high on extraversion, you’ll do so regardless of the chances that the pleasant chatter will head south. You’ll sit on the sidelines in dicey debates if you’re more of an introvert.
Returning to the question, then, of why introverts are so easy to talk to, we see that there are several possibilities from the existing research- they avoid gossip, only talk when they know what they’re talking about, and don’t get involved in arguments. As a result, people high in introversion can make excellent sounding boards. Although I haven’t found any research on this, I would suspect also that introverts don’t engage in an excessive degree of self-disclosure. When you confide to an introvert, you know you’ll be heard. You won’t be drowned out by the sound of his or her voice.
If you’re an introvert and have come to believe that you’re a dud when it comes to your social skills, the Frederickx and Hofmans study should give you reason for optimism. Perhaps you’re less likely to strike up a conversation, especially if you’re a bit shaky when it comes to the topic, but by sticking to your areas of expertise, you’ll come out as sounding more intelligent. Therefore, people might be more likely to seek your advice. What’s more, because introverts by definition tend to be quieter, others may find you easier to talk to than the noisy extravert.
The situation is analogous to what takes place in psychotherapy based on the client-centered model. By being nondirective, reflecting back what the client says, and by encouraging change from within the client, this model has become an important component of what is now known as the therapeutic alliance. Ask yourself whether you’d rather go to a therapist who talks all the time and hardly listens to you, or one who makes your concerns the chief topic of conversation? Chances are you’re going to get help from someone who seems truly interested in hearing about you. In many ways, the introvert is comparable to a good psychotherapist.
The average conversation isn’t necessarily analogous to psychotherapy, but there may be an element of that therapeutic alliance in more social situations than we realize. You’ll trust people who seem to care about you, can keep your secrets, prefers to keep things positive, and sticks to topics about which they’re knowledgeable.
As in other areas of life, extraverts can take a page out of of the introvert’s playbook. Keeping to yourself a little bit more can actually help you achieve your goals of socializing effectively with others. Whether you have introverted or extraverted tendencies, then, this research provides some perspective on how your conversations can bring you continued fulfillment.
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2014
Davis, F. B., & Rulon, P. J. (1935). Gossip and the introvert. The Journal Of Abnormal And Social Psychology, 30(1), 17-21. doi:10.1037/h0055357
Frederickx, S., & Hofmans, J. (2014). The role of personality in the initiation of communication situations. Journal Of Individual Differences, 35(1), 30-37. doi:10.1027/1614-0001/a000124 n