Read through this blog (if you dare!) and you’ll find there’s not a whole lot of me on it – an insight here, a personal reflection there – but the posts are more of a reflection of my interests than me personally. That’s the way I prefer it. Not that anyone should use Mad Men’s Don Draper as a role model, but as he remarks in one episode ‘I am the greatest? Not if you have to say it.’ (Oh God, he’s banging on about that show again, says imaginary reader). But, by its nature, this post has to be personal. In 2012, Susan Cain, an American writer and lecturer, published Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. Reviewing the book in The Guardian, Jon Ronson wrote ‘I read much of Susan Cain’s book shaking my head in wonder and thinking: “So that’s why I’m like that!”’ My own reaction was the exact same.
So what’s it like being an introvert? The first thing to say is that many people confuse introversion with shyness. They are two very different things. I am not shy. But because I’m introverted, people often confuse it for shyness or, worse still, indifference. Who likes someone being indifferent towards them? I know I don’t. Cain herself has expressed the view that society has a cultural bias towards extroverts. That is almost certainly the case for the U.S., although I would suggest that the moment someone starts acting as if there is a bias against them – and I’m talking subtle biases here (racism, for instance, is not a subtle bias) – they put up walls between themselves and the rest of the world. They create exclusivities where exclusivities shouldn’t really exist (after all, there’s a little bit of an extrovert in us all – in fairness, Cain acknowledges this) and they are in danger of putting themselves on a ‘woe is me’ pedestal. But let’s assume for a moment that Cain, is correct and society is biased towards extroverts. How do I go about changing that? The most important step for anyone is to explain to themselves who they are – and to leave external challenges and sources aside for a moment. It’s a cornball thing, but change comes from within.
Introverts have a preference for lower-stimulation environments. That is certainly true, in my case. If I have to spend too long in a high-stimulation environment, especially one I’m uncomfortable in, I become edgy. For me, a high-stimulation environment can be something as straightforward as a crowded restaurant where the tables are close together. I start to become distracted and if I’m in company, it starts to look as if I don’t want to be there. I may very well want to be with the person who I’m spending time with, but the environment is too uncomfortable for me. Of course, there are other factors at play and I’m loath to attribute every character tick I have to introversion. I was brought up to regard dining as a rather formal thing. For instance, I would never think – even if dining alone – of eating in front of the television. I remember, as a boy, being taught by a relative how to drink soup properly – moving the spoon away from me to catch the soup before bringing it back, small spoonfuls at a time. I was equally amused and bemused. But guess how I still drink soup? So you could say I mind my P’s and Q’s when I’m eating.
A perfect example of a high-stimulation environment is a school. I was a good student, polite and hard-working, but I disliked school, a lot. It wasn’t that I was disinterested in school or was a moody teenager (although we all had those moments). No, I actively disliked school – I actively thought, a lot, about how much I disliked school. A few months ago, I had a conversation, with a teacher, about school and whether I used to stay behind after last bell for the extra-curricular stuff. Not that this was my actual answer (politeness in company being an essential!) but to use a certain phrase “did I f..k.” At 4 o’clock, I was out the doors of that place as fast as I could go.
To be fair, secondary school was much more preferable to primary school because at least there were five to ten minute breaks between classes, where I could gather my thoughts and “regroup” for the next round – a breathing space. I’m still like that. At formal occasions, weddings for instance, I will leave the table more often than anybody else, even if it’s for just two minutes at a time. I am very careful not to appear impolite and I can sit for as long as I need to but I actively plan the little “breathers” that I know I will need throughout the day. If someone isn’t aware of their own personal dynamic, it can become a huge source of frustration to them, and others, and I wondered in school why I wasn’t like everyone else (others would wonder too). Now? I don’t think I’ve asked myself that question in years ‘why am I not like everyone else?’
An interesting aspect of Cain’s book is her section on what is known as Free Trait Theory. Devised by former Harvard psychology professor Brian Little, Free Trait Theory explains that although we are born with certain personality traits, traits that subsequently get culturally reinforced, we can and do act out of character when we feel the need to do so. Referring specifically to introverts, the theory goes that introverts have the capability to act like extroverts for the sake of work, or people, they consider as being important. So, I was able, at age 16, to stand in front of a group of people and speak, off the cuff, for 15 minutes because I was asked to do so by someone I respected and because I felt the occasion demanded it. Was I nervous? Not particularly. Had I spoken like that in public before? Yes. Have I spoken like that in public since? Yes.
Cain also references work carried out by research psychologist Richard Lippa into so-called self-monitors, introverts who are especially good at acting as extroverts. A self-monitor is able to modify their behavior to the social demands of a situation and does so by looking for cues to tell them how they should act – a “when in Rome…” sort of thing. I would consider myself a high self-monitor. The unfortunate thing is that high-self monitors have been found to be better at lying then low self-monitors. I am a very bad liar probably because one of my watchwords is integrity. I don’t like being lied to, so I go out of my way not to lie to others. Besides, Brian Little has an explanation. He regards self-monitoring as an act of modesty and the person accommodating themselves to the norms of a particular situation because why grind everyone down to take account of your needs and concerns?
I suppose you could call high self-monitoring a fake-it-to-make it strategy but that wouldn’t be right. In one sense, I would compare it to going into an interview where you will be asked the standard questions, such as ‘what are your weaknesses?’ Can you imagine being asked that question in the course of a normal, everyday conversation? No, of course you can’t. But because the situation demands it, you adjust yourself to it and you answer the question. Besides, there is compromise, which, used sensibly, is a wise thing. To quote President Barack Obama: ‘A good compromise…….is like a good sentence; or a good piece of music. Everybody can recognize it. They say, “Huh. It works. It makes sense.”‘
So, self-monitoring can be useful, but only if used judiciously. Overdo it and disaster can strike. Believe me, I’ve been there (although not anytime in recent memory). You have to accept who you are and if you’re an introvert, there’s no point in accommodating yourself to the extent that you start to deny entire aspects of your personality.
• You prefer to spend your social energy on those who matter to you the most, preferring a glass of wine with a good friend than going to a party full of people you don’t know.
• You think before speaking.
• You thrive on solitude, without necessarily being a loner.
• You experience flow when concentrating deeply on a subject or activity that is of great interest to you.
• You’re a good listener and a highly-skilled observer.
• You are highly empathic and likely sensitive to lapses in your own behaviour and their consequences (let’s face it, many people, extroverts and introverts alike, are empathic).
• You were probably labeled shy as a child and can feel nervous when you think you’re being evaluated – a work review, interview or a first date, for example.
• You prefer environments that are not overstimulating and are not great at handling information overload “in the moment,” needing time instead to reflect.
• You can drive alone for hours, even without the radio (my car radio broke three years ago and I’ve never replaced it).
- Susan Cain’s Quiet website.
- Susan Cain’s TED talk.
- Introvert Retreat – a good site with articles and various links.