8.20.2014

An extrovert in an introverted world

I've been thinking about this for a while and have searched online for blog posts or articles about extroverts dealing with an introverted culture, but have barely seen anything. Some articles tend to be about the characteristics of extroverts vs introverts, or how extroverts are misunderstood. But in my case, I've had to submerge my more extroverted qualities to survive in the introverted world.

First of all, I'm not struggling as much as I was several months ago when I was doing a lot of work that didn't require much talking because I've been teaching, which requires talking and the ability to connect with people. Plus, my coworkers are extroverts and are truly interested in people, so I feel like I've been liberated from the introverted shackles that surround people like me who just want to be ourselves. When I first returned to teaching after a couple semesters off, my boss asked me what was wrong because I was so quiet. I told her that I had been silenced and limited for months, and had to act a certain way to survive and be tolerated. It seems like a weird concept in a place of extroverts, but I eventually adjusted to that more open environment and have felt satisfied. And in my non-teaching work, I don't deal with people directly but I work with people who like to chat, so it's a good balance. Still, it shouldn't be so rare that I have to write about the exceptions.

I'm married to an introvert, so I know very well what they're like. They're drained by people, they need alone time, they feel pressure to talk, etc. There are several articles and blog posts about introverts' trials and tribulations, especially since Susan Cain wrote the book Quiet, which I read with amazement. What world is she talking about?! In many workplaces, it seems that only certain people are allowed to talk or even attend meetings and conventions. But I see those people as part of the elite, or in highly paid jobs that are hard to get. When a meeting is required, usually the managers are the ones that go, and if more people are invited, the lower level employees aren't really allowed to give feedback or show their personality (especially if they work in a hierarchy of personality), so they have to stay quiet. Yet Cain was talking about meetings, social functions, group work...she was a highly paid attorney in a high-powered job. The average worker doesn't have such opportunities. And it's more apparent when an extrovert has to deal with such a situation. A lot of work has to be done on a computer, and that has nothing to do with people interaction. I'm sure she had to work on a computer too, but she was in a privileged position that allowed her to walk away from the screen to attend the extroverted functions she abhorred. Hey Susan Cain, if you have a Google alert activated and see this blog post, please contact me and explain how I can get a piece of your extroverted chores. I will gladly take on speaking engagements (she's become so successful, that she has expanded the opportunities from her extroverted-oriented jobs to having to do speeches, including the impossible-to-score Ted Talk), social activities, and other tasks in a life that seems far from the usual drudgery that people have to put up with.

For an extrovert, jobs shouldn't have to be totally people-oriented to be satisfying (like nursing, teaching, customer service, retail). I don't want to always work with people because I like to write, research, read, take care of website content, and do other introverted things. But hey, people like me who like to do such work also want people contact and to laugh and socialize. We want social interaction to break up the silence. We don't mind being interrupted. We want to use our minds but occasionally use our mouths, too, and we want a lively atmosphere because we like people-oriented stimulation. But I've noticed that in situations where computers are a necessary tool and there's a certain power structure in place, the ones who are in the special segment get to do more than just stare at a screen. They get to go to functions and conduct training sessions and socialize with others in the upper echelon.

And it's not just attaining such access to those more extroverted activities, but being able to be ourselves. That in itself should be a blog post, because I think it is very difficult to be yourself, even if "experts" in American culture say that's the ideal goal. Actually, being yourself can be detrimental whether you're an extrovert or not. One time I talked to someone who loved acting, loved becoming someone else, loved becoming a character. I've always maintained that I would love to be...me. We're too busy trying to survive by not being who we are, that becoming someone else seems to be superfluous. However, even if it is rare, it is possible to be who you are if you're working or circulating in social/extracurricular circles where such tolerance to authenticity exists.

Then there's the changing workplace, where work isn't done at a company with other people. I often hear about the great economy that existed after World War II and for several years after that, where people got jobs...somewhere physical. Now companies are fractured and people freelance or work alone. What a perfect economy for an introvert but a nightmare for an extrovert. Even if someone has a job at a place, they may not be able to stay there long or establish relationships with their coworkers due to downsizing, layoffs, dysfunction that results from paranoia and restrictions, etc. But in Cain's baffling world, people have jobs, they work with others, they have to survive a workplace where collaboration and communication are required. What a great concept...can you hook me up with your nightmare?

Anyway, other than work is just the world that we live in--it's more introverted because technology has created walls. A lot of interaction is online or through other digital tools, and people don't know how to communicate offline so well. That's another reason why I find Cain's book puzzling. She talked about the school culture, which is very well suited to my needs, since there are lots of social opportunities and clubs to join. But once we leave school, we're faced with a hyper-individualistic culture where people use their phones more for texting than talking, and where people like to stick to small talk, if they talk at all, because they haven't been socialized too well to actually deal with people. Everyone says introverts don't like small talk, and guess what...extroverts like me don't like it either. We like to communicate with live people and have fun, but that doesn't mean we want to talk about nothing all day. Also, people assume that extroverts like talking to just anyone, but I really clam up when I encounter phony people. That's when I do seem like an introvert.

In fact, I've worked or been in so many situations that were restraining, thus were better suited for introverts, that I've learned how to be more introverted myself. I've gone days without talking, and inside my head I was suffering, but outside I seemed like a bland, quiet person who didn't have much to say. People have even told me I'm introverted and have been surprised when I've said I really am not. I'm just not a shallow extrovert (and there's nothing wrong with those kinds of people--at least they're excited to live) but rather someone who really is energized by people--as long as they're interesting and not phony :) So to those introverts who feel like they have to be extroverted: I have had to be like you to survive as well. In fact, if Cain did hire me to work for her introverted empire, I'd fit in well because I not only could take on her extroverted tasks, but I would be able to conform to her introversion because I've already been doing it for years.

I did work in a situation that required both introverted and extroverted characteristics, and I had a great time because I worked on a computer for hours, but sometimes salespeople or other extroverts would come in to ask questions, request certain projects, or just chat. It was fantastic because I could use my mind and analytical abilities but could also socialize once in a while. On the flip side, I worked in a situation where there was no extraneous talking tolerated, and I wasn't allowed to ask questions until the end of the day. Or I had to gather up the questions to ask them all at once sometime during the day. So if an extroverted person were to blend work talk with social talk, we'd get in trouble.

Introverts are lucky that they have technology and air conditioning and other things that take them indoors away from people. If you're suffering in a world of extroverts, think about how many times you have to work on a computer, or when you have the option of a computer and phone over live people. There are many opportunities to not socialize with people, especially if you have a quiet job instead of a people-oriented one, and you don't have to go out after work, either. There's TV, Internet, books, a solitary walk, and lots of other things introverts can do. But if you're an extrovert and want to score an invite to a cool social event where there are people you can click with, or want to have a job where talking breaks up silent tasks or a top-heavy structure, then good luck! Maybe my short tale of struggle will cause other extroverts to share their stories, thus counter the abundance of pro-introvert stuff online, which is where introverts seem to love to hang out.

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