What it Means to Be an Introvert Living in an Extrovert World

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I get nervous when I fly.

Not because I fear the plane will crash but because I have some anxiety about who will sit next to me. As a person who leans more towards the introvert side on the personality scale, a multi-hour plane ride sitting next to a chatty Cathy can be pleasant for a few minutes but then descend into a draining social engagement. And I have no means of escape.

There is nothing like the experience of being cramped inside a metal tube for hours on end to best illustrate the fundamental differences between introverts and extroverts.

For an introvert, the time of being alone anonymously is cause for doing a little happy dance. When I fly alone, I get so excited to use the time to read or simply think without the constant distractions of people or electronics. It becomes a little oasis of my own space and energy. While I have in the past enjoyed short pleasant conversations with seatmates, I feel anxious that I will be expected to keep a conversation going for the entire trip.

For the extrovert, the idea of being stuck in a cramped seat without a social outlet, makes him feeling restless and bored. Even though he probably would prefer the company of his wide social circle, the prospect of a new friend sitting next to him still fills him with curious anticipation. For the extrovert, his seatmate is all new social territory. The question is, where to begin the inquiry.

Are You an Introvert or Extrovert or Ambivert?

Where someone lands on the introvert/extrovert spectrum is a big component of an individual’s personality. There are general assumptions about what each means but they’re often skewed based on sensational cultural definitions. For example, not all extroverts love the limelight and not all introverts are anti-social freaks or lone wolves.

Instead, the introvert’s meaning has most to do with regulation of energy levels. According to Introvert, Dear a resourceful website dedicated to information for and about introverts, the definition of an introvert is someone who prefers calm, minimally stimulating environments. Introverts tend to feel drained after socializing and regain their energy by spending time alone.

Introverts are the ones who reluctantly accept the invite to the party but get excited when it’s canceled at the last minute.

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Conversely, the definition of an extrovert is someone who feels energized and renewed by being around other people. While they can tolerate being alone, they much prefer the company of others. They get motivation and inspiration from these encounters and use the time for active exchange of thoughts and ideas.

Extroverts are the ones who plan the party and instead of feeling bummed when they have to cancel it, they just start up another party somewhere else.

And if each definition seems too extreme sometimes a person falls somewhere in the middle. One’s propensity for introversion or extroversion can depend on dynamic criteria like the occasion, the people in attendance, or simply his or her mood and energy at the time.

According to personality psychologist Robert R. McCrae, about 38% of the population is considered ambiverts. The benefit of being an ambivert is that one can fluidly engage with any type of person or situation playing to his or her strengths. Such maximum flexibility gives the widest social latitude without the downside of feeling energetically drained or restless.

Why Extroverts Dominate

A thoughtful analysis of the introvert personality is presented well in Susan Cain’s book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. In it, she lays out a solid theory of how the current American personality culture came to be so dominate.

Before the arrival of the Industrial Revolution people lived in small communities and knew their neighbors well. This was the time of the Culture of Character which emphasized private, serious, disciplined, and honorable behavior. Your intimate social circle could shame you for stepping out of line.

But then as labor requirements evolved from agrarian to industrial, people started moving to cities in search of employment. They found themselves alone. Instead of mingling with neighbors, they were forced to compete with nameless, faceless strangers for coveted jobs.

This geography and employment shift required presenting oneself optimally to adequately compete: for the job and for the spouse. And so ushered in a new era of emphasizing personal promotion with the Culture of Personality. Everyone reinforced the new message of presenting your best. From evocative advertisers (a 1922 Woodbury soap ad: ‘All Around You People are Judging You Silently’) to Dale Carnegie who pioneered the self-help industry.

Fast forward 100+ years and broaden the geographic boundaries and you see the makings of a de facto extrovert world. Where YouTube sensations reign and every employer demands that all employees work well in teams. Workplace organizations universally value the employee who is assertive and well-versed regardless, of course, if the individual has anything worthwhile to say.

The result of such cultural overhaul is that the most outgoing and those that idealize them are promoting the Extrovert Ideal to the exclusion of all else. Where the ideal individual follows a universally accepted template of being outgoing, alpha, and comfortable taking the lead. When employers and society at large promote and perpetuate such a narrow ideal, they’re unknowingly alienating at least half of the population in the process.

The Rise of the Extrovert Ideal

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This has forced introverts into a painful quandary. To function productively in this world, introverts are consciously or unconsciously suppressing their true nature just to get along. They may be burdened under oppressive standards with the pressure to conform. All while feeling like they are being discounted because of the traits of who they are.

It’s a forced dismissal of all the upside introverts offer but never given the chance to express. Introverts feel they must play the game and in time it becomes so habitual they may begin to hide their true nature even from themselves.

In 2008 Guy Kawasaki best-selling author, speaker, and Silicon Valley icon blew the cover off his hidden introversion, “You may find this hard to believe,” he wrote “but I am an introvert. I have a ‘role’ to play, but I am fundamentally a loner.” The world was shocked.

The cultural bias towards extroverts is reinforced when the voices that could counter them don’t feel like speaking up. The risk of continuing on this path of assuming that the most talkative and assertive are the rainmakers perpetuates a falsehood that charisma always equates with good ideas, intelligence, or effective leadership.

We should assume (as data confirms) that both quiet people and talkative people are equally intelligent and have roughly the same number of good or bad ideas. However, when the talkative person dominates the presentation of those ideas, his or her ideas become the focal point. The ideas from introverts without vocal advocacy eventually fade out. What ends up happening is a lot of good ideas from introverts remain as buried treasure.

Introverts Suffering in Hyper-Collaborative Corporate Environments

I saw first hand how this dynamic plays out in the workplace. I used to work for a company that had an obsession with collaboration and team participation. It was expected that employees readily share their thoughts and opinions and be eager to hash out ideas in the non-stop meetings. When I went into these meetings I could feel my throat close up.

When I interviewed for my middle manager level position at this company, I cycled through 21 face-to-face interviews over two days with no break hour-to-hour. It was insane. The reason the company insisted interviews were scheduled this way was because they wanted to make sure everyone who could ever possibly work with the applicant could weigh in. To my peril, I suppressed my intuition screaming at me to get the hell out of there.

Once on board, I would witness the quick acquiescence of the less dominant employees in team discussions time and time again. I could see the look of defeat on their faces when their ideas were all too quickly dismissed or run over by the most outspoken of the group. The funny thing was while the company thought it was encouraging healthy debate and collaborative decision making, it was setting up a structure of conformity bending to the most domineering individuals.

Introverts like me never had a chance.

Introverts Being Victims of Groupthink

What I witnessed was not unique. When organizations enthusiastically promote collective brainstorming, there is a risk of individuals conforming to the groupthink even when an individual knows a proposal is dead wrong. This was demonstrated precisely by psychologist Solomon Asch who conducted a series of experiments on the dangers of group influence.

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In the tests, he gathered small groups of students to take a simple test gauging the length of different side-by-side lines. The tests were simple and straightforward. In the control group, 95% of students answered the questions correctly. However in the test group when Asch planted actors who then volunteered an incorrect answer, the number of students who gave correct answers plunged to 25%.

His tests concluded that people have a tendency to conform to the group even if overriding their own instincts. After the experiment, the participants were interviewed to figure out why there was such disparity in the results. The respondents fell into two groups. One wanted to avoid conspicuously disagreeing with the group and the other sadly felt an uncertainty of their own accuracy as a result of the group’s influence.

Sometimes Brilliance is Found in Solitude

When groupthink prevails some good ideas never see the light of day. It’s for this reason sometimes it’s better for everyone to go to their separate corners. The introverts of the team, who prefer to work independently, find it’s in these moments of undisturbed concentration, creativity flourishes, and innovation is found. And it’s a shame our extrovert-loving society can’t appreciate this.

In Quiet, Cain presented examples of master professionals from chess players to performance musicians who surpassed their peers’ proficiency only because they spent more time alone in concentrated deliberate practice. Passion nor aptitude was the principal factor, time to focus was.

If we’re honest about this, some of our most culturally revered and innovative heroes were the quiet types. Albert Einstein, Nelson Mandela, Steve Jobs, Rosa Parks. If we look at the creators of big ideas of our modern day, we see introverts left and right. Elon Musk, Warren Buffett, Martha Stewart, J.K. Rowling. They are not known for their self-promotion but by what they produce.

I’m going to give you some advice that might be hard to take. That advice is: Work alone. Not on a committee. Not on a team.
— Steven Wozniak co-founder of Apple

How to Survive as an Introvert in an Extrovert-loving World

To the true introvert, take comfort. You have tremendous value even if the world is too busy talking to take notice. You can’t change the world but you can adopt strategies that make you happier while not feeling so invisible. One or more of the following suggestions may resonate with you or hopefully spur on other ideas. And at the very least you should feel conviction in the righteousness of who you are.

Know who you are and don’t make any apologies. Don’t deny your inner nature. It makes you uniquely you. People in your life accept and appreciate you for the personality you exhibit and love you for it. These are the people who really count anyway.

Don’t think of introversion as something that needs to be cured.
— Susan Cain

Find your tribe inside and outside the workplace. When you need to leave your comfort zone, find your quiet kindred spirits. You will understand each other well and take comfort in this. Even in a more outgoing company culture, you can find your personality soulmates. Relax in their company and back each other up.

Regulate your energy and know your limits. At times, you may be pressed to be more outgoing than you naturally prefer. Be honest with what you are capable of doing without exhausting yourself. Pick your battles to promote or defend only your best ideas. It’s perfectly okay to hang back and stay in your head the rest of the time.

Propose YOUR best ways of working to your management. It’s difficult to always be expected to live out extrovert behaviors in the workplace. Remember probably 30-50% of the employees there are also introverts trying to make it. If you have an empathetic management team, share with them the data on how some people best work. This can create a win-win outcome.

Find a culture the better fits your personality. And if you find that no one is receptive to your proposals, consider finding a more compatible organization or even another line of work. I ended up leaving the hyper-collaborative company to embark on an 8-month solo trip to South America. Probably a bit extreme but now I do work I love in an environment that makes me most comfortable and most productive. We all deserve the same.

Take Action!

If you are an introvert, evaluate if you are being true to your nature in your various surroundings. If you sometimes put on a veneer of being a more outgoing personality, where do you tend to do this and under what circumstances? What can you do, based on the few suggestions here, to help you feel more comfortable and productive while staying in alignment with your fundamental personality?

If you are an extrovert, consider if you unknowingly promote the ideals of extroversion. Consider your introvert friends, family, and colleagues. How can you help them feel more at ease and promote their creative process?

What part of this article did you agree with or disagree with and why? Tell me in the comments below.