How To Be An Introvert In An Extroverted World

Introverts have gotten a bad name over the years. It’s a simple case of poor PR. Every serial killer has a neighbor who describes him as the “nice guy who kept to himself.” Can you imagine how hard it would be for Betty White’s publicist if every serial killer were described as the “ditsy one from the Golden Girls?”

These days, outspoken self-promoters are idealized. Extroverted and introverted personality types are each valuable, yet somehow the term introverted has become synonymous with weak and insecure. I’m no publicist, but I would like to galvanize my socially-challenged peers (using my inside voice) to re-establish the value of solitude and quietly taking it all in.

First, let’s consider this TED Talk from my new hero, Susan Cain. She argues that introversion is not a character flaw at all. She says it is detrimental to our society not to nurture the growth of introverts, considering how influential they’ve proven to be throughout history. Albert Einstein, Rosa Parks, Warren Buffett – all introverts who grew to be leaders. In her talk, Cain laments that our culture is quickly moving to accommodate and reward extroverts while squashing the needs of introverts. This is bad. Schools and offices now favor open floor plans designed to be “interactive” and emphasize the dreaded “teamwork.” This is a nightmare for introverts. I mean, we can handle it, but it’s just not ideal for our God-given skill set. The introverted thought process tends to offer depth that can’t be matched, but it requires solitude and quiet spaces. Like Yoda, we are. We are incapable of bouncing around half-baked ideas and instead need time in the kitchen.

Bold extroverts have a lot to offer, yes, but their peanut butter needs our jelly.

So here’s what I’m thinking: Introverts need to stop beating themselves up. They’ll always fail to be extroverts. All we can do is be the very best introverts we can be. The squeaky wheel gets the grease but maybe we can be that bum, sideways wheel. Those wheels get grease, too. Below are my ideas for how an introvert can excel in this pushy, modern world.

Give yourself more time. I know it’s tempting to get an assignment and promise to turn it around with lightening speed, but here’s the thing: you probably aren’t capable of that. Speed is not generally in your wheelhouse. You know what is in your wheelhouse? Tangents and attention to detail are in your wheelhouse. You’ll go off on tangents and think of unrelated but brilliant ideas while you’re on this task — these will come in handy on the next project. And because your brain works overtime, your attention to detail will always wow the boss. So don’t try to show off with speed. Pad your deadlines (reasonably) whenever you can. Don’t rush. You’ll be doing everyone a favor.

Don’t put a candy jar anywhere near your desk. I know you think you want to make new friends, but your brain can’t handle those conversational distractions! Consider paying for friends, instead.

Come up with loose ideas before the brainstorm meeting. Extroverts love brainstorm meetings. Introverts find them chaotic and hard to participate in. But this is an extrovert’s world, baby, so we gotta play ball. Ask your boss for a cheat sheet before the meeting. Do whatever you can to find out what this group brainstorm is about so you can come up with loose ideas in solitude before you hit the room full of people. This way, you can utilize the lightening-fast, brain-to-mouth skills of your extrovert coworkers to help pump up your existing idea to a new level. Oh hey, Teamwork! I didn’t see you there!

Designate time for feedback. You can’t handle real-time feedback, so carve out extra time for it. When you’re on a group project, politely ask to tackle part of the task on your own and then designate milestones at which you’ll stop and ask for input. We introverts aren’t so full of ourselves that we can’t take notes (wink!).

Get used to saying, “Let me think about it.” Stop feeling pressure to give an answer right away, no matter how quickly people around you seem to be moving. Whether at work or in life — take your time. Don’t let people push you and don’t throw in the towel with an “I don’t know.” Not having an immediate answer doesn’t have to indicate a lack of confidence. If you say “let me think about it” firmly enough, that’s a whole new level of confidence. That’s the amp turned up to 11. Don’t say it when you’re just plain procrastinating, though. Haven’t you ever heard of the boy who cried wolf? If you are procrastinating, just say, “Oh, um… about that…”

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  • Manon van Schijndel

    I recognize myself so much in this! I never related my preference for working alone with being introverted and therefore always thought that why I wasn’t good at team work was because of horrible, selfish reasons. And the whole not being able to come up with good ideas during “brainstorm sessions” is so recognizable as well! Whenever I have one of those meetings, I feel so useless and then when I’m at home I get these amazing ideas and I always feel stupid for not coming up with them earlier. I always thought it had something to do with peer pressure or something, and maybe that’s part of the problem but it’s uncanny how much I can find myself in your article, so I’m going to print this and repeat: “Let me think about it” everyday! YAY for introverts!


  • Renee Kolb Nyen

    I really appreciate this article. (And Susan Cain’s book, QUIET.) It’s so surprising to see all the places in our society that exalts extroverted tendencies. I work in publishing. You would think this would be a haven for someone like me, but still, the people who are most recognized by the boss are the outspoken ones.

    We work with books, people! Sustained deep-thought and attention to detail should be encouraged.

    Great tips for keeping up in an extroverted world.

  • Clarissa Joy Lunday

    I know think I need to buy Susan Cain’s book. This article is great although I’m not sure if I could use it with my family. I’m an introvert and there are a lot of times where they think I’m not listening to a word they say. They are just now realizing that I like to take my time in figuring things out. And the attention to detail, well, I’m actually the best at that.
    I’m working on getting my Bachelor’s in Fashion Design and Product Development. In the design world, there are a lot of introverts. We take time away from the noise and study the trends to find new things that we want for the world to see. Barely have I ever seen a designer come out and do a full interview of how they work. Valentino hated when the cameras were rolling when doing The Last Emperor.
    But this has a lot of stuff for businesses to look at and be like, “hey, we need to create environments for the introvert as much as the extrovert.” Teamwork isn’t such a bad thing either. In high school and my first semester in college, I loved working with groups of people after I knew what the project was. I was even the leader in one of them. I was a section leader in marching band so there was a lot of control I had. I don’t know very many introverts who have been in control in the work environment because of PR and it is the time of the extroverts. Maybe, us introverts need to change that.

  • Jessica Jeffers

    Susan Cain’s book was amazing. It made me feel so much less like an awkward turtle and more like a functioning human being who just does things a little differently.

    • Rosan Vloedgraven

      i love the awkward turtle comparison

      • Mary Traina

        Haha yes. Amazing.

  • Meredith Noel Hammond

    Love this! I’m an introvert and I went through a period where I constantly asked what was wrong with me. Then a few months ago Time magazine came out with an article about introverted people. It talked about how introverts are better employees in the workplace and they may not have as many friends as extroverts, but their friendships run deeper and last longer. Basically, there are many perks to being an introvert that extroverts just don’t see. It was then I realized that there is nothing wrong with me. This is who I am. This is my personality. I have always been an introvert, I am an introvert, and most likely I will always be an introvert. I’m mostly quiet and only say something when I feel like I have something worth saying. Then I may not have as many Facebook friends as most people, but that’s because I only stay friends with the people I still talk to and I have a connection with. And, yes, I do enjoy going out every now and then, but my idea of a great Saturday night is in my pjs in bed watching Saturday Night Live or a good movie. People may say that us introverts are weird or awkward or some other negative-sounding adjective, but they just don’t understand and I don’t want the people who think that to be a part of my life. Own your introvertive personality. It’s the way you are and there is nothing wrong with that. Being an introvert is not a disability, it’s a personality and it’s one you should quietly show off.

    • Kristy Bolt

      I completely agree with you!!!

  • Chrissa Reed

    Awesome post, Mary! As an introvert, it was such a relief to read this – I kept thinking, it’s not just me then!!
    It’s so true that the workplace is set up for extroverts so it was so refreshing to read your tips for us introverts. Thanks :)

    • Mary Traina

      Thank you!!! Like with anything, staying positive is the key and I think feeling like you aren’t alone helps a ton. Which is why I love reading about this stuff and taking it in!

  • Starla Trotter

    My company requires all employees to participate in a class and take a “test” called MBTI. You can’t fail this test. It’s just to determine what kind of personality type you are. It’s very detailed and really accurate. And my company doesn’t make anyone share their results, unless they want to. But they do read through several personality type descriptions and talk about the terms used so that everyone understands how many diverse types of people they’re working with and what each of their strengths are, I found it fascinating and useful. I think more companies should do this – and individuals too! If you look up MBTI and take the test, you will find out a lot about yourself!

    • Mary Traina

      Your company sounds kinda awesome! It really sounds like they are trying to get the best out of everybody.

  • Caroline Jeffery

    are we the same person? or are you just in my brain? most relateable and reassuring piece about introversion i’ve ever read.

    • Mary Traina

      Thank you! I feel really reassured by the responses, myself. :)

  • Robert Aronson

    Great article! Thanks for posting it. :)

    I think what’s happening in regards to the school situation seems to be this: society has begun to realize that love in our culture has grown cold, and so what they’re essentially trying to do is legislate it by attempting to get people to feel a need for each other, and want to be around each other, and etc. A great many more people are indeed isolated from one another than seemingly ever before, and not because they’re introverts but because of the way we utilize our technology and the degree to which we are pluralistic in our philosophies/worldviews. It’s like there’s no universal standards of clear, tangible substance anymore, and so everyone becomes an island of personal belief. Everyone also becomes an island because technology allows them to remain alone yet still “connected.”

    Society is battling back using methods intended to increase social interaction so that we might actually care about each other again and maybe understand one another.

    But it won’t work. It won’t work because you can’t legislate morality, i.e. love. You can, for example, take care of your body to a certain degree and should, but death is inevitable. I believe our society is heading for rock bottom and rebirth.

  • Kim Brandon

    I found that a great relief post of yours Mary, I can’t even put it in words, as i always thought something was wrong with me. Thanks Mary for your ideas,

  • Geena OldMan Dax

    “Get used to saying, “Let me think about it.” Stop feeling pressure to give an answer right away, no matter how quickly people around you seem to be moving. Whether at work or in life — take your time. Don’t let people push you and don’t throw in the towel with an “I don’t know.” Not having an immediate answer doesn’t have to indicate a lack of confidence. If you say “let me think about it” firmly enough, that’s a whole new level of confidence. That’s the amp turned up to 11. Don’t say it when you’re just plain procrastinating, though.

    – the problem with this one is that in certain situations you can ask for extra time but you wont get it. For example, I am currently dealing with a relatively minor (not to mention trumped up) court case as a defendant and along with being an introvert I have ADD, Narcolepsy and fibromyalgia. All affect the speed at which my brain processes and how it processes in a process that is set up for shoving as many people through the system as quickly as possible. I have asked for accommodations to help me participate fully, but have largely been blown off. I think I have been the target of this false accusation because I come across as quiet and an easy pushover. I have a great deal of circumstantial and some hard evidence this case is baloney, but I don’t qualify for a public defender because there is no jail time involved even though I meet low income requirements. Knowing you are being railroaded through a system that is designed to be next to impossible to navigate is maddening.

  • AJ Host

    Sought this out after awkwardly trying to tell a puzzled friend why I couldn’t just go with her after a meeting and teaching four classes without some downtime before our other meeting tonight. People look at me like I’m crazy to need breaks, but I’ve gotten so many migraines after sustained, daylong interaction that I near panic attacks when I think that I am going a whole day without time apart. The same friend asks in disbelief how I can enjoy nights alone at home, and I struggle against the dread of colleagues who always seem to pop in right when I finish another draining talk.

    “Let me think about it”=powerful. Thank you for this, and the whole article, years later.

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