(First of all, I apologize for the small delay of this post because we have been consumed by anxiety over a rapidly spreading wildfire that’s close by, and by preparations for possible evacuation. For now, it’s difficult to predict when our situation will stabilize and so I cannot say when the next post will be. Please be patient with me.) Now about today’s topic:
When I was young, about 7th or 8th grade, I often tested myself: Listening for the faint triangle notes in Alexander Borodin’s “Prince Igor.” I had only a small record player, and with LP’s quality back then, detecting such a subtle background was a bit of a challenge. I used this test whenever I felt that I was edgy, unsettled, unfocused, and so if I could still hear those notes produced by the triangle, it meant that my mind wasn’t too distracted and was fairly composed. However, there were times, no matter how hard I tried to concentrate, I simply missed those notes. I offer this little story as a way to relate how introverts recharge their energy: by being alone. The extrovert gathers his/her energy by being with others.
This aspect of the Myers-Briggs personality type resonates with me the most.
Now, by no means I am a hard-core introvert; I ought to know, I married an introvert whose score would fly off the chart. My social world evolves around friends; at small gatherings with friends, I am perfectly conversant. But I cannot handle cocktail parties; I was once caught reading a magazine in such a party. And I dread meeting strangers, especially on the phone. When I am frazzled, I want to be alone to regroup. So, while on the surface, I seem comfortable with people, my internal self isn’t always so comfortable. Being a social scientist gives me the satisfaction of observational learning about human behavior while not directly involved in the situation. I have some extrovert friends whose score would also fly off the chart on the other side of the scale. They can’t help themselves; they don’t ever seem to run out of things to say (not unpleasant, by the way), and they are also very keen in getting you to join in the conversation. At the end of a long hard day, their energy level grows when they are with friends.
Put these two types in a work situation, and you may sense some tension. The world is dominated by extroverts, and they don’t quite get how introverts operate (and yes, introverts have a better grasp of extroverts and how they operate). To me, this type of challenge is just as important in diversity/multiculturalism discussions as those presented by race, gender, and other conventional indices. It’s one thing to analyze someone’s personality, ability or capability, it’s a totally different beast when we try to understand the interaction effects of people who are introvert and extrovert.
I have known an extremely introverted (really really extreme) person (there is no such thing as “small talk” to him) who would relish telling good stories, with eyes looking down most of the time. In some of these tales he has told, I can see that he would have no trouble of speaking up to correct some egregious situation (though his first choice would be through writing) or engage in interactions on topics that interest him. At one time, he tutored math, and had encountered an immigrant from Mexico whose English was rather limited, but he still enjoyed his task because he loved math. Someone asked him, why not learn some Spanish (there was a healthy population of migrant workers in town), to which his puzzled response was, “why? I have no use for it.” An extrovert might regard this as “self-centered,” or “so utilitarian.” As if extroverts can never be like that! But more importantly, there is simply nothing wrong with his attitude.
It is particularly intriguing, and frustrating, when there are conflicts between an introvert and an extrovert. In fact, the perception of a “conflict” isn’t quite symmetrical between these two types. In general, introverts would prefer to avoid conflict altogether, while extroverts think only by facing conflicts squarely can solutions be found. However, avoiding conflict doesn’t necessarily mean that the introvert cannot handle the troublesome issue; he would just like to work on the issue without it being elevated into a “conflict.” On the other hand, given a choice, an introvert would happily choose solitude, and thereby, “what’s the issue?” So, the same dynamics on conflict can be put this way: Some people are more ready to turn a troublesome issue into a conflict in order to hash out the differences, while others would prefer to find tangential ways to take care of the issue. Is one method necessarily better than the other?
I have had some really unpleasant conversations with dear friends in the past. In one, we understood each other’s positions but could find no way of resolving the differences. My friend wanted me to show my hospitality not only to her but also to all her entourage of friends or relations whenever she came to visit me. I stood my ground about drawing some limits. While she understood my principles, I failed, in her eyes, to be the “generous friend” by her definition. In another incident with a different friend, the exchanges were on a very mundane issue but the miscommunication ballooned into such extreme expressions on her part that, while we are still friends, I have become extremely wary of saying anything that could be interpreted differently. In their eyes, they’ve said their piece and the burden is on me as to how I want to carry on. Indeed, I think the burden is almost always on the introvert, to adjust, to adapt, to find ways of resolving every situation internally, or simply to ignore it.
So, why am I talking about personal stuff instead of organizational stuff? While it is true that social interactions are not quite the same as professional interactions at work, there are lessons offered in both situations. Besides, work and life are not dichotomous but intertwined. I do believe in openness and honesty, but I think far more important is understanding the art of when and where to voice and deal with potentially conflicting issues or volatile situations. Perhaps this is what most introverts would find more appealing: wait for a while, mull it over a bit longer, find an opportune time, and assess the larger context, before broaching the subject with the other person. I love this quote, by a science journalist, (as quoted in New York Times opinion, link provided below) “The glory of the disposition that stops to consider stimuli rather than rushing to engage with them is its long association with intellectual and artistic achievement. Neither E=mc2 nor ‘Paradise Lost’ was dashed off by a party animal.” Of course, more likely in reality is that people at work usually don’t have the time to reflect, so they have to either “confront” right away or “sweep” the issue under the rug and hope it will go away magically.
The workforce everywhere is largely controlled by extroverts, and since they are the majority, that’s understandable. What’s frustrating for a lot of introverts, particularly at work, is that they are often misplaced, misjudged, and misunderstood. Our world, our societies, schools, work places, all emphasize teamwork these days, but is teamwork good for everyone? Most introverts actually adapt to their environment, but at some cost to their emotional well-being. And if most organizations and specific projects are designed by extroverts, is the welfare of introverts being adequately addressed? To some extent, the struggle of the introverts at work is similar to the homosexuals — when they are being told to change to being heterosexuals — with one major difference, introverts won’t make a lot of noise or complaints.
In addition to the question of introverts’ welfare is the more encompassing question: Are employers and institutions making the best use of the resources available to them in the introversion of many of their employees? Should employers elevate introversion to the same proactive “diversity” status as gender and race? I ask these questions because research does indicate that people tend to have much stronger favorable opinions of those who are “assertive,” willing to talk, and socialize more, and regard them as more “competent,” regardless of facts.
I don’t have answers to these questions, but feel compelled to raise some awareness of this matter. However, just in time, yesterday’s Sunday New York Times opinion pages offer an article on this very issue. When they start offering medicine to “cure” shyness or introversion, I definitely worry.
In closing, here is a little pop quiz: Regarding someone who likes to post lewd pictures of himself on Facebook, what is the probability of this person being an extrovert? Not to mention having distinctly non-astute judgment?
Till you find your way of recharging your energy,
Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.
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