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Are You a Gregarious Introvert?

I promised to talk more about my discovery that I’m a “gregarious introvert” and I received many comments from readers saying they had never heard of the designation before, but now believe they may be too.

Extroverts – if you accept such categories – are oriented outward, toward other people and toward action over reflection. They draw energy from social interaction, and they tend to be outspoken and gregarious.

Introverts, on the other hand, are oriented toward the inner life of thought; they tend to be reserved and cautious. They find social interactions draining, and they need solitude to recharge.

I never thought I was an introvert because I’m not that reserved or cautious, but I do feel drained after interacting in large groups of people.

But then I learned there are gregarious introverts, or ambiverts, and that’s me. Those are folks who are friendly, even outgoing, but need to recharge alone. Here’s the thing: What complicates matters is that personalities are never black and white and we probably all exist on a spectrum between the two extremes, but why do we still attribute a negative connotation to introversion?

We tend to think that introversion is synonymous with being antisocial, but Susan Cain’s new book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (a surprising instant bestseller!) definitively rejects this notion.

Introverts may not have a lot of buddies at work, but they enjoy intimate friendships. They tend not to like small talk at big gatherings, but appreciate a deeper discussion over a topic they feel passionate about. Or they may be perfectly happy simply listening carefully to others talk about issues at a dinner party.

Interestingly, Cain argues for the value of introverts in a culture that has a long history of privileging extroversion – something, she argues, that has only grown more powerful, and perhaps costly, in recent decades. It’s a trend that affects business, religion, education, parenting, and just about everyone’s sense of self-worth in the United States.

According to Cain, the 19th century valued personal character based on seriousness, discipline, and honor, but the 20th century emphasized personality: selling oneself and being seen as a leader.

Dale Carnegie’s bestseller, How to Win Friends and Influence People (1937), is a major signal of that shift for Cain. The Power of Positive Thinking (1952) has coexisted in American culture with the quiet drama of The Catcher in the Rye (1951) for decades, but Cain makes a compelling case that, these days, Norman Vincent Peale has a considerable lead on J.D. Salinger, and he’s not giving it up anytime soon.

For many introverts, being measured against the accomplishments of extroverts can take a toll on their feelings of self worth, and throughout Quiet, Cain showcases the heroic use of “quiet power” by sketching the lives and accomplishments of Eleanor Roosevelt, Rosa Parks, Al Gore, and Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple, among others.

Unfortunately, introverts, whom Cain describes as spending their youth reading and cultivating the inner life, are at a disadvantage when it comes to promoting themselves in a career. There’s an enormous amount of socializing and networking that’s required to get ahead, and introverts find it unappealing and exhausting. Not to mention that they’re simply not good at it.

Take my experience at the business conference last week: Everywhere extroverts were reaching out to others, making connections, and laughing in clusters while I was left smiling weakly and struggling just to find one person with whom to talk. Every day I left the conference early, exhausted. Is it no wonder that introverts face a relative disadvantage in the reach of their professional networks?

The important lesson I can take away from the introvert/extrovert debate is that the typing can be a matter of perspective. I may not have figured out how to draw out the positive edge of the blade yet, but I have no doubt there is a positive edge. I was able to make a few connections at the conference and my job now is to build on them. I’ve scheduled several “virtual” coffee dates and I’m excited to see what will come of them.

My particular challenge (and, again, I don’t think I’m unique in this) makes me think of metals. Unlike iron, gold is relatively malleable and forgiving. Iron is brittle and will crack if you treat it like gold, but if you treat it properly, it has properties that make it valuable in its own way.

I’ve been seeing the brittleness, and the cracking, of my own introvert nature and not conceiving of the possibility that the very properties that make me weaker than others under certain conditions could make me stronger under other conditions. In short, introverts are not broken – just different.

Susan Cain has started a fantastic discussion about how introverts can cope, and even thrive, within a culture that seems to reward extroverts. Let’s continue the conversation!

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