93. The Quiet People

May 3, 2013

Of all the ways in which people's personalities are described and categorized, extraversion and introversion must be the most common; though perhaps not the best understood. We can all think of examples in our lives of people who represent these two terms - the talkative, out-going, action-oriented individuals, and the reserved, reflective ones, the quiet people. But it may surprise you to hear that somebody has written an entire book on introversion.


There are places in the world where extraversion is a much more valued attribute than introversion, for example the States, and Sarah Cain, an American introvert, felt that it was time that someone spoke up for this under-valued group. This week's tip explores what she has to say in her book, Quiet, The power of introverts in a world that can't stop talking. 

This is not just a tip for introverts, but also for the extraverts who live, work and play with them. 
 
"Save for a few odd parents, most are grateful that the schools work so hard to offset tendencies to introversion and other suburban abnormalities." 
So wrote William Whyte, author of The Organisation Man, 1956, of US schools' attempts to 'socialise' introverted children at that time. It sounds remarkably like the attempts that used to be made in this country to make left handed children write with their right hands; and just as futile.   

In the UK the favouring of one style over the other is less stark, after all we are famous for our reserve. Nevertheless, these prejudices against introverts do lurk, as I discovered at parents' evenings when my children were younger. Speaking up in class was invariably reported by teachers as 'a good thing', while rarely speaking up in class tended to produce furrowed brows of concern. 

And that is the problem with being an introvert. While extraverts are natural self-publicists, introverts do their most valuable things internally, only occasionally allowing them to spill outwards. If you don't look closely you could be forgiven for thinking that nothing is going on, but that could not be further from the truth. The inventor of the Apple computer, Stephen Wozniak, is an introvert. So was Gandhi. So is Nelson Mandela. And Warren Buffet.  

To understand introversion it helps to look at the neurophysiology, which Eysenck famously did in the 1960s. In simple terms what he discovered was that the neural pathways to the brain, the afferent pathways, were more open in introverts than extraverts, leading introverts to experience more arousal than extraverts for the same level of stimulus. All of us have an ideal level of stimulation, Cain refers to this as the 'sweet spot'.  Too little stimulation and we get bored and want to do something, too much and we feel overwhelmed and want to withdraw. The threshold for boredom is lower for extraverts, and the threshold for overhwhelm is lower for introverts.   

This means that one type is not simply more sociable than the other, but that they differ fundamentally. Extraverts are wonderful, they engage, they are full of life, they initiate, they talk to you at parties. Introverts are wonderful too. They listen, observe, reflect, come up with amazing ideas and solutions to problems. We need both. 

Sarah Cain cites Moses as an introvert - the book of Numbers described him as 'very meek' and he himself said 'I am slow of speech and tongue'. But God
then paired him up with his extraverted brother, Aaron. Without Moses, the idea of leading the Israelites to safety would never have been hatched, nor the Ten Commandments. Without Aaron they would never have happened.  

So how do introverts cope in an extraverted environment? With difficulty and under pressure to conform, according to Sarah Cain, who says:  

'I've never been in a group environment when I didn't feel obliged to present a rah rah version of myself'   

While this is less of a problem in the UK, we are heavily influenced by American culture, and some of the values around extraversion in the work setting have inevitably leaked across the Atlantic. While everybody needs to prepare for the inevitable team-working question in interviews, for example, you are rarely asked about your capacity to work alone. Group brainstorming has gained popularity - introverts would rather have their toes cut off than do their thinking in a group. Open plan offices have become the norm. Mass communication has taken over from personal contact. The danger of these things is that the qualities of introversion may get overlooked. Hold discussions in large groups and you will never hear what the introverts are thinking. Fail to provide peace and quiet and introverts will fail to do their best. Expect people to think on their feet and you will lose the insights that come from thinking things through carefully. 

There is so much of interest in Sarah Cain's book that it pains me to write such a short piece - I encourage you to read it, whether you are an introvert who feels undervalued or misunderstood, or an extravert who struggles to understand the introverts in your life. She provides an excellent education on what it is to be an introvert - the history, the science, the trials, and ultimately the triumphs. 
 
Try this:

1. Which of the two preferences do you most identify with, extraversion or introversion? Do you prefer talking to writing, do you prefer working with people rather than in solitude, is your idea of relaxation to socialise rather than have a quiet sit?  Or are you at your best when thinking alone, are in one to one situations rather than groups, is a flotation tank your ideal form of relaxation?  
 
2. If you most identify with extraversion, what is your attitude to introverts? Do they intrigue you or do they make you nervous because you don't know what they're thinking; do you recognise their ability to think things through or do you just wish they'd say more; do you tend to assume they have nothing to say, or do you make a point of asking them what they think?  
 
3. If you most identify with introversion, how do you feel about that? Do you feel disadvantaged as compared with extraverted people, if so in what way? Or do you feel you have the advantage, if so why? Are you happy with how you are or do you secretly wish you had that social ease that extraverts tend to have? What are the up sides for you, and what are the down sides? 
 
4. Whichever type you are, think of the introverts in your life, either at work at home. How well do you value and include them?  Is there anything different you could do to make it easier for them to contribute their gifts?  
 
5.  If you are an introvert, what are the situations in which a more extraverted persona would benefit you? What could you do to assert yourself more? Remember, people are not mind-readers and however fantastic your ideas and thoughts they have little value if nobody ever hears them, or nothing ever gets done.Try on a new persona next time you are in that situation. Speak a bit more loudly, take centre stage if you have something important to say, make a few more contacts, pitch in to that two second pause before someone else does. 

If you'd like to learn more about your type, you may like to try the Psychological Type Self Assessment ebook, see column on the right. 
 If you have any thoughts about this or any other of my tips and reflections, do please write and tell me. I always love to hear from you. 

 Have a good week!

 Anita


 

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