You think — deeply, and preferably in solitude — therefore you are, most likely, an introvert.
While American culture is clearly an extrovert’s playground favoring class clowns and cheerleaders, it’s perfectly fine for you to sit over by the monkey bars immersed in a good book. It’s OK to reject a boisterous party in favor of a one-on-one chat with a friend. And it’s totally cool to let a phone call slide into voice mail so you can prepare a calm response.
This does not make you a freak.
In fact, the tendency to step back from the noise allows you to join the ranks of Albert Einstein, Eleanor Roosevelt, Vincent van Gogh, Rosa Parks, Steve Wozniak, Steven Spielberg, J.K. Rowling and Mahatma Gandhi. Introverts, one and all.
And while typically feeling odd-man/woman out, introspective types are getting some love these days thanks to books such as “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking,” by self-proclaimed introvert and former Wall Street attorney Susan Cain, and “Introvert Power: Why Your Inner Life Is Your Inner Strength,” by psychologist Laurie Helgoe.
Both call introverts to unite and be proud — just be sure to give each other plenty of space and quiet time when you do it.
“I actually had a lot of discomfort writing my book, basically outing myself as an introvert,” Cain said jokingly in a phone interview. “In this society, we’re often seen as second-class personality types. So I wanted introverts to know how powerful they can be when they finally take stock of their own talents.”
It took Cain quite some time to do that herself. Years ago, when she entered the world of corporate law, she first thought her introspective nature would put her at a disadvantage.
“I thought the ideal lawyer was bold and comfortable in the spotlight, and I wasn’t,” she said. “But I began to realize my introverted traits could be very useful. Things like listening really well, preparing thoughtfully for a case, forging one-on-one alliances behind the scenes, thinking things through, thinking deeply. All these qualities were highly effective.”
Personality types have been studied for decades, the terms extrovert/introvert made popular in the 1920s by psychiatrist Dr. Carl Jung. According to current studies, at least one-third to one-half of Americans may consider themselves on the introvert end of the spectrum.
And misconceptions about that personality type abound, psychologists say.
For one, an introvert is not necessarily shy. Shyness is more about fear of negative judgment and social humiliation, while many introverts merely opt for quiet time and reflection — not out of fear, but out of choice. Introverts are not anti-social. They enjoy social gatherings, but on a smaller scale than extroverts do. Introverts are energized and refreshed by reflection and contemplation. Extroverts are energized by interaction.
One is not better than the other — and clearly there are millions who fall somewhere in the middle.
But some argue that society is out of balance, favoring and rewarding extrovert tendencies. Schools often employ clustered seating and group projects — perfect for the extrovert, but that’s not the way independent introverts prefer to learn, Cain said. Open-plan offices are great to encourage teamwork, but smother creativity for those who function better with a door closed.
“The pressure in our culture to enjoy parties, chatter and interactions — employers who value ‘people skills’ — this can lead people to think that an inward orientation is a problem instead of an opportunity,” said Helgoe, an introvert who has also been an actress, model and is a national public speaker.
“We need to realize the reserved approach of the introvert can be a powerful tool — even a business strategy,” she said. She told of one highly successful businesswoman who would let others blather away in a meeting while she listened intently, biding her time and then making keen observations.
“By holding back, it gave the impression what she had to say was more valuable,” Helgoe said.
Cain also describes a record-breaking salesman — an admitted introvert who attributes his success to the adage about having “two ears and one mouth,” and using them in that proportion.
“His listening skills are what helped him achieve astronomical success,” she said. “Here’s a career that you think requires a bold extrovert. But being an introvert, he truly discovered what the customers’ needs were, and how best to help them.”
Angela Sangalang, 27, a children’s ministry director in San Jose, Calif., says she’s able to nurture her introvert nature in her work. It’s not a 9-to-5 job, so she has the flexibility to take time for herself, think through challenges and work at her own pace. But life wasn’t always this way. Sangalang often felt pressure from family and society to be more assertive and “outgoing.”
“I think the biggest misconception about being an introvert is that it’s something to get over in order to succeed,” she said. “Success” usually comes with this idea of an extroverted person, charismatic, outgoing, and knowing how to work a room.
So when introverts have to take time to make a decision, or think through the work, or retreat in solitude, we are thought of as unsuccessful.
“I’ve actually heard someone say that we need to get over it, just make a decision already, or hurry up,” Sangalang said. “There’s not a lot of patience for introverts.”
In her book, Cain cites the quiet, gentle protest of Rosa Parks in refusing to take a seat in the back of the bus in 1955 Alabama. A small voice heard ’round the world.
Cain contrasts Parks’s subtle statement with the extroverted nature of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. — a true alpha personality, at ease in the spotlight — and says both personality types were necessary to drive the point home.
And just to be clear, Cain says she’s not anti-extrovert.
“My perfect metaphor for all this is how some of the leaders in the feminist movement in the ’50s and ’60s described their efforts. They weren’t saying to cast men aside. They just wanted an even playing field. That’s what we introverts want, too.”
Are you an introvert?
Take this informal quiz, excerpted from “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.”
- Prefer one-on-one conversations to group activities?
- Prefer to express yourself in writing?
- Enjoy solitude and time to think?
- Dislike small talk, but enjoy more meaningful conversations?
- Dislike conflict?
- Do your best work on your own?
- Let calls go through to voice mail?
- Prefer not to show or discuss your work until it’s finished?
If you answered yes to most of these, you may fall on the introvert side of the spectrum. Take advantage of these qualities, and be proud!