Saturday, November 23, 2013

On Introverts

We have been in Berlin for exactly 5 months. While we have a home, schools, work and lots of family time, our social lives are somewhat limited still. Two of us are basically content, despite that fact. For the other two, the absence of their strong Silver City lifelong friendships has left a big gaping social hole. Wondering about how differently people respond to challenges such as this made me think about introvert and extrovert personality types. I wrote most of the content of this post first, and then surfed around the internet, only to realize that other people have been talking and writing about this recently too.

This past summer, a recovering corporate lawyer named Susan Cain published a whole book about the extrovert culture bias and how introverts are undervalued: “QUIET: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking”. She describes convincingly how schools and the workplace reflect that bias. Many additional smart things have since been written and said in response to her interesting argument. (I won’t litter links all over this, just google it.) So I probably don’t have all that much to add…. But since this is a cultural issue, it is also an “On the Fence” topic.

We all know that today, society rewards extroverts. And we have all bought into this to some degree. We tend to think positively of the people who are “out there”, who are visible, verbal, performing. We admire them as leaders, team players and trailblazers, perceive them as people who get things done, have a lot of friends, and operate within human networks effectively.

Introverts, on the other hand, are viewed as reclusive weirdos who stay to themselves. You never quite know what they’re doing, you just know it doesn’t relate to you or to other people - and that makes their activities suspicious, and sometimes makes the extroverts angry. Introverts are annoyingly content without the company of others. They don’t play by the rules. They probably don’t feel the need to spread their private lives out publicly all over social media networks.

They are forced to switch camps, though, sometimes….: The TED talk of Susan Cain, now the official spokesperson of the introvert tribe, has been watched almost 5 1/2 million times, and ironically she has received the Golden Gavel Award for Communication and Leadership, by a group that, one could argue, tries to turn people into extroverts - the International Toastmasters.

Of course the introvert and the extrovert personality types are two extreme poles. We need both of them. Most people are somewhere in between, and, if they have managed to develop a somewhat balanced personality, they unite the healthier aspects of both types. But the world loves extroverts. If you are parent or a partner of an introvert, you are constantly under pressure to explain or fix their behavior. I am not sure how and how many times my poor husband had to explain my absence at the political fundraisers he attends. Hopefully people just stopped asking at some point.

Introverts are under constant pressure to become more outgoing. But I think extroverts are actually more vulnerable. They depend more on the constant recognition and gratification of others. So maybe extroverts are just people who act out, or have found other ways to overcome their shyness? Michelle Pfeiffer and Robert De Niro were in Berlin recently to introduce their new movie, and when interviewed both said they were really shy people. It made me snort first, but then they said being on stage or on camera is an act of overcoming shyness every time. The introvert doesn’t need to do this, because he is not shy. He is just an introvert. So leave him or her alone.

The full-blown extrovert needs company all the time, or at least people around him. When I first moved to the desert 20 years ago, it was in part because I loved the utter emptiness, vastness and quiet of the landscape, and how it threw me back onto myself. I could hear myself think, and just be… without constant human input. I remember some people telling me that they hated the desert. It was too scary how the desert forced them to be with themselves.

The extrovert personality is often associated with leadership (another value-free concept that merits disassembling… but that’ll be a separate post one day). Extroverts lead us, but where to? Leadership is a very scary term in Germany, for obvious historical reasons.

The introvert, on the other hand, is often a thinker, a creator. Introverts have given us great works of literature, music and visual art. Makes me think of John Belushi’s impersonation of Beethoven. Cain points out that Steve Wozniak invented the Apple computer, not Steve Jobs. I am a grant writer, not a fundraiser. I don’t enjoy taking people to lunch and convincing them to write a check. I like holing up with a challenging writing or research project and fine tune my work until it is perfect.

Having moved back to Germany, I feel to a degree I have escaped the noisy US extrovert culture, the glorification of leadership and the exhibitionist aspects of social media. Even though I am in a big city again, the noise around me has quieted down.

However, many facets of that culture have been adopted here in Europe as well. Especially if you are trying to reinvent yourself professionally, you sort of have to locate yourself on the intro-extro spectrum and act accordingly. The competitive job market favors the extrovert, just as in the US. So, how many extrovert “qualities” does one have to demonstrate to land a job? How much do I gush and shine and brag in the job interview?

I decided I am too old for this bullshit. The bullshit of buying into the extrovert culture and playing someone I am not. So I went to a few job interviews, and was just myself. The grant writer, not the fundraiser. The thinker, not the leader. Eventually, it paid off. I got a gig where I can be me.


J.E. Foster said...

Next post on the new gig?

Brenna said...

I like the way you think..there is great peace in knowing who you are.

John Eich said...

Glad to hear the job search worked out well. I'm glad you're finding quieter space there. I want to show Kathy the section on the desert, I think that's part of why she loves (and misses) it. Madison feels very frenetic to her.

Thees said...

Interesting. Just read a study the other day about companies often chosing the wrong leaders, when they hire extroverts as managers. Conclusion was that introverts do have valuable leader-ship skills. According to the study introverts tend to be good mediators hearing more people in the team. And they tend to be reliable (yet quiet) and stress-resistant...

Anonymous said...

Sehr kluger Artikel, Niki. Ich stoße auf das Dilemma der "Stillen" vor allem im Zusammenhang mit der Schule. Was in den Schulen hier an Druck herrscht - besonders verschärft durch das bescheuerte G8 - ist unglaublich. Die Stillen gehen da noch viel mehr "unter" als früher. Ganz furchtbar ist das für schlaue, aber introvertierte Kinder. Zumal es diesen ja unter erhöhtem Druck nicht gerade leichter fällt, "extrovertert" zu werden, um ins System zu passen ;-(
Liebe Grüße