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…”

Buy good headphones and download a noise machine app. Comfortable headphones and some white noise (I actually prefer pink noise) can help your brain process in even the most “interactive” work environment.

You hate chit chatting so at least smile. Or else everyone will think you’re a serial killer. You’ll be surprised how far you can get with just a smile. You could probably get away… with murder.

Let calls go to voicemail and respond via email/text to set up a time to talk when you’re ready. Because we so often need to think about our answers and our brains often need time to adjust if we are mid-task, sudden telephones calls are taxing to introverts. It’s no offense to the caller! Although, heads up – if you’re going to let things go to voicemail, have an inoffensive outgoing message. Might I suggest penning a short poem about the trials of your adolescence?

Protect your alone time even if you’re not “busy.” Turn down plans from time to time, even if your Facebook feed is full of socializing, too-cool Fonzies. Don’t worry about the cat-lady stigma. Cats are the shit and being alone is a cold glass of lemonade to the thirsty, introverted mind. It’s almost as important as sleep. You may have noticed that if you don’t take the time to unwind your mind, your mind will do it for you at 3am while you stare at the ceiling.

Organize the party. Introverts like to cut loose, too. We’ve cut more than a few rugs in our time — just mostly on our own terms. We prefer the company of a trusted entourage. And the music of Pitbull. So take control – be the organizer!

Those are my ideas, what are yours? If you are reading this and you are a boss, in the position to shape a work environment for others… well, I’m not saying don’t put out a candy jar at all. Everyone loves peanut butter M&Ms.

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