Are you an introvert? The Trump era could be your moment
In these brutish times, it’s become fashionable to turn inwards. And introversion can be a gift not a burden.
Feel like hiding today? Research indicates a majority of people find social interaction draining to some degree
These are nasty, brutish and short-fused times. An angry tangerine squats in the White House. Social media brims with spite and prejudice. Wherever you turn, it seems someone with a red face and a runaway Twitter habit is spewing vitriol.
Amid the hubbub, is it surprising that many are turning inwards? As the world has grown noisier and more ill-tempered, the political bully pulpit becoming a loudhailer for literal bullies, the appeal of silence and solitude requires little explanation. This may be the age of Trump. It is also the era of the introvert.
Introversion is characterised as a tendency to be deliberative and self-conscious, and to find social contact exhausting rather than invigorating. One in three are estimated to fit the definition, typically preferring their own company to that of others.
Until a few years ago, social awkwardness was conflated with aloofness or bad manners. Today, introversion can seem almost fashionable. Online communities such as Introverts Are Awesome encourage the shy and retiring to celebrate their wallflower inclinations: to even, it may be argued, perceive themselves as superior as the chatty masses mindlessly bantering their way through life.
Quietly giftedAmong many self-identified introverts, a reticent personality has thus come to be regarded not as a burden but a gift.
If the “introvert renaissance” has a foundational text, it is Susan Cain’s 2012 bestseller Quiet: The Power Of Introverts in the World That Can’t Stop Talking. Here, Cain lays out her thesis that the professional sphere has traditionally favoured the brash, the pugnacious, the outgoing. Introverts are at an institutional disadvantage.
“Town hall” meetings, brainstorming sessions, “visibility” as a metric of workplace success – all conspire to keep down those who would rather do their critical thinking in silence and are inclined to listen before they speak, she argues.
“Introversion and extroversion are as profound a part of who we are and as core to our identities as gender,” Cain told a Google “Talks” event shortly after the publication of her book.
The bias against introverts was “deep and profound”, she said. “The vast majority of teachers believe the ideal student is an extrovert. In the workplace increasingly open plan offices don’t have much privacy. Studies tell us introverts are passed over for leaderships positions.”
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The picture Cain paints may appear bleak for those for whom frothy chit-chat does not come naturally. She reinforced the message with 2016’s, Quiet Revolution, which highlights the degree to which introverted children are misunderstood and ill-served by education systems in western societies.
“In school it always seemed as if ‘outgoing’ was the highest compliment a person could get,” Cain writes in the introduction. Since she was a child, friends, parents and teachers had been alarmed by her reclusive behaviour .
“They want to know if I’m alright, or if there’s a reason that I’m keeping to myself. Some ask in a way that suggests they think it’s a little weird that I haven’t spoken up in a while.”
Introversion, it is important to note, isn’t the same as shyness. There is such a thing as a confident introvert. Cain, for instance, was a successful corporate lawyer before becoming a writer.
“What really distinguishes us introverts is that we prefer lower stimulation environments,” she said in her Google talk. “You’d rather a glass of wine with a close friend . . . If I place drop of lemon juice on our tongues, the introverts would salivate more. [They] respond more to stimulation.”
But after decades of being misunderstood and wrongly diagnosed, has the introvert pendulum swung too far in the opposite direction? Is there a danger those who identify as introverts might take this as a licence to wall themselves off from others? Let’s start with the thesis that introverts are – to paraphrase slightly – delicate butterflies depleted by social interaction.
That may be true – but who among us doesn’t crave the occasional moment on our own? Should “me time” be exclusive to those who self-identify as introverts? Isn’t peace and solitude something every functioning human requires, if only in modest doses?
I have followed the rise of the cult of the introvert with a mixture of relief and foreboding. For as long as I can recall I have found other people exhausting to be around – to the point where it became obvious reasonably early in my working life that I wasn’t cut out for a busy office (I am typing these words in my attic).
Back when I worked in the outside world, I frequently suffered headaches and was by turns listless and over-stimulated by the people around me. On a daily basis I would become overwhelmed by the babble, unable to complete one simple task, let alone juggle several. Had introversion been as widely recognised as it is today, perhaps I would have found a way to grapple with my problems.
Instead, I packed in the job and chose to work at home instead. In the end, I honestly didn’t care whether I would be able to make a living. Simply not having to sit elbow-to-elbow with co-workers every morning was sufficient.
“We are increasingly finding that open plan offices don’t help,” says occupational psychologist Adrienne Davitt who explains that workplaces today are better attuned to the sensitivities of employees. “That’s true not just for introverts but also for extroverts. Everybody who needs time to focus . . . The time you need to process your thinking and get something out on a deadline is taken way from you.”
“The important point is that a person benefits by being aware of their personality type which is, in essence, their default style,” adds psychologist Neil O’Brien, who says it is possible to strategise around aspects of your emotional wiring. “A person can then learn ways to adapt so as to counter aspects of their default style as required. Thus, if a person is less naturally inclined to engage with others at a networking event, practising some ice breaker lines in advance and following a process can result in a very positive outcome.”
But I wonder . . . would the existence of an introvert community have brought clarity to my situation – or merely stopped me from even attempting to work in an office in the first place? I can’t have been the first to themselves in a position in which they were not immediately comfortable. Some buckle – others just put their heads down and get on with it. Might an introvert label have assisted – or merely provided one more thing to whinge about?
The suspicion that my experiences are not as unusual as I had believed – that, in fact, we all feel the need to be alone now and again – is supported by new research from Finland, published in the Journal of Personality this year. A majority of people, it indicates, find social interaction draining to one degree or another. Who among us truly relishes making new acquaintances, speaking in front of large numbers of strangers, of being always “on” in a social environment?
“For those who do feel depleted after social interaction . . . it may be pleasant to learn that such a reaction is quite normal and does not imply that one is an introvert or that one is lazy,” the study reads. Commenting on the research, the Atlantic Monthly cut to the heart of the issue. Far from marking us out as precious snowflakes, introversion may be simply a part of what it is to be human. The difference is in how each us chooses to deal with it.
“No one behaves like a stereotypical introvert or extrovert all the time,” it wrote. “And a lot of the characteristics that are popularly ascribed to introverts may be the result of other traits, or as this study suggests, just a normal part of being human.”