I can’t remember when I discovered that introversion was a thing. It wasn’t widely recognised during my childhood. But what was recognised was being different.
Children were expected to behave in a certain way in social contexts. I was under 5 when it was noted that I did not behave that way. In nursery classes I was shy and would head to a corner of the room where the books were. Looking back, this seems like a perfectly rational response to being in a room full of noisy kids. I sought sanctuary in books, knowing I could sink into an imagined world and calm myself. But the expected behaviour was to run into the centre and get involved.
I knew I was odd because my sister behaved very differently. Where I was spent lots of time at home reading, writing and listening to music, she was often out and always with others. On family holidays we’d go to campsites and there would be a kids’ club. True to form, she’d immediately meet other kids and jump into the swimming pool. I would take 6 library books with me from the young adult section. I’d read them all in a few days and then ask if I could read the books my parents had brought. In between splashing in the sea and eating chips, I’d just happily curl up with my books and Walkman.
Attempts would be made to make me ‘more social’ and I’d tag along with my sister, doing my best to smile and chat. I actually liked talking to people with similar interests one-to-one but it was simply hard to find them. I’d later discover this is a hallmark of introversion. Introverts love an in-depth conversation about life’s great mysteries and can chat with someone like-minded for hours. But they get drained by big social gatherings where a lot of interaction is small talk with awkward introductions, new faces and background noise. The problem is you have to endure the latter to get to the former.
I’d see these traits developing when I was university. There were a lot of parties and I’d worry a lot about what to wear, how to make a good impression and walking in alone. I had a close group of friends and stuck with them, always happier with familiar faces and carried along by their more extrovert natures. I failed to make close friendships with students who were also studying English as we had only 6 hours of lectures together a week. Of course I’d chosen a course where you spent most of the time reading, but for the first time I realised I didn’t want to do that. What was happening outside my room, in the shared spaces, in nightclubs and bars, suddenly seemed more interesting.
University was also when I realised people liked me for who I was. Not everyone obviously, but those friends who wanted to know me better started to discover more. I’d hear that something I’d said or done was unexpected, out of character, in a good way. That was my personality; I just didn’t show it all at once to everyone. I admire people who can be totally themselves in any scenario but for me that’s much more of a gradual process. That’s why people who’ve really known me are so valued.
Now I’ve learned much more about introversion in the workplace. Success can come more quickly for extroverts because many opportunities are given based on perception. Those who appear to be in the centre of things, talking to everyone at the party, personality fully open are the obvious choice to hire and promote. But in careers like the one I gravitated towards, listening and observation are key skills. As is being able to assimilate information, consider different perspectives and make a thoughtful recommendation. Things that come naturally to introverts as that’s how we navigate the world.
We can also learn to adapt behaviours for context. I’m able to give a talk or run a workshop for a large group because it’s a skill I’ve developed using energy that I’ll regenerate by being around fewer people later. The Introverted Leader and Hiding in the Bathroom are great reads for thriving as an introvert at work. It is now common to take personality tests and share results with those you work in teams with, and through this I’ve seen that there is a roughly even mix of introverted and extroverted characters out there. We need both and everyone is on a spectrum, so no judgements should be made.
I want to bust a few introvert myths I’ve heard. Introversion doesn’t always mean shyness or lacking confidence. It can look that way but a lot of public figures and celebrities are introverted. They might get up and perform with complete confidence but be rubbish at small talk after. And not all introverts are quiet. My parents would tell teachers who said I was quiet at school that I couldn’t stop talking at home. I’ve always had a lot to say to a select audience.
Which brings me to the 2020 pandemic and as we now enter into more restrictions, it isn’t any easier for introverts. I’ve realised over time just how much I need connection with others. A joke, a smile, touches and affirmation. It is possible to spend too much time alone, even if you are used to it, and it isn’t healthy. I’m introspected out!