Friday, February 10, 2012

Reach for the shy

It looks like 2012 might be the year when the shy, introverted, and maybe even the meek get their fifteen minutes of fame. Which would be no surprise, since it's the last year ever. Not that the quieter types want the attention, but it's good to be appreciated as long as no one is speaking directly to you.

Time's cover story last week on "The Power of Shyness" builds on the growing success of Susan Cain's, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking to make the case that America's obsession with "go-getters" is costing us more than we think. Or don't think, as the case may be. Which really seems to be the root of the problem. The extroverts are all running around telling anyone who will listen how useful they are, while the introverted and shy are sitting at home with wine and chocolate watching movies and doing online genealogy research.*

People who know about such things -- most notably the shy or introverted -- will be quick to tell you that these two terms are not synonyms. Introverts are people who prefer less social stimulation, while shy people experience anxiety at the prospect of new or unfamiliar interactions. If you prefer a small party at someone's home to a rave or concert, you're probably more introverted. If your heart pounds at the thought of meeting the people at either kind of party, you're shy. Not surprisingly, these are not what the math people (speaking of shy and introverted) would call independent variables.

Of course, it's not that simple talking about real people. I love a loud and crowded bar as much as anyone, and I will probably make a random comment or two to the person whose ass I'm kicking at pool.**  But more days than not I would prefer to talk to between zero and five people, and then not for long. While I have grown relatively comfortable speaking to small or medium sized groups, I still get really anxious and talk too fast and never say exactly what I had planned and oh time's up already thanks for coming. I have to give a 40 minute talk in a week, and I'm already starting to sweat.

Everyone knows my favorite vacations involve me, Biscuit and some nature. The big resort is definitely not my idea of relaxation. Now that I think about it, I'm pretty damned introverted. I like going to the movies, but I intentionally pick the times when the theater will be the emptiest. And very few things make me happier than being alone in the car on an empty highway, as long as the car is moving.

Anyway, the point of all of this was supposed to be that introverts tend to be reflective thinkers. It turns out that it's hard to do much deep thinking in a room full of people. Two recent studies, one at Indiana University and another performed by the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute make a compelling case that meetings make us stupider.  It seems whatever else comes from collaborative work, it isn't brainpower.

As Cain says in the second point of her Manifesto, "our culture rightly admires risk-takers, but we need our 'heed-takers' more than ever." If any of this resonates with you, I would encourage you to get out there and do something about it. Or at least, go to a quiet room and think about it really hard.

* Just to pull an example out of the air.
**I don't talk shit when I'm losing, because that's just stupid.


  1. Introverts just need better PR. Unfortunately, most of the PR people are extroverts. I tend toward being an introvert myself, though as you mentioned, there are many shades of gray between total introvert and total extrovert. Most likely I am somewhat introverted because it's all I can do to keep my own little world between the ditches. Getting entangled with all the ups and downs of a whole bunch of other people would just complicate things even more.

  2. before the study was done, was ahead of the game with this.

    i'm an extrovert. if i've got to get something done, and need assistance? i look for high-functioning introverts. because a group of us in the room means nothing gets done...

  3. There are many shades of grey in this labeling system, but many people (I think) would be surprised to know that I consider myself an introvert. Sure, I'm loud and vivacious at parties, I don't mind going out to see live music shows, and I'm super excellent at maneuvering through a crowd to get to the bar. But I much prefer sitting at someone's house with 5 to 10 friends, playing games and shooting the shit. I almost never choose going out over staying in (at someone else's house - having people to my house creates its own level of stress). And I much, much prefer working alone. Can I say right now how much I hate working with groups of other people? Oddly enough (I guess), I usually take on the leading role in small (or even large) groups of people, but that's only because I have a thing about being in control. (James has developed a metaphor for my desire to be in control: he refers to it as "holding the umbrella", for reasons I'm sure you can figure out.) Also, I'm usually the loudest. But I would always prefer to work alone. I work very well and very diligently alone; I get irritated and exasperated when working with others, and my work tends to be shoddy.

    But talking in front of groups of people? Oh, I'm terrible at that. I talk way too fast. Every presentation I've made or discussion I've led or play in high school I've acted in, some part of the follow-up commentary was always, "You know you were talking really fast, right?" Even if I practice a speech or presentation for hours and time myself deliberately, I still whiz through it at show time.

    But, mostly, I think, because of my aforementioned loudness, people think I'm an extrovert. But they would be wrong. Can I hold the umbrella now, please?

  4. Everyone I've tried to introverted-ness to today has laughed at me. Did you laugh, too?

  5. @Chris: I think living in Maine practically qualifies you as an introvert.

    @daisyfae: Anyone with a "helmet shelf" is probably an extrovert. Knowing how to keep your introverts fed and happy -- and knowing their value -- is the secret. Every team needs a good mix, and I readily admit that enlightened extroverts make better leaders.

    @Jane: I didn't actually laugh. Because that would be rude. But I did a quick count, and I only know four people who might be more extroverted than you.

  6. I get energized when I'm around people, but I am huge on personal space. Once my personal space gets invaded I'm nervous and anxious completely irritable. Sometimes the mere thought of people stepping into my space will get me all riled up. In general I consider myself a picky extrovert.

    Also, this post got me linking up all to shit over the internet, and now I'm going to probably waste half my day taking quizzes to determine whether I am legitimately introverted or extroverted so I can put an arbitrary value on my self-worth.

  7. @Rassles: Glad I could help. Let me know what you find out, so I can know how to feel about you. I think "picky extrovert" is what Jane is just now learning she is. One of my personal made up quiz questions is about what you do when the phone rings. I imagine the picky extrovert saying, "Fuck me!" and then getting up to answer it. Biscuit and I might pause the tv in case we hear someone talking on the answering machine. Even if we do, we're not getting up to answer it. And before you get all "I'm a young person, I don't have a landline," I have the same reaction with my cell. I rarely know where it is when I'm home. I only use it for e-mail and Words with Friends. I went three weeks one time without realizing I had a voice mail.

  8. Only four?? Alright, fine. I accept my picky extrovert status. Though I can definitely see myself getting increasingly picky as I get older, to the point of near-introvertedness in my old age.

    Also, with the whole checking the phone thing: So, I'll be honest, my phone is usually within reach. But I don't rush to answer it. If it goes off, I don't always even check to see who's calling. Especially if it's a text message, if I'm in the middle of something, I'll sometimes ignore it so long that I forget I got a text. And then I have a pleasant surprise waiting for me later. (And I only check voicemails because the little notice icon in the corner irritates me.)

    That being said, I would probably panic if I tried to go for any length of time without my phone. As would my boss, because what do you mean you can't answer my calls and respond to my emails at every hour of the day and night?!

  9. Actually, I'd say the extroverts in Maine outnumber the introverts. Or maybe it just seems like there are more of them because they are always talking!

  10. Almost exactly correct on the phone thing, except it's more like: "ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING--Yo, what's up?" but it really depends on what I'm doing. If I'm reading, I will not answer the phone unless I expect a call. I NEVER answer the phone or check my texts when I'm around other people, because I think it's rude as all hell.