Calling all introverts out there in Timberjay land as well as anyone who has a friend or relative who is an introvert. Yes, that would be all of you, thank you for your attention. A common misconception is that the number of extroverts far exceeds introverts in our population when actually it’s about fifty-fifty. Before we fall in the either-or trap of thinking, remember that all of us are scattered along a spectrum with a mixture of tendencies that shape our beings. While a small percentage of people are at the extremes as very introverted or extroverted, the rest of us cooperatively line ourselves up on a bell curve of distribution with the larger, huddled masses in the middle.
What is true is that Americans are perceived as friendly, outgoing extroverts and that in many ways the American culture values extroverted behavior more highly. This societal bias superimposes numerous pressures on people who are more inner-directed. If you doubt that, ask any introvert. Classrooms and workplaces have trended toward teamwork and social interaction which works well for extroverts but can be a counterproductive hell for introverts. Awards and promotions often go to the more gregarious ones who are persuasive rather than the quieter ones who may be more serious, qualified and productive. Parents and teachers may think that children’s introverted behavior is something to overcome when in fact it goes to the core of those individuals.
The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® (MBTI®) personality inventory sheds a brighter light on these human differences. I expect that many of you readers have taken the Myers-Briggs inventory at some point in your lives, possibly at work since many companies use it with job applications or to improve internal organizational functions. Developed by the daughter-mother team of Isabel Briggs Myers and Katharine Briggs, it is based on C. G. Jung’s theory of psychological types, also called archetypes. Jung, a Swiss psychiatrist and founder of analytical psychology, was best known for his theories of the collective unconscious, dream analysis and human archetypes. Myers-Briggs sought to make Jung’s complex theories more understandable and useful to us average folks who might attempt to delve into his original work. I’ve delved and been lost in Jung’s labyrinth, so I’ve been grateful for their work that has been an essential implement in my tool kit for understanding human behavior; a psychological Leatherman multi-tool for unlocking the reasons for our quirks, talents and challenges.
The essence of Jung’s theory is that “seemingly random variation in behavior is actually quite orderly and consistent, due to basic differences in the ways individuals prefer to use their perception and judgment.” (www.myersbriggs.org).
The introversion/ extroversion spectrum is just one of four dichotomies used in the MBTI® to identify preferences along with sensing/intuition, thinking/feeling and judging/perceiving. How the intertwining of those preferences works within us is complex. To dig deeper, check it out online or read Myers-Briggs’ Please Understand Me and/or Carl Jung’s Personality Types.
Myers-Briggs offers an important basis for understanding introverted and extroverted tendencies quite different from the common usage or judgments. A key question from the MBTI manual: “Do you prefer to focus on the outer world or your own inner world?” Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, says this difference has as profound an effect as your gender. Her work reveals and praises the strengths of introverts who are often very observant, perceptive, modest, calm, thoughtful, innovative and reflective.
Consider this: what recharges and refreshes you? Do you love parties, many interactions with lots of people or do you prefer a quieter atmosphere to enjoy a long conversation with a friend? When you want a break, what do you yearn for...some solitude to read a book, paint, write, ski or reorganize your desk...or a social get-together with others to go out drinking and dancing? Introverts are drained by the same amount of stimulation that extroverts crave and thrive on.
Introverts have often been discounted or even scorned in our culture, partly because of the lack of understanding by others who might even be closet introverts themselves. Insults like party pooper, geek or dork and even less pejorative labels such as meek, shy, timid or passive can carry weighty judgment. Webster’s Dictionary defines shy as bashful, timid, suspicious, wary, deficient or scant. While shy is properly used in other contexts to mean deficient, such as “that guy is one brick shy of a load”, an unfortunate, untrue stereotype exists that less extroverted people are somehow deficient.
Introverts are not necessarily shy, or fearful of social judgment; they just operate in the world differently from extroverts. Bill Gates is a case in point; he’s serious and bookish but allegedly not very interested or concerned in what other people think of him. Shyness or the appearance of shyness is often evident when the introvert is surrounded by more outgoing people, but the terms are not synonymous. Many introverted people have experienced and are now speaking out about feeling like outsiders, ashamed and often unhappy as they tried to fit in, not understanding why they didn’t enjoy the same activities as their more outgoing friends, frustrated about never being heard and tired of the activity and noise around them. To get along and fit in, people often develop pseudo-extrovert skills, as I did, which helps them be more well-rounded but also can come with a cost; you might be surprised at the people you know who identify as introverts. Lucky are the children who are recognized and valued for their quieter dispositions, observing and processing the world around them thoughtfully, responding more slowly at times but with reflections well worth the wait if given a chance by their more boisterous siblings and classmates.
Please Understand Me is the perfect title for the Myers-Briggs book. I believe we all yearn to be understood, as least by one other person significant in our life. We also want to feel cared for, respected and valued which can be a bit of a challenge for people who don’t fit the mold in a culture with biases toward assertiveness, competition, and achieving, often defining success in terms of money or glory. I often think of the Pepsi ad campaign in the 60’s as typifying this attitude of extroverted romping, Pepsodent smiles and fun-fun-fun til’ daddy takes the T-bird away. I decided to refresh my memory and found the intriguing history of Pepsi, a cameo of America through the growth of the marketing industry with its changing trends, attempting to shape the public’s opinions and purchases. The ad campaign invited young people to “Come alive! You’re the Pepsi generation!” with visuals of lots of smiling, active extroverts enjoying themselves. I picture a couple friends walking together, talking thoughtfully, being trampled by a group of Riverdancing extroverts. Carl Honoré, author of In Praise of Slowness, notes that in our speedy modernity “even instant gratification takes too long” and praises those getting in touch with their “inner tortoise”.
Susan Cain describes the shift in America from a culture of character to a culture of personality, which I might call the worship of the superficial. She urges everyone to take some quiet time to be with your own thoughts; to bring your strengths, talents and depth to your relationships and community; and to quit pushing the group “committee” format in schools and workplaces. She appeals to introverts to speak up and step out, urging you to bring forth the gifts you have because the world needs your contributions. Imagine the world without the excellence of Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Abraham Lincoln, J.K. Rowling, Rosa Parks, Steven Spielberg and Albert Einstein to name just a few, as well as many wonderful entertainers and most comedians who bring their inner creative focus to very public careers. A very high profile introvert, Mahatma Ghandi, said, “In a gentle way, you can shake the world.”