Did you hear the one about the team of five cross-cultural workers who walk into pre-field training and take the Myers-Briggs personality assessment? Three of them get a code that’s “E” something something something, while two have “I” as their first letter. Then four of them turn to one of the “I”s and say, “Wait, what? You’ve got to be kidding. You are so not an introvert!”
Perhaps you’ve been part of a team like this. Perhaps you’ve been the one diagnosed with the suspect “I.” Perhaps you’ve been one of those who claim to know an extrovert when you see one.
Now this is where the facilitator steps in to explain that for the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) the words extrovert and introvert don’t mean what we commonly think they mean. They’re not “loud” and “shy” respectively. Nor do they signify who is or who isn’t the “life of the party.” Rather, it’s an outer-world versus inner-world thing. As the Myers-Briggs Foundation asks at its site: “Where do you put your attention and get your energy?” Is that place inside, among your thoughts, or outside, where the people are.
But still, what about those who claim to be introverted when we all know better. We’ve seen them in action. We know how outgoing they are. Did the test fail them? Did they answer the questions incorrectly? Are they not self aware? Or are they trying to have it both ways?
Come on, if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s got to be . . . an extrovert, or at least someone who wants to be the center of attention.
Susan Cain, in her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, gives us a lens through which to look at this dichotomy. You may have already read Quiet. It was published in 2012, after all. But I just got a copy a couple months ago, by way of a coworker, so I’m a little late to the game. Fellow ALO writer Rachel Pieh Jones has mentioned Quiet a couple times here at this blog, in 2013 and 2017. Maybe we need to bring it up every four years. If so, I guess it’s time again.
To Be or Not to Be . . . Yourself
When it comes to being either an introvert or an extrovert, Cain points out that it’s more than a simple either/or situation. Rather, there’s a spectrum between the extremes, even including “ambiverts,” those who find themselves right in the middle. But she also explains why true introverts can come across as extroverts, and she presents a vocabulary for discussing it. For example, there are “socially poised introverts,” who are “interpersonally skilled” while retaining their introversion. Some introverts “engage in a certain level of pretend-extroversion” when circumstances call for it. And some are “high self monitors,” meaning that they are “highly skilled at modifying their behavior to the social demands of a situation.”
Does that last one sound like people who can change how they act depending on their surroundings, say, in a new country? It does to Cain. Here’s how she describes her journey from being a “pseudo extrovert” as a corporate lawyer to becoming who she is now:
It took me almost a decade to understand that the law was never my personal project, not even close. Today I can tell you unhesitatingly what is: my husband and son; writing; promoting the values of this book. Once I realized this, I had to make a change. I look back on my years as a Wall Street lawyer as time spent in a foreign country. It was absorbing, it was exciting, and I got to meet a lot of interesting people whom I never would have known otherwise. But I was always an expatriate.
Here is where Cain draws a line between mimicking extroversion in a purposeful, healthy way, versus in a way that is detrimental to one’s own identity. The person who does the former “acts out of character for the sake of worthy tasks that temporarily require a different orientation,” while for the the latter, she offers up an example of someone who’s denied her true self, “acting out of character in the service of a project she didn’t care about.” (Again, do you see how this could apply to those serving overseas?)
Cain writes that “if we act out of character by convincing ourselves that our pseudo-self is real, we can eventually burn out without knowing why.” “But even if you’re stretching yourself in the service of a core personal project,” she says, “you don’t want to act out of character too much, or for too long.”
So if being a pseudo-extrovert is a positive response to the task before you, how do you cope? One way, Cain tells us, is to follow the advice of psychologist Brian Little, and make for yourself plenty of “restorative niches.” A restorative niche can be in the form of a location or an activity, a place of rest or a way to relax. It’s “the place you go,” she writes, “when you want to return to your true self.”
Can You Hear Me Now?
Much of Quiet consists of Cain defending the 1/3 to 1/2 of us who are introverts in a world that exalts the “extrovert ideal,” identifying introverts’ strengths and admirable qualities. (Full disclosure, according to the MBTI, I’m an introvert—an INFP to be exact.) And one of the points that she makes is that introverts are worth listening to, even when their words are softly, or rarely, spoken.
“If we assume that quiet and loud people have roughly the same number of good (and bad) ideas,” she writes, “then we should worry if the louder and more forceful people always carry the day.” “Don’t mistake assertiveness or eloquence for good ideas,” she explains.
So let’s go back to that team at the beginning of this post. If you were the team leader, how would maximize the creative potential of your group, for instance, in a brainstorming session—getting input from everyone, including introverts who act like introverts, at least during team meetings?
One thing to understand, writes Cain, is the “startling conclusion” that brainstorming simply doesn’t work. Research shows that individuals working alone (such as introverts who might rather think things over in solitude) produce more and better ideas than groups do. And the larger the group, the less productivity. More and better ideas are produced when people go their separate ways and think on their own. But there is an exception to this, she says. It’s brainstorming online. Not only does it work, but the larger the group, the better it works. Why? Well, according to Cain, while online group work is collaborative, it also represents “a form of solitude all its own.”
Cain writes that psychologists have come up with three reasons for why group brainstorming isn’t successful in producing the best outcomes: “Social loafing” is when some people in a group stay quiet and let others take the lead. “Production blocking” is caused by members needing to speak one at a time, requiring others to pause and listen. And “evaluation apprehension” comes about when people are afraid that others will think that their ideas aren’t good enough. These factors can affect extroverts and introverts, but it’s easy to see how they can inhibit introverts even more.
In light of this, Cain gives this advice, applicable to employees and team members alike:
If it’s creativity you’re after, ask your employees to solve problems alone before sharing their ideas. If you want the wisdom of the crowd, gather it electronically, or in writing, and make sure people can’t see each other’s ideas until everyone’s had a chance to contribute.
So here’s another story. It’s about a team in which all the members understand that introverts and extroverts are different inside, even when they might seem the same outwardly. They recognize that introverts who act outside their comfort zone, even for a purpose they believe in, need time to recharge. They also create the space and the time for introverts to formulate their thoughts and share their ideas. And they listen closely to everyone, even those who speak in still, small voices.
(To read even more about introverts serving abroad, take a look at these posts from Anisha Hopkinson and Jerry Jones.)
(The Meyers-Briggs Foundation, “Extroversion or Introversion,” adapted from Charles R. Martin, Looking at Type: The Fundamentals, CAPT, 1997; Susan Cain, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Crown, 2012)
[photo: “Hand adjusting audio mixer,” by Ilmicrofono Oggiono, used under a Creative Commons license]