I recently came across a cartoon in an email that made me laugh out loud. But it wasn’t a standard punch line or funny character or comment that triggered my laughter. I was laughing in absolute utter recognition of the truth that was being shared.

So, what was this laugh-inspiring truth? The cartoon portrayed the five things that introverts do to recharge during parties.

If you’re an introvert like I am (and one-third to one-half of the population are introverts), then you may also feel a jolt of recognition when you look at this list of the five things that introverts do to recharge during parties:

  • Play with a pet
  • Flip through books
  • Hide in the bathroom
  • Do the dishes
  • Leave early

Being an Introvert in a Culture of Extroversion

But this cartoon also triggered some uncomfortable school and work memories of what it’s meant to be an introvert in a culture that researchers contend (and which I think most of us would agree) values the traits of extroversion:

  • the regular comments at teacher conferences and on report cards that indicated that even though I excelled in my class work I needed to participate more in class discussions,
  • the utter fear I felt when I had to “cold call” businesses to secure support, and
  • the utter sense of dread at having to attend a work event of 20–30 people with whom I was required to interact.

Fortunately, I loved the part of my work that involved research and writing, one-on-one work with donors, and the mission of the organization. Still, I often shook my head when I thought about the utter irony of a shy, introverted person ending up in a job that also included cold-calling and sales.

Introversion and Extroversion Defined

Susan Cain, the author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, indicates that introversion and extroversion are about how we respond to stimulation.

Introverts are “most alive” in quieter more low-key environments, whereas extroverts thrive in noisier, high-stimulation environments. And some of us are lucky enough to be ambiverts – people who fall somewhere in between on the extrovert-introvert scale.

Today’s School and Work Environments

In her book and in her TED talk, Cain contends that today our most important institutions – schools and workplaces – are designed for extroverts.

Though we most likely sat in classrooms with rows of desks and worked autonomously on projects, schools today often feature pods of 6-7 desks facing each other and numerous group assignments. Workspaces often feature noisy open plan offices without walls.

I’m still grateful that I retired several months before our company’s work space remodeling would have taken me from working in a private office to a cubicle.

Solitude can be a crucial ingredient for creativity, Cain says. Darwin, for instance, took long walks in the woods alone and turned down dinner invitations.

Steve Wozniak spent hours working alone at his desk and in his garage before teaming up with Steve Jobs to launch Apple. As Susan Cain stated in her Ted talk, “For some people, solitude is the air they breathe.”

What Has Triggered a Cultural Shift?

So why have schools and workplaces changed so drastically in the past decades? The answer, according to Cain’s research, lies (at least for the U.S.) deep in the country’s cultural history.

In America’s early days, we lived in a “culture of character” where people were valued for their inner selves and moral rectitude with role models like Abraham Lincoln. In the 20th century, this changed.

As the country changed from an agricultural economy to a world of corporations, people moved from rural to urban settings and no longer worked beside people they’d known all of their lives.

Instead, there was a need to “prove yourself” in a crowd of strangers, and qualities like “magnetism” and “charisma” came to be more highly valued. (Think of Dale Carnegie’s book How to Win Friends and Influence People.)

Why We Need to Value the Work Styles and Environments of Both Introverts and Extroverts

Now to be clear, Susan Cain is not saying that developing social skills and teamwork is not important. What she is saying is that our problems today are so vast and complex that we’ll need armies of people coming together to solve them.

And the more freedom we give introverts and extroverts to be themselves and to work in environments best suited to optimize their productivity, the more likely we’ll all benefit.

In fact, the vision statement for Cain’s Quiet Revolution site is this: “To create a world where introverts are celebrated for their powerful contributions and, more importantly, for who they are. And where everyone’s quiet strength – no matter what their personality type – is validated.”

For all my fellow introverts reading this article, I thought you might enjoy “A Manifesto for Introverts,” taken from Susan Cain’s book:

  • There’s a word for “people who are in their heads too much”: thinkers
  • Solitude is a catalyst for innovation.
  • The next generation of quiet kids can and must be raised to know their own strengths.
  • Sometimes it helps to be a pretend extrovert. There will always be time to be quiet later.
  • But in the long run, staying true to your temperament is key to finding work you love and work that matters.
  • One genuine new relationship is worth a fistful of business cards.
  • It’s O.K. to cross the street to avoid making small talk.
  • “Quiet leadership” is not an oxymoron.
  • Love is essential; gregariousness is optional.
  • “In a gentle way, you can shake the world.” — Mahatma Gandhi

Where do you fall in the introvert/ambivert/extrovert spectrum? How has being an introvert/ambivert or extrovert impacted your personal life? Your work life? What kinds of social situations are most challenging for you and why? Please share your thoughts and experiences with our community.

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