Introverts: Misunderstood, overlooked and undervalued

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What do Eleanor Roosevelt, Mahatma Gandhi, Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, J.K. Rowling, Warren Buffet, Audrey Hepburn and Bill Gates have in common? Besides the fact that they are all extremely successful, they’re self-identified introverts.

In fact, one in every three people you know is an introvert—this could be someone you live with, work with, your significant other, a child, friend or classmate. It could be that hard-working person in the office who always has headphones on and chooses to have lunch by themself. It could be that person sitting alone in the back row of a lecture, not making eye contact with anybody. It could be that sweet child who always prefers reading a book or drawing to playing with the other kids. Contrary to popular belief, they aren’t shy, aloof, standoffish, snooty, withdrawn or antisocial. They’re simply introverts, a perfectly common—a third to a half of the population—personality type, and furthermore, an in-depth case of the quiet and reflective.

Our world, particularly in Western society and culture, often prizes extraverts and overlooks introverts. We praise the extremely dynamic actor, the powerful corporate lawyer, the animated motivational speaker, the assertive salesman, the entertaining life-of-the-party, and deem them to be the successes of our society, the alpha of our culture, the ideal in which we should all strive to be, and teach our children to become. Individuals who are bold, outspoken, charismatic, dominant, talkative, and energetic often overpower their quiet and reserved counterparts.

Introverts in the workplace are often passed up for promotions or management positions. Introverts at school are often surpassed by extraverts as the “ideal” student. This happens far too often—in politics, communities and media, where introverts are underhandedly outshined.

To further understand this bias, we need to thoroughly understand what introversion is. Introverts are not shy or antisocial individuals who loathe human interaction and fear judgment. It’s about how an individual responds to social stimulation and how they recharge. Introverts gain energy by being alone, in solitude, or in more low-key environments where they are free to think, read, write, paint, listen to music or play with their pet. They prefer deep, meaningful conversations to small talk. They would rather have a few valuable friendships than hundreds of acquaintances. Too much and frequent social interaction is overwhelming and exhausting to them. They are more fascinated with their inner worlds rather than what goes on outside of it.

By contrast, extroverts crave copious amounts of stimulation, through which they can cultivate the vibes of others. They favour tangibility and physicality, action and energy. They “think on their feet” and “act upon instinct”. They’re naturally comfortable with people, the spotlight and all social encounters.

The concept was first introduced by psychologist Carl Jung in his 1921 book Psychological Types. Today, introversion-extraversion is the main factor of the Myers–Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), a personality and self-reflection assessment tool used to determine how people perceive the world and make decisions. According to the assessment, there are 16 different personality types, with half, or eight of them being introvert-dominant.

Fortunately, introversion is becoming more exposed, now a popular subject and social phenomenon, with articles such as Buzzfeed’s “27 Problems Only Introverts Will Understand” and Huffington Post’s “23 Signs You’re Secretly An Introvert”.

An introvert’s idea of a perfect Friday night would be to light candles and do yoga in their apartment, or have a home-cooked dinner with a couple of really good friends. An extravert’s idea of a Friday night would be on the other side of the continuum, going to a crowded bar or a keg party. These concepts aren’t absolute; and labels, stereotypes and generalizations should be avoided with both introversion and extraversion. Not all introverts like reading and being alone all the time, and not all extroverts like to be at loud parties and football games all the time—but most of the time, they do.

It’s also important to note that every individual has both introverted and extraverted traits. An introvert can also be found at large gatherings just as an extravert can be found in a coffee shop reading a book. The difference is their limit and tolerance to these environments before they have to recharge in their preferable elements.

Of course, it isn’t so cut-and dry. Dr. Michael Ashton, a professor in the Department of Psychology at Brock University specializing in personality research suggests, “You can think of introversion-versus-extraversion as a continuous trait, so there’s no clear dividing line between people who are introverted and people who aren’t. Relatively few people are very introverted or very extraverted, and most are in between.”

Individuals who fall smack down the middle of the introversion-extraversion spectrum are referred to as ambiverts, although most of us will habitually shift further to one side of the scale than the other. According to Jung, “There is no such thing as a pure extrovert or a pure introvert. Such a man would be in the lunatic asylum.”

Susan Cain, a former corporate lawyer and negotiations consultant on Wall Street, and self-proclaimed introvert makes a concrete point in her popular TED and RSA talks based on her similarly titled, New York Times bestselling book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking: “For too long, we’ve looked at introversion only through its disadvantages, and we’ve looked at extroversion only through its advantages. […] My vision of the right world is a world where it’s yin and yang. There’s space for extraverts and there’s space for introverts and it’s equal” said Cain.

Cain goes on to use an example that explains how Apple is often associated with Steve Jobs, the dazzling, charismatic legend of the tech giant, as opposed to Steve Wozniak, another self-identified introvert and the brains behind the great invention of the Apple computer and therefore, the brand and company. She advises, “Letting the solitary person go off by himself to think in his deep way and then having a partnership between the two. […] In companies, the most effective teams are the ones with a combination of introvert and extravert. The two types are really drawn to each other and really need each other.” The old adage of how opposites attract has some truth to it. If you are a quiet and reserved individual, you’re probably friends with or dating a person who balances your introverted personality with outgoing, energetic traits, and vice-versa.

Marti Olsen Laney, author of The Introvert Advantage: How to Thrive in an Extrovert World suggests, “Having people in different optimal environments increases the chances of survival of the human race as a whole. It is nature’s way to preserve her species.”

Furthermore, our classrooms and workplaces are designed to favour, promote and praise extraverts, too often without introverts in mind. Desks in elementary school classrooms are set up in groups, seminar rooms are built around everyone sitting in a circle, facing each other. New trends in design are now making offices more open-concept—but what if there are employees who actually enjoy working in their self-enclosed cubicles? What if there are students who are more efficient and get better grades working individually as opposed to working with others?

“If you take a group of people and put them into a meeting and have them talk about something, the opinions of the loudest person, or the most charismatic person, or the most assertive person— they’re the ones that the group tends to follow. And yet, researchers have looked at this—there’s no correlation between being the best talker and having the best ideas.” said Cain.

“I worry that there are people who are put in positions of authority because they’re good talkers, but they don’t have good ideas. It’s so easy to confuse schmoozing ability with talent. Someone seems like a good presenter, easy to get along with, and those traits are rewarded. Well, why is that? They’re valuable traits, but we put too much of a premium on presenting and not enough on substance and critical thinking.”

Additionally, it’s not uncommon to see introverts pretending to be extroverts. Sometimes, they simply have no choice. For situations such as job interviews, presentations and social events, introverts can even be mistaken for extroverts because they have learned to mask their introversion and be well-seasoned with conversation, self-disposition and public speaking. For a short amount of time, it’s actually beneficial for an introvert to exercise their extroverted traits and step out of their comfort zone. “But in the long run, staying true to your temperament is the key to finding work you love and work that matters,” said Cain.

This is not to say that communication and team building—the fundamental building blocks of every organization—aren’t important, but what about creativity and contemplation? How are introverts supposed to flourish if they are never put into their zones of stimulation? We need to honour and favour both introverts and extraverts so that they can excel and succeed in their respectable environments. If we keep scheduling group meetings, pow wows and dinner socials while overlooking individual development and creativity, we also overlook and undervalue the talent and qualities of the many introverts amongst us.

Although introverts might find themselves working as an accountant, writer, graphic designer, or computer programmer—career choices that involve little social interaction—they can also prosper in just about any career, even seemingly extraverted career choices such as business, communications, and law. As previously stated, introverts can often conceal their traits in favour of their career. Even better, introverts also have the power to highlight their strengths and use it to their advantage. Take public speaking, for example; one may think that an introvert’s worst nightmare is public speaking, but to an introvert, speaking in front of thousands of people is actually quite humbling compared to speaking in a small group, and also considering their meticulous train-of-thought, well-composed demeanor and inner confidence.

Likewise, introverts who are put into managerial positions tend to better connect and relate with their subordinates. Because they understand the importance of individual work and solitude, they are more likely to let their employees run off with their own ideas, ultimately coming together at the end in collectivity, whereas an extraverted manager is more likely to become so excited and vocal about their own ideas, that their employees’ ideas are often silenced. Introverted decision makers are also more likely to make calculated risks rather than being rash and impulsive.

“If you’re not an introvert yourself, you’re surely raising, managing or married to one,” said Cain.
Ashton suggests that when dealing with introverts, “Keep in mind that their [seeming] lack of outward confidence doesn’t necessarily mean a lack of competence. Also, their preference for doing things on their own isn’t necessarily a sign of selfishness or snobbishness.” The next time you see an introvert staring into space, resist the urge to ask, “What’s wrong?” or “Is everything okay?” Chances are, they’re perfectly fine and just need some time to warm up. It’s imperative that introverts are not dismissed nor should their absence be taken personally.

Self-assessment and reflection is extremely significant in order to further delve into our strengths and weaknesses so that we can identify opportunities and work together in complementary harmony. Nevertheless, it is equally crucial that we learn to identify others by their characteristic natures—whether introversion or extraversion—so that we can value and celebrate them.

For the introverts out there, do as the introvert expert, Cain herself says, “Spend your free time the way you like, not the way you think you’re supposed to. Stay home on New Year’s Eve if that’s what makes you happy. Skip the committee meeting. Cross the street to avoid making aimless chitchat with random acquaintances. Read. Cook. Run. Write a story.”

In the simple and elegant words of Gandhi, “In a gentle way, you can shake the world.”

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