In 2012, American author Susan Cain 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 same.
What’s it like being an introvert? 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.
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 too 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.
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. At 4 o’clock, I was out the door of that place as fast as I could. Secondary school was 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 I’m sat at 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 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.
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 states 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 do 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. For the record, I do not consider myself to be a very good liar. Brian Little 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 it a fake-it-to-make it strategy. 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? Because the situation demands it, you adjust yourself to it and you answer the question.
So, self-monitoring can be useful, but only if used judiciously. 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.
The next time you are at a function or work meeting, or any other social occasion, and the person next to you falls quiet, it isn’t necessarily a lack of will or interest on their part. They just might be an introvert.
- 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 and can feel uncomfortable with small talk
- 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 empathetic and likely sensitive to lapses in your own behaviour and their consequences (although, many people, extroverts and introverts alike, have empathy)
- You were probably labeled as being shy as a child and can feel nervous when you think you’re being evaluated – a work review or interview, 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.