When you see her looking at YOUR shoes instead of her own! 🙂 (This joke also works with accountants and engineers.)
Last night I finished reading yet another non-fiction book, one that really struck a chord with me, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain.
I know it sounds really self-helpy, but this book has gotten a lot of hype and praise lately, and as an introvert myself, I couldn’t help but want to check it out. The book does offer some advice for introverts — and the extroverts that live with, work with, and love them — but it is primarily a wealth of knowledge on the psychology and even the physiology — neuroscience, you know? — behind introversion.
For instance, researchers in a scientific study were able to accurately predict whether infants would grow up to be introverted or extroverted based on their reactions to various stimuli, like the sound of popping balloons or photos of strangers’ faces. The loud, whiny, flailing babies? Those were your future classic introverted cases. The calm, smiling babies would grow up to be your stereotypical class clowns, jocks, and cheerleaders. It sounds counter-intuitive, but as it turns out that those of us who are introverted have brains wired in such a way that they are easily overstimulated. That’s why new experiences, especially meeting new people, can be very overwhelming to introverts.
Learning more about why I am introverted and how much of it is actually in my control was so empowering. I loved learning about how different cultures, and even our own American culture of the past, value the ideals associated with introversion, like reflection and focus. Anyway, I won’t go into too much detail because you should really read the book yourself, but I think the best piece of advice Cain offers is to introverts is to basically, embrace who you are and stop trying to change yourself to fit others expectations. But more concretely, set a number of social gatherings you’re willing to attend, whether that be one or two a week or just one a month, and then NOT feel guilty about turning others down for a quiet evening on your couch unwinding with a book.
Extroverts energize and thrive off social gatherings; for introverts, these gatherings can be enjoyable, but are very draining. I wish someone had told me it was OK not to feel guilty about wanting to be alone rather than around other people years ago. (This is not to say I don’t love making new friends and value the relationships in my life. It’s just I am much, much more of a one-on-one conversation, warm-up-to-you-slowly-after-I-test-the-waters kind of girl.)
I also thought it was interesting how Cain puts up a critical mirror to contemporary work life, specifically how common open floor plans are in office areas. Research has shown these open formats can cause stress and decrease work productivity in employees, especially the introverts. People become paranoid about making phone calls when everyone can hear them, and what people are seeing on their clearly visible computer screen — even if they are hardworking employees doing no wrong.
I totally get this. I mean, I share a giant cubicle with TWO other people. I rarely EVER have a private moment at work. We have all been praised and scolded by our boss in front of one another, so at this point, it’s all been a bit of a bonding experience. We also share a communal chocolate drawer, so there’s that little perk, too.
At least I genuinely enjoy the company of my two cubicle-mates and the nature of our work is often collaborative. We also have an unspoken rule that if you need to get a lot done individually or just need some “space” (however metaphorical that term might be in actuality), you just pop in your ear buds and listen to some music. It’s kind of like the avoiding eye contact on the crowded subway trick. You know everyone is still there, but they don’t seem quite so present.
But there are some things I’ll never fully get over about the open format of an office: you always know what everyone else is having for lunch (and vice versa), you can hear people getting fussed at by their superiors, you can hear a salesperson anxiously making a pitch on the phone, you know when such-and-such is NOT happy with their nanny. You always, always have the sense someone is looking over your shoulder, monitoring your every move. You learn to tolerate it, but who dictated that work has to be this way? And why did they think it was a good or fair idea? Cain explores the answer to this very question.
All in all, I hope that everyone who reads this book, introverts and extroverts alike, walks away with a greater appreciation for the fact that this world is made up of a whole lot of very different individuals. We all work and think and feel a little differently, but we all have something worthwhile to bring to the table. Sounds cheesy, but it’s true.
My personal advice to fellow introverts is to practice striking up conversations with new individuals you meet. You might not ever be the life of the party — at least, not without sweating through your shirt and your sweater first — but you can learn how to be the one to initiate a relationship. I personally challenged myself to make at least one new friend in every class I took in college. I found it a lot easier to meet people one-on-one, so I never felt overwhelmed or like I was competing to participate. I met so many interesting, wonderful people by this random process, and I never had to worry about registering for courses just to have it with a friend. I even made a friend on my bus route this way! (Technically, he was my downstairs neighbor, and he later came forward as a “secret admirer” type, but whatever. I still count our briefly lived friendship as an introvert-success.) I was able to hold several leadership positions by my senior year. When people recognized my picture in the college newspaper, I was able to resist the urge to crawl under my desk, and rock back-and-forth while assuming the fetal position.
I used to get super-nervous just ordering food at restaurants or making customer service calls without writing down or rehearsing in my head exactly what I wanted to say. I used to turn beet red every time I answered a question in class (which was a lot, weirdly enough). But after working really hard at learning not to be so intimidated by strangers in college, I was able to work as a local newspaper reporter for a year after graduating. I made cold calls every single day and met with strangers for long conversations in coffee shops. It helped to have a real reason for talking to them, but GUYS. I DID IT!!! So you can, too.
(P.S. Participating in public performance-like activities, like playing the clarinet and ballet, helped me too. Sometimes you need something that involves a lot of behind-the-scenes repetition before you “go public” with it to make you learn how to handle putting yourself in front of crowds.)