There has been significant scientific and psychological debate in recent years about whether introverts are born, or made (the old nature vs. nurture argument). While scientific clarity is likely years away, I am positive I was born an introvert. I am an only child, but I was born into a large and in charge, loving, southern Baptist/AME family (my parents have 26 siblings between them). Our house was the site of many a family cookout, birthday party, repass, and even a couple of weddings. There were always visitors, whether planned or just dropping by. Still, I managed to find a quiet corner somewhere with my notebook and pens and write.
In observing my parents, the introvert and extrovert personalities were crystal clear: mom was talkative and animated, while dad was introspective and serious. They were complimentary: they had different interpretations and understandings of the world around them; and those differences gave me an unique perspective on how they interacted with each other and with me.
By third grade, I had been branded with the dreaded S word that makes so many introverts cringe and roll their eyes: shy. It was a concept my extroverted mother found perplexing, and one she tried to reprogram by signing me up for every activity that would fill an introverted adolescent with dread: debate team, cheerleading, band, and softball, to name a few. Some I fought (softball wasn’t happening), some I agreed to (debate team and band) and in the end I wondered why my desire to read, write, and think were so juxtaposed to “fitting in.”
Over the years I have met, befriended, and worked with many extroverts who initially thought I was shy, but came to understand that I was introverted and those were different things. It is unlikely you will find a coworker of mine, past or present, who would describe me as shy.
Today, we have a much better understanding of the difference between shyness and introversion and know that they are not interchangeable. Books like Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain have given rise to the “Quiet Revolution,” the concept that introverts have specific, unique talents have helped introverts celebrate their differences Quiet put who I was into a perspective I hadn’t thought about before, and given all I had heard about the book before I read it, I expected the outcome. But the outcome I didn’t expect was the understanding I gained of extroverts.
As with many either/or concepts, when people talk about introverts and extroverts it becomes a competition. Extroverts feel introverts are overly sensitive, too passive, too quiet, and too reserved. While introverts feel extroverts are loud, insensitive, bull-in-a-china-shop types, who don’t care about their feelings. The truth lies somewhere in between: extroverts are take-charge folks who move boldly forward, while introverts are quiet thinkers, comfortable with gaining more facts before making a decision. Neither of these views of the world are wrong: they are just different. When working with each other, introverts and extroverts need to keep the following in mind:
Introverts on extroverts:
- Know they will take charge
- Let them talk
- Listen carefully
- Wait until all the extroverts have made their contributions and then take a deep breath and jump into the conversation
Extroverts on introverts:
- They will not be the first people to talk
- Just because they aren’t talking, doesn’t mean they aren’t listening
- Look for their non-verbal cues that they want to join the conversation (pen clicking or tapping, looking at the speaker and then staring down at their notepad or table, )
- Make a conscious effort to include them, which may mean asking three or four times if people have questions, comments or input
Both introverts and extroverts have to make the effort to understand each other and make their partnership work, as my parents did. A couple of years ago, my mother and I were reminiscing about my childhood and she said “I know I pushed you to do things you didn’t want to do, but you have to understand my perspective: I thought the world was going to eat you alive if you didn’t get out of your shell. But I see the woman you’ve become and how you’ve forged your own path. You’re quiet, but no one walks over you: you’re very clear about your boundaries and I’m glad I lived to see it.” For an introvert, that’s the ah-ha moment with our extrovert counterpart we all someday hope to have.
Kim Martin-Haynes is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.