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How to understand introverts (part one)

I tweet about introverts every once in a while. The responses are always very interesting. Introverts will like and store the tweet; extroverts will often be confused by what’s being said.

A few months back I tweeted that I would write a Sunday column about understanding introversion. The response was immediate: do it like yesterday! Being an introvert myself, however, I took my time. Introverts need to think about things and get them right, you see. We are not much good at off-the-cuff, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants responses.

So here is that column, finally. And it’s going to be a multi-parter.

The most common tags extroverts have about introverts probably fall into this list: shy, awkward, weird, prickly, party-poopers, boring, reserved, haughty, anti-social. The perception is that we are a problem group. If only we opened up more and chatted more easily, we would make it easier for people to understand us and might even become, ahem, more popular.

So let’s use this first article in the series to clear up some misconceptions.

First, introverts are not necessarily shy. I’m not. Shyness refers to difficulty in handling social situations. Most introverts can hold their own in social gatherings – they just can’t take too much of them, and they find it difficult to play-act and make small talk and offer meaningless pleasantries – things that come easily to (most) extroverts.

That leads us to the most important thing you need to understand about introverts. Jonathan Rauch put it well in an article in 2003 for The Atlantic: ‘Extroverts are energized by people, and wilt or fade when alone.’ Introverts are the opposite. They are not attracted by the prospect of being with large groups of people. They put up with it, but then require intense solitude to recover from the experience.

The best metaphor for this condition was offered by psychologist Marti Olsen Laney: Think of extroverts like solar panels – energized by group interaction. Introverts are more like rechargeable batteries – they recharge when they’re alone, which allows them to function in groups when they have to.

Another misconception is that introverts are just a small inscrutable minority group in the corner. No they’re not. Estimates vary, but we can be certain that at least one in four people are introverted; and possibly as many as one in two. In my observation, there are probably two extroverts for every introvert – and so extroversion rules when it comes to setting the rules and norms of society. Nonetheless, understanding and working with introverts is a very necessary part of success.

This is because of the way introverts and extroverts think. As Rauch wrote about introverts: ‘We tend to think before talking, whereas extroverts tend to think by talking.’ Extroverts are quicker to respond to stimulii, and think by interacting with others. Introverts are more reflective, and process things more deeply and more personally.

More recent research suggests that there are very few ‘pure’ introverts or extroverts. We should think of it as a spectrum, not two distinct categories. Most people may be ‘ambiverts’ – they display both introverted and extroverted characteristics, but with a tendency to be more of one type of personality most of the time.

I often say on stage that I am fundamentally an introvert – and note the many perplexed expressions in the audience. The idea that you can talk confidently and assertively to hundreds of people does not seem to equate with introversion for most people. But that’s where the misconception lies. Introverts’ confidence comes from knowledge of our material – not from our ability to handle interactions. We have to learn the second bit. But rest assured: those of us on a mission will do what it takes.

So, yes: we can learn how to talk onstage, how to lead groups, how to get people talking – if those become necessary things in our lives. The difference is that we also need to recover from those activities, in order to recharge ourselves. For that, solitude and silence are needed.

Extroverts are often easy to understand – after all, they let everything hang out there. Because introverts don’t share their inner thoughts as openly (and certainly not with all and sundry) they become harder to figure out.

I’ll make that figuring out a little easier. Next week, we’ll take a look at introversion and extroversion in social situations; and the week after that, in the workplace. I predict that some of you will now need to discuss that with other people immediately; and others will need to ponder on what it might all mean…

(Sunday Nation, 15 April 2018)

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