I come from a family of introverts and we are currently passing around my sister’s copy of Susan Cain’s Quiet. Is it too dramatic to say it’s changing our lives, as my sister said? Probably. In any case it is changing the way we are thinking of ourselves, and our place in an extrovert’s world.
I’ve always known I was an introvert, but I kind of thought all it really meant was the way I recharge my batteries – to fuel my social and work life – was to be alone. After a weekend visiting rellies when we were kids, our family would all retreat to our bedrooms or other nooks in the house and not speak to each other for hours. We loved seeing our family and friends but we got ‘peopled out’ as mum and dad called it, and needed that time alone. That’s what I thought being an introvert meant. And it is.
But it’s so much more. Oh so much more. Here is a list of stuff I don’t like, and/or feel a deep discomfort about, which apparently can also be explained by my introversion.
Meetings. (Oh, how I hate meetings. The bigger they are, the more I hate them.)
Group brainstorm sessions. (Nothing kills creativity like butcher’s paper and a scribe.)
Open plan offices. (I love a gossip as much as the next person, but my favourite desk ever was the one where I was tucked away and no one knew if I was there or not. It helped that I’m 5 foot 1 of course, you could probably see a taller person.)
Team sports. (I’d rather do just about anything else.)
Any kind of conflict or confrontation. (Even if it’s fairly minor, even if it doesn’t involve me. I can’t even watch Q&A without squirming and usually have to turn it off.)
Any religion that involves hundreds or thousands of people being really loud – Hillsong I’m looking at you. (Not just a family of introverts, but a family of Catholics, a religious tradition with a greater focus on solitude and quiet reflection.)
There are also many of my own behaviours and habits which I thought were just that, but perhaps many of these too can be explained by introversion.
For example, I thought my well-tuned sense of guilt was a result of the aforementioned Catholic upbringing, but it appears to be an introvert’s trait as well. If I think I might have upset or offended someone with a careless comment, it haunts me for days or weeks. Even years later I might think of it and feel a sudden rush of shame.
If I feel ashamed like that, when I feel I’ve done or said something wrong, I tend to retreat into myself. I often can’t even bring myself to say ‘sorry’, not right away anyway, because I’m so withdrawn and I find it difficult to initiate contact in that state. This is why you might get an apology from me a year after the fact – it’s not that I wasn’t sorry before, it’s just it sometimes takes me that long to get over the shame, to stop withdrawing, and then plan out what I want to say and when.
On the lighter side, I also suddenly understand why I might actually like running despite years of claiming and believing I hated it, why I like parties but need to have decent one-on-one conversations while I’m at them or else I come away feeling frazzled and drained, why I’ve had the same hobby since I was 10 and yet have never been able to get competitive about it, and why I’m not too nervous about public speaking but come across as incredibly nervous when I do it.
Another random example is that sometimes I feel like I’ve shared some private information with someone too soon – we might consider ourselves friends, or on the way to moving from acquaintances to friends, but then I share some kind of personal information and I often see the surprise in their faces. I am a pretty boring person with a boring life so it’s never anything particularly juicy, and to me it doesn’t feel like a big deal, and I don’t know how else you can become real friends other than sharing personal details, but later when I think about it I realise they have never told me anything like that about themselves or their life. I’ve never really known what that was about, because it’s never anything scandalous or awkward, but now I get it.
I feel somehow liberated by the fact that all these quirks of mine – some of them seemingly at odds with each other like enjoying running and the gym but despising team sports – can be explained by introversion. The book argues that once you understand your quirks and how they fit into your life, you can start arranging your life – how you spend your time, and how you organise your physical space – in order to keep yourself at your best and happiest. She talks about ‘restorative niches’ that give you this time and space, whether they be physical spaces (like hiding in the bathroom at work), time (like avoiding Sunday socialising if you know you have a big Monday at work, or something else (like sitting in the corner at meetings so you can observe rather than sit in the middle of all the action). I love the phrase ‘restorative niche’ and so now if I cancel a date with you with a flimsy reason it’s not because I don’t love you, it’s just I’m seeking out a ‘restorative niche’ so I can be a better friend the next time I see you.
I love how the book argues that introversion is not something you should hide in order to be successful at whatever it is you do. Introversion comes with lots of positive traits that should help in whatever you do, even if your field is not one traditionally known for its introverts – for example being a great listener can help you be a great salesperson. You might need to put on an ‘act’ at times, but as long as you’re carving out your restorative niches and being fundamentally true to yourself, you’ll be fine.
I also love how the book made me realise that the world is built for extroverts – it’s not that I’m not built for the world and there is something ‘wrong’ with me because I am happy to spend a day doing team-building exercises but then I’d love to just not talk to anyone after that. So many things we take for granted are perfect for extroverts, and are aimed at building skills and achieving goals we think are important because it’s an extrovert’s world. Making school children sit in little groups rather than in rows or at individual desks. Group assignments at uni counting for massive chunks of your grade. Open place office space, face to face meetings, public speaking, roundtables, forums, conferences, networking dinners, meet and greets, support groups. It all assumes we all love to be with each other, all the time.
And many of us introverts assume these are necessary evils in the world that we must just put up with. They reflect a world, as the book’s subtitle says, ‘that can’t stop talking’. The habits and traits that are supported and celebrated by these activities have come to be seen as desirable, if not vital. We know this because parents worry about how their shy children will fare at school or in the workplace, even if their children seem perfectly happy and intelligent and otherwise normal. Even as adults many of us probably assume that if we don’t want to chair a meeting or give a talk or go to whatever obligatory fun has been organised that we won’t get very far in our careers. But we shouldn’t assume that – instead we should work on our restorative niches so we can do what we need to at work to get to where we want to be.
The final thing I’m taking away from the book is that next time I’m at a conference, instead of being overwhelmed by all the people at morning tea and thinking to myself “I must network” and getting really stressed about the fact that I’ve been paid to go to this really interesting thing and now I’m not even going to meet anyone, I’ll happily take up those conversations started by others and focus on those. They are probably introverts too, with more experience than me, who have gotten to the point where they are comfortable to just go up to one other person, to have one ten-minute conversation over a caramel slice and a cup of tea, and that’s the extent of their networking. I can totally do that, and learn how to be the one to initiate it too, while the extroverts stand in groups telling hilarious anecdotes and planning drinks and dinners and swapping business cards.
As you can tell there is a lot I could say about this book, but the short of it is if you’re an introvert, you’ll probably like it and if you do let me know and we can have a one-on-one conversation about it. If you’re an extrovert but you’re married to an introvert or have introverted children or you’re surrounded by introverts at work and you don’t understand why we don’t talk at meetings and prefer reading to team sports and hate it when you invite someone over at short notice when we were planning a nice evening of pad Thai and Mad Men, you also might get something out of it. There’s something for everyone.