Almost half the global population are said to be predominantly introverted. Yet they are rarely identified, like a species on the verge of extinction. Are they all in hiding?
Introverts can be likened to oranges masquerading as apples in a world of apples. However, the difference between extroverted traits and introverted traits needs to be appreciated and recognized.
No person can be completely extroverted or introverted, but simply lean more one way than the other. Every individual is a blend of both. I lean quite heavily towards introversion — more than just about anyone I know. In fact, I have always struggled with this trait, regularly braving uncomfortable social situations, concealing my taboo tendency of wanting to be alone. But then I watched an amazing TED talk called the Power of Introverts by Susan Cain, which really shook up my thinking about introversion.
“It is also our community’s loss, and at the risk of sounding grandiose, it is the world’s loss because when it comes to creativity and leadership we need introverts to do what they do best,” says Susan Cain, in her TED talk. Cain spoke candidly about our culture’s overpowering emphasis on extroversion. Her experience as an introvert pretending to be an extrovert is something I, along with many other people, can relate to.
Cain explains how we live in a world tailored for extroverts. We live in a product of the modern mass migration to cities, creating communities and work environments where nobody knows each other, yet everyone must learn to get along and strive towards a common goal. Our offices are thus designed without walls, allowing colleagues to spy on each other’s monitors and hear every word uttered. In these open situations, the ability to converse and engage with others around you becomes an essential tool for survival.
Even from childhood we are taught to be outgoing, talkative and boisterous. Quieter or more introverted kids are seen to lack confidence and even intelligence.
“We’ve typically had this notion that the best kind of person to be is to be an extrovert. We’ve pushed kids to not be shy,” says Mike Boyes, professor of psychology at the University of Calgary. Boyes studied child development psychology and believes such child rearing has defined generations of people who respect and value more extroverted behaviour.
“There is a dimension from introversion and extroversion and it is defined partly by how comfortable people are with social situations, but more importantly it is defined by one’s preferred way of managing in the world,” he says.
Certainly extroverts seem to enjoy social interaction more, or even seem to need social interactions more. Extroverts are energized and thrive off being around other people. They tend to enjoy social activities, business or political groups. Extroverts can be more successful in certain jobs that require engaging with many different people.
“There are social situations where you do need someone who is very extroverted and dominant because maybe if they’re doing a presentation or some aspect of a sales campaign, maybe introverts are not the ones to do that,” says Boyes.
However, there is a place for an introvert as well, and the underrated introvert has more to contribute than meets the eye.
While extroverts jump into the spotlight at every opportunity and assert themselves as fearless leaders, sometimes the best leaders are introverts. Introverts recognize the need to give their colleagues space to operate without boundaries, a key to unleashing their creative spirit.
Extroverted leaders, in contrast, tend to imprint their vision on the whole group, oppressing creativity, as well as micromanaging excessively and imposing their will on others. Ironically, their fearless leadership instills fear in their colleagues.
Introverts can tap their creative juices when they tune out the voices around them. Those aha! moments in life rarely come in boardrooms or in bars, but in a place of solitude, a place with no unwanted voices or distractions.
Many of the world’s famous and influential leaders were introverts. For example, Gandhi, Albert Einstein and J.K. Rowling. Introverted business leaders include Warren Buffett and Bill Gates. Even Nelson Mandela was a self-proclaimed introvert. While these leaders derived inspiration and great ideas from solitude, they were also passionate about and loved being around people, and recognized the need to collaborate to accomplish their lofty goals. The more notable difference between introverts and extroverts, then, is how they choose to respond to social situations.
“Extroverts are either enjoying those situations or are stressed by those situations because they have a lot of people to keep track of. Whereas introverts are more focused on how things sound to them and are less concerned about other people,” says Boyes.
Introverts are successful leaders because they are not as interested in being the centre of attention. They don’t take positions of leadership because they crave positions of dominance. Their ideas are more likely framed by personal forethought rather than public opinion.
I may not be a leader, but I am a self-proclaimed introvert. I am also a lone traveler. I went backpacking for months and some of my best ideas came to me on long bus rides, long walks down foreign streets or while connecting with nature.
My favourite place on Earth is on a Greek farm overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, an ultimate place of solitude.
My best moments and memories, however, were shared with people — people who I have made lasting friendships with. The people were what ultimately defined my trip. One such moment was the time I couchsurfed in a home with one gracious host and six other travellers, sharing wonderful food and inspiring conversation.
There are parts of me, therefore, that are both extroverted and introverted, and it would be wrong to categorize me completely one way.
“Culturally, we have talked about not just introversion and extroversion, but personality in general — it’s just who you are. The difficulty we run into fairly quickly with that is when you look at the relationship between assessed personality and behaviour, it is not a strong relationship. If personality is who you are then that should define how you behave, but it doesn’t particularly well,” says Boyes. “This means there is flexibility in personality.”
Recently there have been many new books published including Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, which gives a perspective on why we need introverts in western culture, and why we need moments of quiet within ourselves. Such flexibility is necessary to fully operate and make impactful and wise decisions.
Today, I know who I am, how I am and in what situations I am or am not comfortable. I may not like small talk, but I love instant connection with people through common ground. I may be shy and taciturn in large groups, but I am happy to talk to those who are genuinely interested in what I have to say. I may not thrive in the loud and busy atmosphere of bars and parties, but I enjoy small and intimate get-togethers with a common purpose.
Personality tests may tell me I am an introvert, and it is certainly my dominant personality trait, but there are aspects of my personality that are more extroverted depending on the situation. Internal reflection is necessary for even the most outgoing. The very idea of having one kind of rigid personality doesn’t make sense.
Different situations bring out different aspects of my personality. I thrive when I am alone. My thoughts flow freely, and my thoughts are mine alone, and nobody else’s. However, I need people too. And when I go too long without human interaction, I feel lonely just like everyone else. In fact, I get out and meet people all the time. I care about people and want to share my wisdom and ideas that I derive from solitude and am eager to hear their ideas. It’s also why I blog — I am eager to share, but unable to share such thoughts in person. The key for me is to build a healthy balance between social time and “me” time.
“If you find someone who is inflexible, who can’t be anything but extroverted, we should worry about them a little bit. It means that they won’t be able to back off if everyone else needs some downtime. Basically, they are going to have difficulties because of that,” Boyes says.
There are psychological theories that say people need to be flexible in their personality because it allows people to be more adaptive. It becomes an issue when you can’t stop being an extrovert.
Personality tests may give insight about our dominant characteristics but we should refrain from using tests as a template to discern and even guide our actions.
Many companies use such tests to determine who to hire, and many people have taken personality tests, such as Myers-Briggs, to help determine which professional stream to pursue. The best test, however, is analyzing how you choose to react to various situations.
“People can learn how to do things and find ways to do things that would normally be thought of as being ideally appropriate for an introvert or extrovert, and do it quite well, quite comfortably,” says Boyes. He believes that our social situations are coloured by our experience.
There are no personality tests to determine how flexible someone is, and so, personality tests potentially have it all wrong. Extroverts should not be over valued, but adaptability should be.
Adaptability requires one to be conscious of his or her introversion, and to recognize the need for personal space. Personal quiet time allows one to foster distinct thoughts or ideas, and helps maintain one’s self-awareness and confidence. If you are introverted, then recognize introversion in others in your life, and give them the space they deserve, but also encourage them to share their wonderful ideas with you.
Because at first glance, we may be like apples and oranges, but, for most people, personality is adaptable. Our experience has guided our behaviours and personalities, but like everything else, can change throughout time.
Balance is quality. This is something achieved, not granted, and the best path forward for happy fulfilled lives.