Valuing introverts in a world built for the more outgoing

One in three people are classed as introverts but the modern world is built around the extrovert and so it’s not easy for people like Elizabeth O’Neill who just want to be left to their own devices.

RECENTLY I wrote for this newspaper about an eye-opening trip to Cuba where I cycled around the island and drank many mojitos. Not at the same time, well not always.

What I didn’t mention was that much of the time on the bike I spent alone within the group — with some travellers just ahead, or just behind. I could catch up for a quick chat, or I could fall behind and let my mind wander — and oh, how I like to let my mind wander.

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Small talk is not a preference of mine. And small talk while concentrating on avoiding potholes is just too much to ask, especially when it’s interrupting the scenery.

Of course on the other hand it’s important to share experiences, to cement them in your mind. So for me being alone within a group is often the default position.

I like to maintain my autonomy.

While I enjoy meeting new people and socialising, attending parties — where I know the majority of people will be strangers — is hard work. And an open plan office with a sea of colleagues can only be dealt with in parcels, that’s parcels of people and parcels of tasks.

I’m from a family of introverts, and it would be fair to say I was labelled the “shy one” growing up.

With maturity I’ve learned to overcome most of the social anxiety, but introversion is hardwired and an imperative. And the two are not mutually exclusive.

It was Swiss psychologist Carl Jung who first divided the world into introverts or extroverts and put us all on a sliding scale somewhere between the extremities of the two.

A person who falls slap bang in the middle is an ambivert — did you know you could possibly be an ambivert? By his own definition Jung was introverted.

Introversion is a preference for aloneness, where energy comes from within. Very simply, other people are exhausting.

Likewise, an extrovert does not necessarily mean an exhibitionist or outgoing personality, it simply means someone who is engerised by social interactions and other people.

Discussing this with a friend, we realised we faced similar reactions from people when we chose our own company over joining groups.

Over the years I have been called “aloof”, “a snob” and “stuck up”. I know because I’ve been told a number of times by people that later got to know me that “you seemed like such hard work”.

My friend had a similar story when she chose to sit with a book at lunchtime instead of engaging with her work colleagues. She also told me about Susan Cain’s book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.

In the US, Quiet sparked a revolution and Susan Cain is now so busy talking about it, that I couldn’t pin her down for an interview. I did read the book and it was very comforting and insightful.

We are told is it okay to be alone, it is okay to like the quiet; introverts are more creative; quiet children need to be nurtured and introverts can be leaders and revolutionaries — Gandhi and Rosa Parks, for example!

However, the sceptic in me feels that Susan Cain is preaching to the choir, she has written about introverts, for introverts and is telling us we’re all wonderful.

There are many things about being an introvert — a shy introvert — I’ve spent years overcoming, mainly through feeling the discomfort and getting on with the task anyway.

It is not easy but habit helps as does aging which dampens down the self-consciousness.

I also work in a busy, dynamic environment that is full of extroverts and social engagement, so small talk has improved through habit. My main strategy is to focus, and drown out the noise.

A reassignment in work has recently put my introversion into stark relief. For this reason, I decided to find out where on the scale I lie.

Corporations sometimes use the Briggs-Myers psychometric test for team building and career development. This test was created as a barometer for Carl Jung’s theories on personality types.

Introversion and extroversion is only one element of it. David Keane, a psychologist from Davitt Corporate Psychology puts me through my paces on the test and I came out as an introvert. But a moderate one,

I scored 17 out of a possible 70. In his experience, David says introverts are in the minority and he sees a 60/40 split between the two.

According to Susan Cain, there’s a one in three chance of being introverted, and the world is not skewed in our favour.

David says “the world is pretty much set up for extroverts, so introverts know what it’s like to operate in a world for extroverts, they live in it every day. Schools, offices, colleges, are all set up for the extrovert.

“For the extrovert, everything is externalised, they get energised by interacting with people, so if they have a day of talking to people on the phone and a couple of long meetings where they felt like they got a lot done, they’ll go home more energised than when they arrived. Whereas if an introvert has to do that, spend all day in meetings, they’d just be absolutely shattered at the end of the day.”

I explain that three daily meetings, while necessary, leave me completely drained. So much so I won’t then answer the phone for social calls at home. I couldn’t figure out this exhaustion at first, I thought it was the newness of the assignment, but now it’s beginning to fall into place.

David says “the novelty factor would have an effect but that’s really the result of being an introvert in an extravert’s world.”

So the question is, how can an introvert, even a moderate one, operate in a world that is set up for extraverts?

David reassures me introverts can happily work in an extraverted world.

Introversion, like extraversion is a preference, not an absolute, therefore you can work like an extravert, it just take more effort. He correlates this to writing your signature with you other hand, “it feels unnatural, but it’s completely doable”. The main strategy for an introvert to adopt, is to schedule down time to recharge.

We also discuss the prevalence of open plan offices – the idea is apparently to foster communications. This is counterintuitive for introverts, who will turn further inwards, with no place to hide. David says “it’s up to the managers to find ways to help introverts to work better, such as taking a laptop into a quiet room to concentrate, or have quieter spaces.” Well, one can only dream, as one tends to do. Ultimately David advises that it’s up to the introvert to find ways and space to work best for themselves. So we’re back to self reliance and being alone.

The pros of being an introvert

- more creative

- can focus for longer periods

- not fazed by spending time alone

- good listeners

- think before they speak

The cons of being an introvert

- easily distracted

- get over stimulated by too many people

- can be perceived as unfriendly

- an aversion to networking

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