By Katherine Bielawa Stamper
“You’re never going to meet anyone sitting on a porch reading,” my mother said. “Why don’t you call up one of your friends and go dancing?”
I looked up from my text at my extroverted mother. It was the summer of 1987. Mom just didn’t “get” her introverted daughter, who sometimes preferred books to people.
My mother loves to be around people—lots of people. She has numerous friends. She reminisces about the many boyfriends who courted her in her youth. Mom was kind of the Amanda Wingfield* of the Polish village in which she grew up.
Married at 21, mothering at 22, my highly social mother worried that I, having crested age 22, was destined for spinsterhood.
Formal definitions of introverts are tinged with subtle disdain. Google offers the following: “A shy, reticent, and typically self-centered person.” Merriam Webster proclaims: “to concentrate or direct upon oneself.” Hmmmm. Really?
Negativity assigned to introversion may relate to the fact that we are a minority—a hushed minority—in a very noisy American culture. It’s estimated that introverts comprise 25-33 percent of the population. There are fewer of us and we tread more quietly in this world.
Susan Cain, author of “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking,” describes introverts as people who prefer one-on-one conversation, expressing themselves in writing and time for reflection. We gravitate towards work allowing us to “dive in” deeply with few interruptions. We tend to be risk-averse. We are planners by nature.
Small talk can be painful for introverts. At cocktail parties, we’re more likely to assume a lower volume corner, engaging one or two people in deeper dialogue. “Group work”—so popular in middle schools and MBA programs—can be deadly. Holing up in a library or a laboratory can hold real appeal for the more contemplative of our species.
Introverts recharge with quiet, reflective activities. Even though we can be quite social, active socializing depletes our battery. We need solitude to re-energize.
Extroverts tend to garner energy from external stimuli. They’re the Energizer bunnies at social gatherings. We are the wallflowers.
Marti Olsen Laney, Psy.D., in her book, “The Introvert Advantage: How to Thrive in an Extrovert World,” points to research demonstrating that introverts and extroverts exhibit different brain architecture and chemistry. Introverts have a lower dopamine threshold than extroverts. Said simply, we need less stimulation to feel good. Overstimulation makes us feel bad.
Personality type influences career choice. Typical fields introverts are drawn to include artist/designer, engineer, physician, IT/software engineer, machine operator, mechanic, editor/writer, scientist, lawyer, truck driver and teacher. As a college instructor, I spend much more time quietly prepping for class than actually teaching.
Careers that extroverts are more likely to gravitate to include nurse, event planner, sales representative, police officer, firefighter, advertising professional, customer service representative and entertainer.
One can easily see which careers require more time “in one’s head” versus thinking on one’s feet and juggling frequent interruptions.
Humans are hybrids, a blending of traits. Personalities rest on a continuum; there are no hard and fast rules. Some highly successful nurses have introverted leanings. One can also find extroverted mechanics who still get the job done. Embracing who we are and playing to our strengths while fine-tuning weaknesses is key.
Those of us in this quieter, sometimes underappreciated minority find ourselves in respectable company. Famous introverts include Albert Einstein, Warren Buffet, Frederick Chopin, Mahatma Gandhi, Rosa Parks, Tom Hanks, Meryl Streep and J.K. Rowling. Wasn’t Harry Potter a bit of an introvert?
Introverts pairing with extroverts can result in dynamic duos. Former President Bill Clinton (E) and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (I) are a powerful pair. Steve Jobs (E) and Steve Wozniak (I) co-founded Apple. President Franklin Delano (E) and Eleanor Roosevelt (I) provided leadership, one with a softer touch.
An interesting post script: I moved to Pennsylvania in August 1987 to attend graduate school. Three days after my arrival, I was sitting on the front porch of my apartment house—reading. A handsome, introverted engineering student emerged. We started a conversation. Twenty-five years later, our deep, thoughtful conversations continue.
*Amanda Wingfield was the character in Tennessee Williams’ play, “The Glass Menagerie,” who lamented that her shy daughter, Laura, lacked the succession of “gentleman callers” that Amanda entertained in her youth.
Sources: “Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking” by Susan Cain; “The Introvert Advantage: How to Thrive in an Extrovert World” by Marti Olsen Laney, Psy.D.; www.jobs.aol.com; www.Forbes.com