In 2012, Susan Cain published a tremendous book called Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. Her insights opened thousands of people’s eyes to how introversion works (including my own) and how introverts are often misunderstood or overlooked. Cain doesn’t waste time bemoaning anyone’s plight but rather explains all the ways introverts function uniquely and the distinct ways they are gifted and relate to others. As an extrovert, though not an extreme one, I found Quiet exceptionally insightful and helpful in my own work and relationships.
In the two years since the book was published, introverts have moved from the background to the fore, especially in business and organizational contexts. No, corporate culture hasn’t shifted so completely as to value their contributions as it should. That will likely come on the heels of the perception change that has occurred. “Introvert” now carries a certain amount of cachet. Where it was once a term of perceived inferiority or oddity, now it’s a term of substance and respect. We aren’t quite sure why or how, but we know introverts are special.
Once introverts were seen as shy, antisocial, even reclusive. They never spoke up in meetings and weren’t much fun at social functions. Subtly but strongly, those largely incorrect notions have shifted. Today’s introverts are seen as more reflective, thoughtful, introspective and even creative. It’s well known that they aren’t so much antisocial as selectively social.
The flip side of this is the equally subtle shift in how extroverts are seen. Once, extroverts weren’t seen as, well, anything. We were the norm, even the ideal, in business and social contexts: outgoing, talkative, decisive. Not so much any more. Extroverts have taken on the traits of impulsive, flighty, shallow and insensitive.
I write in broad brush strokes to describe both introverts and extroverts. These are stereotypes, traits I’ve seen and heard communicated in the numerous blog posts and articles written about being introverted in the workplace or the struggles of the introverted in various contexts. No stereotype is true for everyone in a group, but no stereotype arises from nowhere, either. So read these as broad perceptions, not indictments of any individual or disparagement of the whole.
Much of the perception shift seems closely linked to the old adage, “It’s better to be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.” Introverts are seen as more insightful in many contexts because they speak less. Thus, their flaws and mistakes are invisible. This, however, is a matter of misunderstanding how people process ideas.
Imagine yourself in a meeting at work. Out of the five people in the room, three are firing ideas back and forth, talking often and energetically. The other two are leaning over their moleskins taking notes or reclining in their chairs not saying much. What you’re seeing is not engaged-versus-disengaged employees. Rather, you’re seeing verbal processors versus internal ones. Introverts, more often than not, prefer to get all the information and take some time to work through it before offering an opinion or making a decision. Extroverts talk through their thoughts. When I come into a meeting, usually I have a sense of an idea, but over the course of the conversation I might change that idea three or four times as I learn new information and am persuaded by others. This makes me neither flighty nor indecisive. It’s exactly the same thing the introvert is doing in her brain. I’m just louder about it.
However, when the introvert does speak, her words carry serious weight. They are apples of gold in a setting of silver. Input that was once easily overlooked by the verbose extroverts is now perceived as a most valuable contribution. Whereas an introvert and I might have arrived at the exact same conclusion, my audible meandering route can often undermine my contribution. The introvert, after silent reflection, speaks, is heard and is easier to respect for her care and precision.
God made extroverts and introverts for a reason. Each set of traits exhibits aspects of his character, and each group is equally marked by sin. The point of this article isn’t to cry “foul” on introverts. It’s to point out that what once was a problem in one direction (the overlooking and undervaluing of introverts) could easily become a problem in the other. Businesses need extroverts and introverts. So do churches and friendships. We balance each other so long as we respect each other and put forth the effort to understand one another. One is not better or wiser than the other, though each may be better at certain things than the other. Susan Cain was right to raise awareness of the contribution and significance of introverts. Now it is incumbent upon all of us to balance it rightly with the significance and contributions of extroverts, for the good of everyone.