Good news for introverts

Susan Cain has become famous due to her work on introverts. Her best seller, Quiet, The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking, makes the case that much of the world values the extrovert – ‘the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha, and comfortable in the spotlight.’ P 4 If you’re not familiar with her ideas, watch Cain’s TED talk.

The Extrovert Ideal

The Extrovert Ideal is based on research that shows that talkative people are rated as smarter, better-looking, more interesting, and more desirable as friends. Fast talkers are rated as more competent and likable than slow ones. In groups, the voluble are considered smarter than the reticent, even though ‘there’s zero correlation between the gift of the gab and good ideas.’ P 5

Workplaces express this bias towards the extrovert in such practices as: an insistence people work in teams; in offices without walls, an expectation people self-promote, an impatience with anyone who can’t think and speak quickly,

What is introversion?

Let’s be clear about what introversion and extroversion is, as there can be some confusion. For starters, introversion is not synonymous with shyness, nor with a lack of social skills, nor are they antisocial. Introverts may have strong social skills and enjoy social events. They prefer deep discussions over small talk. They listen more than they talk and think before they speak. After spending time with other people, there comes a point when they wish for solitude.

Extroverts tend to be assertive, dominant, and in great need of company. As Cain points out, extroverts think out loud and on their feet; they prefer talking to listening, rarely find themselves at a loss for words …’ They are not comfortable with solitude.

Another important point to note from Cain is that people are not predictable across all circumstances. Just because I may not enjoy big, raucous parties, doesn’t mean I don’t make a useful contribution to a strategic planning meeting.

While Cain’s argument is primarily based on US culture, much of what she says applies to Australian workplaces.

If we assume that quiet and loud people have roughly the same number of good (and bad) ideas, then we should worry if the louder and more forceful people always carry the day.’ P51 This is what happens in meetings. ‘We perceive talkers as smarter than quiet types… we see talkers as leaders … we rate quick talkers as more capable and appealing than slow talkers.

Criticised for quietness

People think they have the right to comment on my quietness. I’m an introvert by nature and can be extroverted when the situation demands it. Yes, I largely do say less than others when in a group. This is not a crime. Nor does it reflect a paucity of ideas on my part. More likely it’s based on observations that the ideas expressed are fine, my ideas have already been put forward by someone else. So there is nothing more to add.

I no longer feel aggrieved at being labelled, even accused of, being quiet, not saying much. If a person’s opinion of me carries little weight or value, then I don’t care what they think. What they say in commenting on my quietness reveals more about that person than it does about me. After all, why should everyone be an equal contributor to the mix? Not all contributions from extroverts are valuable. In fact, much of what they say just takes up air time without adding much to the grand scheme of things. That people feel justified on commenting on my non-commenting suggests that they are bothered at some level by their own verbal excess and/or feel that others must fill up any silence.

Career tips for introverts

Cain’s work is reassuring for us introverts. Her book offers several tips which can help introverts manage their careers.

  • Create ‘restorative niches’: Cain suggests that we have places to go when we want to return to our true self. She writes: ‘We would all be better off if, before accepting a new job, if we evaluated the presence or absence of restorative niches as carefully as we consider the family leave policy or health insurance plans. Introverts should ask themselves: Will this job allow me to spend time on in-character activities like, for example, reading, strategizing, writing, and researching? Will I have a private workspace or be subject to the constant demands of an open office plan? If the job doesn’t give me enough restorative niches will I have enough free time on evenings and weekends to grant them to myself?’ [219-220]
  • Cain devotes a chapter to communication differences between introverts and extroverts. They have different conflict resolution styles, different ways of expressing respect, and attach different meanings to behaviours. If your life partner differs from you on the introvert-extrovert scale, or you manage a mix of staff across the spectrum, then it’s worth reading this material to better understand how interpersonal issues arise.
  • Create an extroverted persona: The final chapter of Cain’s book offers a blueprint. Part of this blueprint [p 265] is about adapting to your dream job if it demands an extroverted persona. She writes: ‘Quit your job as a TV anchor and get a degree in library science. But if TV anchoring is what you love, then create an extroverted persona to get yourself through the day. Here’s a rule of thumb for networking events: one new honest-to-goodness relationship is worth ten fistfuls of business cards. Rush home afterward and kick back on your sofa. Carve out restorative niches.’
Dr Ann Villiers, career coach, writer and author, is Australia’s only Mental Nutritionist specialising in mind and language practices that help people build flexible thinking, confident speaking and quality connections with people.