4 Tips for Surviving as an Introvert in an Extroverted World
Do you prefer one-on-one conversations to group activities? Do you dislike small talk, but enjoy discussing deeper topics with those who are close to you? Do others tell you that you are a good listener? Could you be described as “soft-spoken” or “mellow”? If so, bestselling author Susan Cain says you might be an Introvert.
In her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, she discusses the evolution of the concept of introverts and extroverts in our society. Cain notes that we have moved from the small farming communities of the nineteenth century, to an industrialized nation, to our current social (and media-obsessed) society. These transitions have resulted in the creation of an “extroverted ideal.” Cain’s popular TED Talk discusses this change, and how our workplaces and classrooms have evolved over time.
Carl Jung popularized the concept of the introvert and extrovert in 1920, calling them “the building- blocks” of personality. By his definition, introverts are drawn to their inner thoughts and feelings, while extroverts prefer to spend time with other people and external activities. In the almost 100 years since Jung introduced these ideas, many experts have expanded on these definitions: psychologists agree that introverts – who make up a third to half of the total population — tend to work more deliberately, with higher levels of focus than extroverts, and prefer working on one task at a time. Introverts listen more than they speak, and are often better written communicators. They prefer deeper discussions with a few, to small talk with many.
By contrast, extroverts prefer large groups of people and big gatherings. They tend to tackle multiple tasks quickly, and are more open to taking risks. Extroverts also enjoy the spotlight, seek out company rather than solitude, and are typically more assertive than introverts. They are energized when surrounded by stimulation – other people, noise, and activity.
It is important to note that the distinction of introvert vs. extrovert indicates preferences, not abilities (i.e. the definition of introverts and extrovert indicates what an individual prefers, not what they are capable of). There are many introverts who successfully interact with large groups every day, in the spotlight, just as there are extroverts skilled at completing long stretches of concentrated work alone. Jung himself said that there is no such thing as a pure introvert or extrovert, but that we should consider the definitions on a spectrum, based on strength of preference and environment.
Cain notes that the twenty-first century has seen the shift toward the “extroverted ideal” continue both in entertainment and in everyday life: in schools, children’s desks are typically organized in pods to promote group work, vs. in traditional rows for individual pursuits. TV role models in children’s shows have larger-than-life personalities, plus large circles of friends. College students are often required to complete a significant portion of their work in small groups, and workplaces are becoming more “open-concept.” In the professional world, employees are expected to spend significant portions of their day in meetings – where often the best speaker wins, not the best idea. Employees are supposed to network, self-promote, and be available via their cell phones 24/7, leaving little time for introverts to recharge and pursue individual work.
Despite this shift to the “extroverted ideal,” if you are an introvert, there are several things you can do to improve your odds for success in the workplace.
Take a Personality Assessment with your Co-Workers
If possible, set aside time as a team to take a class together such as Myers- Briggs or to complete Susan Cain’s quiz to identify who is an introvert and who is an extrovert. Educating yourself and your group is a positive step toward working together, because you’ll better understand each other’s preferences and perspectives.
For instance, you may find that you’ve worked closely for years with an individual, but left many of your interactions feeling frustrated by the stress you have communicating with each other. It is likely that one of you is an introvert, while the other is an extrovert. When you are better able to identify your differences, you can adjust your language and expectations to each other’s type.
Evaluate your Schedule, and Set Boundaries
Assess your calendar and your regular commitments. Are there meetings or obligations you have that regularly drain you? Cain discusses this concept in her book, calling it “emotional labor.” Introverts can act as extroverts, putting on a front in social situations for a period of time, but can eventually become exhausted from the effort, which takes its toll as emotional labor.
There are some steps you can take as an introvert to reduce emotional labor:
- Commit to a work schedule with a definite end time each day, so you can step away socially to enjoy free time in solitude or with your family. This includes turning off your phone, because calls and texts add to the stress of emotional labor.
- Evaluate the organizations you are part of, and suspend your membership in those that are more draining than beneficial.
- Be intentional when planning your time off; it may sound fun when you’re planning to do a cruise with a big group of friends, but if your work schedule has you overextended socially, it may be more restorative to take a low-key trip with your significant other or a close friend. By making your down time intentionally soothing to your introverted nature, you’ll be much better prepared to take on your extroverted commitments.
Change your Environment
There are likely many areas in your life where the stimulation level is too high for your introverted preferences. Take stock of the times when you feel the most stress, and see if you can make changes to reduce external stimulation:
- If you work in a collaborative environment, invest in noise-reducing headphones, and create a soothing playlist.
- If possible, work with your leader to see if you can work from home a day or two per week. If this isn’t an option for you, could you adjust your work hours, so that you have time in the office without as many distractions?
- If you commute to your office, particularly via mass transit, bring your headphones and download a great podcast or music to listen to in order to block out the noise.
- When you take your lunch break, consider leaving the office to enjoy a meal with a close friend, or to take a walk by yourself.
If you are able to make some of these adjustments, they can help to balance out your environment, to give you periods of time to reflect and think.
Some of these changes may not be possible in your current situation. If you are experiencing emotional labor more than you’d like, it may be time to look for a new job. Or, if you work in an extroverted Marketing Department, is it possible to use your same skills in the more introverted Engineering Group? Or are there opportunities at another company to find a better balance – e.g. perhaps reducing required travel, or offering a work-from-home option? Sometimes a change of scenery may be what you need to function at your best.
Build Preparation Time into Your Day
Extroverts are typically more comfortable speaking in large groups, and often think more quickly on their feet. If you are an introvert who works in a group of extroverts, it may be uncomfortable for you to speak up in team meetings or group settings.
To combat this, consider setting aside meeting preparation time during the day. By thinking through your ideas and writing them down ahead of time, you’ll be better equipped to speak up on the subjects that matter to you. Susan Cain also has an excellent article on her website, with strategies for being heard as an introvert in a meeting.
The odds are that you are an introvert, are married to or parenting an introvert, and/or work closely with one. If you are an introvert who feels the pressure of the “extroverted ideal,” consider some of these tips, and make changes to carve out restorative time in your day. You may be surprised at how freeing it is to adjust your environment to your personality — rather than changing yourself for the world.29