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Understanding Introverts

Being quiet is not a defect.

Source: iStock

Understanding other people isn’t easy, because we view the world through our own filters and assume that if we do something a certain way, then it must be good for everybody, right? Let’s look specifically at the difference between extroverts and introverts.

And let’s be honest—America favors its extroverts: The teacher who says, “Little Johnny never speaks up in class, he is so disengaged.” The boss who says, “Why are you so quiet in meetings—you never have anything to add.” Or the spouse who says, “You don’t talk to me about your day. I don’t think you love me.” It’s especially hard in the business world and in educational institutions, where there is an unspoken (and often spoken) preference to reward extroverts over introverts. In the society that celebrates “people’s people,” “great communicators” and “go-getters,” the quiet types frequently get marginalized and misunderstood.

The evidence is not hard to find. Both at home and in schools, we encourage our children to speak up and be more assertive. In college and at work there is a great premium on networking and putting yourself out there. During social events, people are expected to make small talk with strangers, stick to upbeat topics and get to know loads of new people. If you are a natural extrovert, you might thrive in these settings, but for the introverts, they might be too much to handle. In fact, many introverts often feel that they don’t fit into the mainstream crowd and wonder if there is something wrong with them altogether. Extroverts actually derive their energy from interaction with others—the more interaction, the more upbeat and energetic they are! But introverts are drained from too much interaction. The introverted spouse who says “I just want some quiet time” might have had too many meetings and staff interactions that day and just needs to decompress.

Why does society speak so negatively of the introvert? There is strength in numbers and consider that a third to a half of the American population is introverted. And no, introverts are not failed extroverts. They are just people who must live in a society that is unfortunately biased against them. In many Scandinavian and Asian countries introversion is actually a highly desired and valued quality, whereas in our Western culture the opposite holds true.

In her best-selling book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain, a former Wall Street lawyer, explores the origins and scope of the cultural prejudice towards introverts in America. The author maintains that the cultural bias in the U.S. is so strong that many people view introversion as a pathology, as opposed to a normal manifestation of temperament or personality variation. She asserts that beginning as early as the first few years of school, introverted children learn that their type of personality is not desired in social settings, and only those who join group activities, actively participate in class, etc. get noticed and rewarded.

Additionally, Cain presents evidence gleaned from different studies that support her claim that many companies in the U.S. are looking to hire extroverts, assuming that they are better suited for the positions of leadership.

Having to constantly compare themselves to these standards, many introverts eventually become anxious about the fact that they don’t “measure up” to their extroverted peers. This notion can be especially hard for children and teenagers, since the desire to be acknowledged as a part of the group or equal among their fellow students often creates additional pressure that may worsen their existing insecurities.

It really doesn’t matter how many times you tell an introverted person to become more extroverted—it will not happen. It’s not that introverts don’t want to change; they simply can’t. Extroverts and introverts are essentially two different species, and you cannot just stop being one and become the other. Studies have shown that the difference between the two lies on a deeper genetic level, and manifests itself in early childhood through different neurological responses to external stimuli. That’s all there is to it. There is no one dominant or inherently superior personality type, as many erroneously have come to believe.

Our bias against introverts is particularly widespread online. Advice on how to be more extroverted, how to become more sociable, how to promote your introversion as a “positive” trait is abundant and extremely one-sided. Everyone is eager to help introverts, to teach them how to become a part of modern American culture. But how come only one side needs to change and learn to adapt? Why aren’t we helping extroverts to understand and accept that others have a different approach and different set of needs? Why is one considered “good” and one “bad”—isn’t there strength in both? The introvert sits in the meeting and watches everything that is going on. They don’t need to dive in and talk, so they pay more attention to what’s going on. As such, introverts may be more watchful and learn more with their observation skills.

In order to truly understand one another, we need to stop trying to change each other, which is one of our more common pastimes! If you are an extrovert and admit you prefer those gregarious, boisterous and overtly friendly people, don’t miss out on understanding the introvert next to you. We like others who are like us, but we can learn to like others (and learn from them) when they are different, too. As a start:

  1. Refrain from applying labels. Labeling an introverted person as anti-social or disengaged is not helpful. When we label someone we limit them. Introverts don’t necessarily dislike other people, they just prefer smaller crowds, familiar faces and shorter interaction times. And they need more alone downtime to reenergize after a lot of people interaction, so don’t expect them to be upbeat when they are feeling drained.
  2. Don’t take it personally. Introverts don’t need to talk about everything, and they may not understand that others need to verbalize constantly. They are perfectly content to sit in the meeting and listen, but they may grow weary of constant chatter. Just because they don’t keep up with the verbalizing does not mean they don’t care or they are not interested.
  3. Listen. If you think that introverts don’t like to talk or don’t have strong opinions, you couldn’t be more wrong. When it comes to the topics that interest them, introverts can be very talkative and passionate. They may speak more slowly or be more thoughtful in their delivery, so give them a chance to share their viewpoint and listen to it.
  4. Be considerate. The energy of introverts is literally being sucked out of them when there is constant and intense engagement and discussion. Such settings may drain them to the point where introverts might actually feel physically sick. So, if your introverted friend or colleague is reluctant to go out or join the group activities, don’t push them; they may need their downtime and know that it is important to them at that moment. The definition of “fun” is not the same for everyone.
  5. Don’t try to fix what is not broken. We don’t expect extroverts to be more introverted, so we should stop trying to convince introverts to be more extroverted. Reticence to dive in and be the life of the party is not a defect of character; it’s actually a rather beneficial trait that allows for greater concentration and sharper observation skills, and there are leadership qualities here just as there are for the people who enjoy the limelight and the speaking platform.
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