I recently came
across a cartoon in an email that made me laugh out loud. But it wasn’t a
standard punch line or funny character or comment that triggered my laughter. I
was laughing in absolute utter recognition of the truth that was being shared.
So, what was this
laugh-inspiring truth? The cartoon portrayed the five
things that introverts do to recharge during parties.
If you’re an
introvert like I am (and one-third to one-half of the population are introverts), then you may also feel
a jolt of recognition when you look at this list of the five things that
introverts do to recharge during parties:
- Play with a pet
- Flip through books
- Hide in the bathroom
- Do the dishes
- Leave early
Being an Introvert in a Culture of Extroversion
But this cartoon also triggered some uncomfortable school and work memories of what it’s meant to be an introvert in a culture that researchers contend (and which I think most of us would agree) values the traits of extroversion:
- the regular comments at teacher conferences and
on report cards that indicated that even though I excelled in my class work I
needed to participate more in class discussions,
- the utter fear I felt when I had to “cold call”
businesses to secure support, and
- the utter sense of dread at having to attend a
work event of 20–30 people with whom I was
required to interact.
loved the part of my work that involved research and writing, one-on-one work
with donors, and the mission of the organization. Still, I often shook my head
when I thought about the utter irony of a shy, introverted person ending up in
a job that also included cold-calling and sales.
Introversion and Extroversion Defined
Susan Cain, the author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, indicates that introversion and extroversion are about how we respond to stimulation.
“most alive” in quieter more low-key environments, whereas extroverts thrive in
noisier, high-stimulation environments. And some of us are lucky enough to be
ambiverts – people who fall somewhere in
between on the extrovert-introvert scale.
Today’s School and Work Environments
In her book and in her TED talk, Cain contends that today our most important institutions – schools and workplaces – are designed for extroverts.
Though we most likely sat in classrooms with
rows of desks and worked autonomously on projects, schools today often feature
pods of 6-7 desks facing each other and numerous group assignments. Workspaces
often feature noisy open plan offices without walls.
I’m still grateful
that I retired several months before our company’s work space remodeling would
have taken me from working in a private office to a cubicle.
Solitude can be a
crucial ingredient for creativity, Cain says. Darwin, for instance, took long
walks in the woods alone and turned down dinner invitations.
Steve Wozniak spent
hours working alone at his desk and in his garage before teaming up with Steve
Jobs to launch Apple. As Susan Cain stated in her Ted talk, “For some people,
solitude is the air they breathe.”
What Has Triggered a Cultural Shift?
So why have schools
and workplaces changed so drastically in the past decades? The answer,
according to Cain’s research, lies (at least for the U.S.) deep in the country’s
In America’s early
days, we lived in a “culture of character” where people were valued for their
inner selves and moral rectitude with role models like Abraham Lincoln. In the
20th century, this changed.
As the country
changed from an agricultural economy to a world of corporations, people moved
from rural to urban settings and no longer worked beside people they’d known
all of their lives.
Instead, there was
a need to “prove yourself” in a crowd of strangers, and qualities like
“magnetism” and “charisma” came to be more highly valued. (Think of Dale
Carnegie’s book How to Win Friends and
Why We Need to Value the Work Styles and Environments of Both Introverts
Now to be clear,
Susan Cain is not saying that
developing social skills and teamwork is not important. What she is saying is that our problems today are
so vast and complex that we’ll need armies of people coming together to solve
And the more
freedom we give introverts and
extroverts to be themselves and to work in environments best suited to optimize
their productivity, the more likely we’ll all benefit.
In fact, the vision
statement for Cain’s Quiet Revolution site is this: “To create a world where
introverts are celebrated for their powerful contributions and, more
importantly, for who they are. And where everyone’s quiet strength – no matter what their personality type – is
For all my fellow
introverts reading this article, I thought you might enjoy “A Manifesto for
Introverts,” taken from Susan Cain’s book:
- There’s a word for “people who are in their
heads too much”: thinkers
- Solitude is a catalyst for innovation.
- The next generation of quiet kids can and must
be raised to know their own strengths.
- Sometimes it helps to be a pretend extrovert. There
will always be time to be quiet later.
- But in the long run, staying true to your
temperament is key to finding work you love and work that matters.
- One genuine new relationship is worth a fistful
of business cards.
- It’s O.K. to cross the street to avoid making
- “Quiet leadership” is not an oxymoron.
- Love is essential; gregariousness is optional.
- “In a gentle way, you can shake the world.” — Mahatma
do you fall in the introvert/ambivert/extrovert spectrum? How has being an introvert/ambivert
or extrovert impacted your personal life? Your work life? What kinds of social
situations are most challenging for you and why? Please share your thoughts and
experiences with our community.