Shyness Is Nice

Spreading the word about the value of quiet, sensitive people

Introverted? Shy? How the World Misperceives Us

A mix of personality types brings different skills to an organization.

Photo by Greg at the St. Louis Zoo

As a child, I was very introverted and quite shy.  I had friends, but generally preferred spending time with one or two of them at a time. When in large groups such as Cub Scouts or less-structured social events, I generally felt out of place. I remained on the periphery and honed my observation skills. It seemed everyone else was aware of a secret set of rules for social interaction. I didn't really know what to do.

In high school, I was very quiet. I did well academically and played some sports. As a freshman, my basketball coach was very supportive. He complimented me on some of my skills, and suggested areas of improvement. He encouraged me to develop into a "take-charge leader." I had no idea of how to do that. I ended up with more success as a baseball pitcher. As a pitcher, I could perform in a more solitary manner. I generally didn't have to tell anyone else what to do.

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Socially, I remained very reserved. I didn't say much, other than to the small group of nerdy friends I regularly ate lunch with. I remember one day being stunned when a girl at school asked me, "Why are you so stuck up?"

Why did she ask this? Because I didn't talk much. She assumed that I must think that I was better than everyone else. If she only knew...

These memories came back to me after my last post on PsychologyToday.com. In Introverts Need Not Apply, I talked about how some employers try to avoid hiring introverts. Some readers argued with my points (fair enough), but then their comments confirmed my main point...that introverts are misperceived and then excluded from the work force in such a way that it actually prevents some businesses from functioning at their optimal level. 

I will give some examples in a moment, but let me make one thing clear. I am not suggesting introverts are inherently superior. What I am saying is this: Different personality types bring different perspectives, and frequently, different skills to the table. Having a mix of personality types has the potential for bringing a broader range of ideas and skills into an organization.

One reader thought I was making introverts into "this month's flavor of victim, not to be confused with last month's victims of bullying." I was stunned when this reader also stated that he/she would not hire a "well-qualified introvert." Why? Because "sales people need to like people."

Ah, another assumption about introverts not liking people. Thankfully, several other commenters offered other perspectives. For example, one person noted that she was an introvert and did very well in retail sales "by being polite, knowing lots about the products, being able to answer customer questions clearly and sensibly, telling people the truth about what they were considering buying, and helping them to make the choice best suited to their needs. As a result, many individuals were willing to listen when I recommended they purchase an extra item or two."

Again, this is not to suggest introverts are superior. Instead, I'm pointing out how having a variety of personality types in a business could actually increase sales. Some customers will respond to one salesperson and other customers will respond to another.

Here's a personal example. Many years ago, when moving to a new city, my wife and I went to numerous open houses. At each one, a very nice and enthusiastic realtor greeted us, attempting to convince us why they should be our buyer's agent.  We didn't really know what we wanted yet, and we were not ready to commit to an agent.

Finally, at one open house there was an agent we had never met before. She was not pushy at all. She answered all our questions in a way that helped us define what we needed. We signed with her. Why? Because she made us feel comfortable with her knowledge and her gentle nature. Over the years, we have bought and sold two houses with her, each house selling for full asking price. With our first purchase, she actually talked us out of making an offer on a more expensive house. Why? Because she had listened so well in our initial conversations, she felt we were "settling" for a home that didn't really suit us. Over the years, we have referred many friends and family to her, with everyone thanking us.

Other comments on my last post made it evident that many people think of introversion and extraversion as polar opposites with no middle ground. In reality, there is a continuum of these personality traits, and we fall at varying points along that scale. Introverts and extraverts may have different initial preferences, and we have much to contribute to each other. Everyone loses when we fail to recognize this.

Copyright 2012 Greg Markway, Ph.D.

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Greg Markway, Ph.D., is a psychologist and has coauthored three books, including Painfully Shy.

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