Years ago, when I had a ‘proper’ job, I was a participant in a set of development centre activities for graduates. It was standard development centre stuff, including participation in group activities and receiving feedback on performance by an assigned observer who monitored the tasks. In one such exercise, I was observed in a team problem-solving scenario (the details of which I can’t recall exactly – I do remember it was the type of activity I wasn’t naturally adept at). I spoke very little during the exercise, and later received feedback from my assigned observer (someone who didn’t know me well), suggesting that I had appeared ‘aloof’ during the exercise, whilst all the other participants had engaged in useful problem-solving work. The remark stung me (although I don’t blame my observer – who was viewing things from his own natural perspective, which might become clearer later). What he failed to recognise, though, was that I wasn’t being aloof – I was being an introvert.
Unfortunately for me at that moment, I was doing it in a situation where I was also being assessed against a generic extrovert ideal.
Introvert: a shy, introspective person.Oxford English Dictionary
The dictionary definition of ‘introvert’ may not necessarily resonate with actual introverts, who are not always shy (although who, in my own experience, may have started off that way as children). Rather, many gravitate towards the Jungian approach to introversion and extroversion, which employs the terms to describe the way an individual prefers to focus their energy on either the inner world (introverts) or the outer world (extroverts) – preferences like reading or writing for introverts and social gatherings for extroverts (although this is not to say that either type cannot enjoy the ‘other side’). It’s been clear to me all my life that I’m an introvert, being fond as I am of all the classic introvert pastimes – reading, writing, thinking, staying home a lot, avoiding parties. In the group exercise I mentioned earlier I was behaving in typical introvert fashion – attempting to think through the problem in my head before vocalising it, doing the internal work, doing all the things that came naturally to me in my quiet, reflective style. From the outside of course, none of this would have been apparent, especially to a (probably) extroverted observer who just wondered why I wasn’t speaking up like all the other participants. Sadly, in business and education, there are many more stories of quiet people being overlooked or misunderstood in approaches that favour a louder voice. Just recently, I was advised that my eldest son could gain extra credit in class by putting his hand up to speak more often (it took me a while to realise that this was just another example of the assumption that talking more equates with higher intelligence). In a culture that can misunderstand – or even ignore – the quieter voices, there’s a need for understanding.
Understanding that we need a mixture of both loud and quiet at the table – each talking and listening, all being seen and being heard.
In her bestselling book on introversion, Quiet, author Susan Cain offers advice to managers, educators, parents and individuals on how to live well as introverts, bring out the best in introverted children and harness the (many) strengths of introverts in the workplace. This may include being mindful about the design of workspaces and classrooms, drawing quiet individuals into group discussions, and – if you’re an introverted person yourself – spending your free time recharging your batteries with the kind of internal activities you enjoy. It’s not just a book for introverts, but those who live, work with or educate them (i.e. most likely everyone). It also dispels some of the biggest myths in the business world (e.g. that group brainstorming is an effective way to garner ideas. Forty years of research says otherwise. The only exception is online brainstorming, suggesting that the best way of gathering group ideas is first individually – an approach that will also benefit the quieter members of a team).
Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island looking for boats to save, they just stand there shining.Anne Lamott
Outside of school and work, there’s also room to be more understanding in relationships. That friend who doesn’t want to come to a party might not be antisocial, they might just prefer a quiet evening of conversation with one or two other people. That introverted acquaintance who actually made it to the party might not be unfriendly – just someone who’s more comfortable talking to that person who shares similar interests to their own. That work colleague who’s no good at small talk might be full of passion for books, or films, or politics. That friend who doesn’t want to go on a night out with a group of strangers might not hate you – they might just do better spending quality time with you in another, quieter, way. That child who clams up in a group situation might just need you to draw her into the conversation to get things started. That girl who is quietly observing the group may not be aloof – just internalising her thought process in her natural, introverted way.
As with so many things in this world, perhaps we need to understand that not everyone approaches life in the same way we do. We are all unique, all individual, all have our own strengths and weaknesses, all have our own ways of being seen and being heard. Just as thunder exists for a reason, so does the gentle rainfall. Just as some people enjoy the blaze of sunset, others prefer the muted glow before the dark. While a whisper sounds different to a roar, it can sometimes be just as powerful.
Some people burn on the inside. And they’re okay with that.
Not aloof, just introverts.
Gently asking to be heard.
Thank you for this post. Uncanny timing – I was reflecting yesterday on how social media seems to be full of people talking about their Zoom cocktail parties with groups of friends, their longing to get out and be with crowds of friends again – and my thoughts that these do not sound like my idea of a good time. Sartre was obviously an introvert – ‘l’enfer c’est les autres”. And how very true that school and work favour an extrovert “norm” – just as the physical structure of our lives favours the male physique in areas as diverse as car seat belt design and medical diagnosis. The latter is being brought home to me in conversations with my daughter, who just now is reading “Invisible Women – Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed For Men”, by Caroline Criado Perez. Highly recommended as en eye-opener.
At work I have seen people get promoted who on objective competency-based criteria were no more able than others, delivered less and managed teams in a toxic way. But they were endlessly vocal. At an early point in my career I administered a major committee, and was often stumped for how to “encapsulate” the lengthy contributions of these people: when you had to boil it down to content rather than length, there often turned out to be no content. But everyone round the table nodded in agreement at the excellent proposals!
My children were through school before the Curriculum for Excellence came in – do you think that there’s an undue emphasis on the extrovert systematically built in to it? We should mount a rearguard action on behalf of introverts!
I always enjoy reading your comments Linda – thankyou. That book sounds interesting, I must add it to my list! As far as I can see, the Curriculum tries to promote the needs of individuals, but I suppose at some level there are biases so ingrained we don’t even tend to recognise them. I think I have become even more introverted in lockdown. No plans for cocktail parties here either! (at least none involving more than two or three friends at most 😉 ). x
Agree. All of it!
Thanks Lisa! Glad you enjoyed. x