Nobody realizes that some people expend tremendous energy merely to be normal.
“Whatever you plan, just make sure there are lots of people there,” said my husband in the run-up to his birthday last year. A few months later, before my own birthday, I uttered, “Whatever you plan, just make sure it is only me and you.”
I am an introvert. It is very likely some of you are too, or that you live, work or fraternise with one. Despite there being quite a few of us out there – some say as many as one third of the population, others as little as ten per cent – I think our professional and social lives are biased towards a definition of normality that is more accepting of the extrovert. I hope that by reading this article you will gain some insight to what goes on inside the head of the introvert(s) that you know and understand how to relate to them in a way that respects their disposition.
Before we go any further, I should define what exactly being an introvert means, and, equally important, what it does not. Only once this is established will you be able to handle your introvert correctly.
What defines an introvert
The simplest and most accurate way of describing an introvert is that she uses up energy in social situations and needs to be in solitude to recharge.
To explain what I mean, let us take the example of the The Sims: when you create a Sim, you can choose (among other characteristics) whether it will be outgoing or not. If the Sim is outgoing, when you play the game you need to make sure it interacts as much as possible with other Sims or its mood indicator (the plumbob) will become red and that is a bad thing. Conversely, if your Sim is not outgoing, when you put it in too many social situations its plumbob will become red too.
So your (real life) introvert might think you are great (you might even be her best friend, her spouse or her child), but if her plumbob is red, or nearly, she might just need a little time and space to recharge before she is ready to interact.
This is not the same thing as being shy or in a bad mood all the time. We are not necessarily awkward in social situations, but, if we have not had the time to recharge, being social might be almost impossible. This explains why your introvert will likely ask who will be at the gathering you have planned, for how long she will have to stay there, and what she will be doing before and after the event. It is the equivalent of you wanting to know if there will be power sockets in the restaurant to charge your iPhone – asking this does not mean you don’t want to attend.
The explanation above might be a simplistic way of looking at things, but I would say it is one that introverts can relate to; call it a minimalist approach to socialisation.
Caring for your introvert
Articles and conversations about introversion usually focus on how to fix the condition and how to make introverts more outgoing: a clear example of our society’s bias towards the normality of extroversion. Avoid this. You will not be able to convert your introvert into an extrovert. Believe it or not, there is nothing wrong with her.
In her 2012 TED talk, “The power of introverts”, Susan Cain pointed to the fact that places like school and work are designed for extroverts: students and workers are required to constantly work in groups and speaking up is highly valued. Both types are evaluated against the same criteria and more often than not people are expected to excel at being outspoken to be considered well rounded.
Obviously, this is not the right way to appraise your introvert. Comparing your introvert with an extrovert using the same parameters and simply asking her to behave more like an extrovert is a mistake and something that will only perpetuate an introvert’s idea that the problem lies with her.
Your introvert is likely to have strong opinions and ideas, and to have been listening to other people speak at meetings and workshops. Help her voice those thoughts by creating an environment where everyone stops and listens when someone speaks instead of one which fosters interruptions. Show her that it is acceptable for someone to take time to think before they speak: silences are OK. Allow her the freedom to be herself instead of pressuring her to change an innate quality.
It is not uncommon to find an introvert who likes to express ideas in writing. The world of web professionals excels in the spread of knowledge that is shared and sought through the written word. Give your introvert the necessary time and tools to write about the job, if she is that way inclined; this might be a good alternative to asking her to speak out.
I remember the sinking feeling whenever I heard my teachers say the dreaded words: “And now you’re going to break out into groups of…” Being an introvert does not mean you do not like people (or like to be around or work with others). It is just that activities such as group work will invariably drain your introvert’s energy rapidly. Your introvert’s batteries will need to be fully charged for her to be at her best and afterwards she will most likely need to recharge.
These days, one of the things that I value most at work is the ability to have moments to create and to think in solitude. When I am able to have those moments at the right time I will in turn be happy to participate in group conversations and tasks. Allow your introvert to have those moments: this does not mean she will have to work from home one day a week (but maybe it will); it might simply mean allowing her to take her laptop and her notebook and work from the empty side of the office, or from the coffee shop downstairs for an hour or two. In all likelihood she will come back fully recharged and ready to engage in more social activities – her plumbob will again be bright green.
Do not think that your introvert cannot lead. Cain notes that introverted leaders are more likely to let their proactive employees run with their ideas instead of taking the ideas as their own. I would say that is a positive attribute in a leader. Maybe next time a project starts, talk to your introvert about the possibility of her being in a leadership position or of having more responsibility: you might be surprised at her ability to plan and foresee potential obstacles in the project.
You would not tell someone with dyslexia to get better at spelling without giving her the right tools and enough time to do so. Equally, do not ask your introvert to be more outgoing, or to turn her frown upside down, without giving her the space to do so.
I believe that everyone is an introvert at some point. Everyone needs a moment of solitude now and then, and the work we do requires frequent periods of deep focus and concentration. Striving to create workplaces, classrooms, homes that allow introverts to shine and be comfortable in their skin has the potential to also make those places more balanced for everyone else.