A few years ago I enjoyed a profoundly weird experience in Japan. In this truly foreign country – where my hotel room was coffin-sized and the KitKats weregreen – I felt genuinely at home. Despite the language barrier, dining alone in sushi bars and the special alienation of being the one naked white guy bathing in the hot Onsen springs, I felt utterly accepted in a way I never had: as an introvert. I was clearly welcome there, but not required to answer the string of questions that would pass for politeness back home. Being my true self gave me a new source of calm strength. Being an introvert no longer felt like an unhealthy secret.
It had always seemed like an affliction. At work, it was my Achilles heel. I was once a chef in a restaurant kitchen that followed the Gordon Ramsay school of loud, brusque abuse. On an ‘away-day’, our head chef took us to a test centre and assessed us from behind a two-way mirror. As we set about solving our group task, the extroverts began to talk over each other, displaying their sweary dominance.
The more they talked, the more I panicked. Then I became indignant; I told myself I should be heard. I’d better speak up – say something. ANYTHING. Quick!
"I shouted something so salty Ramsay himself would have blanched"
This is an introvert’s doomed reasoning: we must beat extroverts at their own game. But I have since found that the opposite is true; the introvert’s advantage is his penchant for reflective analysis. In a loud environment, the ability to think without speaking sets us apart. As Susan Cain puts it in Quiet, “The key to our talents is to put ourselves in our zone of stimulation.” At work, our abilities become supercharged on solo flights of thought.
The ‘quiet’ life is harder. In the Western world silent often means dumb and the wealth of social capital belongs to more ‘outgoing’ characters. While extroverts presume intros to be arrogant or nebbish, intros characterise extros as insincere or brash. Carl Jung, the psychologist who invented the terms in 1921 didn’t mean that everyone was either Animal from The Muppets or Linus from Charlie Brown though. Jung’s idea was that introversion and extroversion are extremes on a scale of human behaviour.
You might fancy yourself as a bit of an Animal, but it’s hard to know if that’s where you truly belong on that scale. The truth comes down to chemistry. Dopamine, which regulates your brain’s reward centres, has different effects. Introverts have a lower threshold, so they need less sensory input than extroverts to be happy.
So, if the prospect of a weekend alone makes you howl with fear, rather than sigh with relief, you tend toward extroversion. An introvert can self-regulate his own dopamine levels, and prefers goal-oriented thinking to constant social gratification. After a long day in a chatty open-plan office, intros are more likely to recharge with a run alone than with by joining the extros at the karaoke bar.
For we the introverted, self-acceptance holds unspoken surprise benefits. At parties for example, rather than feeling the extrovert’s pressure to circulate, introverts stand to gain more by making meaningful connections to fewer people. Not showing off (OK, I am a bit), but we intros also have lower blood pressure and are more adept at public speaking and influencing people. This may account for the 40% of introverted CEOs. It’s just the phony nature of networking after our public speeches that we find repellent.
There has never been a better time to be an introvert. Thanks to the internet, written and spoken language have parity and we own the ideal tools to bypass social anxiety. Facebook helps us network without interminable small talk; we can tweet the witty retorts that we were too tongue-tied to formulate in person; and our mobile phones help us screen unwanted calls in favour of texting.
So the next time you feel the pressure to act like The World’s Worst Gordorn Ramsay Impersonator, use your introvert advantage – thinking before blurting. While the rest of the room is battling it out with their sharp verbal elbows, you’ll be the one quietly solving the task at hand.