As the lockdown beds in, how’s it going for you? Do you have cabin fever and crave social contact? Or are you content with your own company and even perhaps feel relieved that you’re off the hook with making small talk?
Whether we focus on the outside world of other people, experiences and activity or our inner world of emotions, thoughts and memories, this preference is is fundamental to who we are. Since the aftermath of the Second World War and its waste of human potential, psychologists have developed many ways to measure individual differences in personality (including the popular MBTI or Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, named after the mother and daughter who created it) in order to improve human functioning.
One straightforward way to get a handle on your personality is to think about what happens after you’ve had a bad day. If you rant, you’re more likely to have an extraverted or ‘E’ preference; if you stew, a more introverted or ‘I’ orientation. Understanding this helps us to manage our energy so that we don’t overextend ourselves and stay buoyant. Recognising whether we’re more of an ‘E’ or an ‘I’ also enables us to build more harmonious relationships, particularly with people who have an opposite preference.
The key difference between introverts and extraverts is not how socially skilled or confident we are. The crucial distinction is where we focus our attention and how we re-energise. People with an I preference need to spend more time on their own and feel drained if they spend too long at a party. Those with an E preference thrive on office banter, business meetings and get-togethers. Left to their own inner world, I’s are quite content; E’s are climbing the walls.
There is no right or wrong. Each preference includes natural and valuable human behaviours and attitudes. There is, however, a pervasive cultural bias in the West towards valuing variety, action and interaction (the E domain) rather than reflection, concentration and quiet (the I domain.) It is all too easy for introverts to be on the back foot; not joining in the office gossip might make you feel like the odd one out. At home, when you want to curl up with a good book, go for a run or cook alone, others might accuse you of being aloof or prickly.
As Susan Cain, best-selling author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking says, ‘Introversion – along with its cousins sensitivity, seriousness, and shyness, is now a second-class personality trait, somewhere between a disappointment and a pathology.’
With the current need for social distancing, this imbalance might just tip the other way so that introverts no longer feel disadvantaged. People with I, compared with E preferences, are much less likely to feel bored or lonely. And not only that – if introverts are able to bring their strengths to bear, we can all benefit. Here are three tips to help you to improve conversations and interactions whether with colleagues, friends or family by unpacking this undervalued personality preference.
People with an introverted preference tend to work out their ideas by reflecting on them. Because of their heightened capacity for concentration and focus, they can develop deep insights of real help to others. If you’re an introvert, ask yourself: How can I best share my ideas – might an email or text message be a better first step than speaking? Introverts often communicate well in writing.
If you’re an extravert, be careful you don’t overlook the people who are less chatty than you. They might notice what you’ve missed and pick up on subtleties that have passed you by – another person’s change in mood or a half-baked idea that can be honed into something brilliant. Seek them out, ask for their contribution – oh, and let them finish their sentences when they do talk.
As an introvert, don’t overlook the importance of having enough downtime. If you don’t get enough ‘me time’, you’ll end up cranky and grumpy. Remember that whereas social interactions fuel extraverts, they often cost you valuable energy.
See if you can negotiate some uninterrupted time for yourself. Having to break off your focus creates frustration whereas an extravert often welcomes the change of pace. Ask yourself: when am I most likely to be able to carve out a few moments when I can reflect? Who might I need to ask not to disturb me and what might I offer in return – for example, ‘If I can have this next half hour to myself, I’ll then be happy to help you with your homework.’
If you have more of an E preference, don’t take it personally when your introverted friend turns down for a chat or an online quiz night. Ask them when it would work for them to engage. Respect their need for solitude and give them the space to re-energise without making them feel guilty.
As an introvert, play to your strength of listening carefully to the other person. To build on this, play back what you’ve heard (‘So it seems like you’re saying…’) and ask a question about something you’re genuinely curious about. This helps to build a connection and might even surface a new insight.
Finally, there’s a clue in the word ‘preference.’ Just as most of us have one hand that we choose to write with – it feels more natural and competent – we can, if needs be, learn to use our other hand even though it requires effort and feels awkward at first.
During this time of change and challenge, as an introvert, remember that you might enjoy social interaction more than you realise. Remind yourself that small talk can sometimes turn into a deep discussion. When you’re able to be authentic, you laugh and chat as much as anyone else. And as an extravert, follow the lead of your introverted friend – savour the spaciousness of quiet moments and enjoy slowing down.
Sarah Rozenthuler is a chartered psychologist and the author of How to Have Meaningful Conversations: 7 Strategies for Talking About What Matters