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Karthika Muthukumaraswamy

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Introverts Are Joining the Internet Party

Posted: 04/30/2012 1:19 pm

When starting to write this blog post I had to settle myself in a secluded corner of the coffee shop, avoiding all danger of 'external stimulation.' Other than the caffeine, of course.

I belong to that third to a half of the population that prefers to work in solitude, doesn't enjoy making small talk and is not exceedingly comfortable in social situations. And until recently -- when a host of well-known introverts came out of the woodwork (catapulted by Susan Cain's Quiet Revolution), I thought I was one of a handful.

It's easy to believe you're the only one suffering from "party anxiety" in a society as exuberant as America.

As Bryan Walsh aptly puts it in this in-depth Time piece, being social is an expectation of the American way of life.

I learned this quickly when I moved to this country over a decade ago. The fact that random people could strike up a conversation with you during a minute-long elevator ride was at once intriguing, heartening and nerve-racking for me. Growing up in a small subcontinent too tiny to hold its billion-strong population, I had neither had the luxury not the inclination to be friendly to strangers. Unfamiliar though it was to me, what was not to love about a people so effortlessly social, so ready to go out of the way to be friendly, so quick to put a stranger at ease?

While this may seem an innocuous trait at first blush, this pressure to be social and outgoing can actually prove mentally draining for those not naturally inclined to be that way. This personality-culture clash forces introverts to second guess their lack of conformity and puts them constantly on the defensive with regard to their character traits. They are often left feeling guilty and inadequate for feeling the way they feel. As Laurie Helgoe observes, "acting counter-dispositionally" can be depleting.

"Simply being an introvert can feel taxing -- especially in America, land of the loud and home of the talkative," Walsh writes. But we see it everywhere. "From classrooms built around group learning to open-plan offices that encourage endless meetings, it sometimes seems that the quality of your work has less value than the volume of your voice."

Talking of volume, we see this bias reinforced in various aspects of daily life, most notably mainstream media, where decibels seem to be, quite literally, a surefire way to success. Loud people who are willing to talk quickly and impulsively -- traits characteristic of extroverts -- are more easily rewarded than their quieter Briggs Meyers counterparts, be it in the media, boardrooms, classrooms, or reality shows.

A natural offshoot of this gregariousness is a sunny, happy outlook on life, which goes hand in hand with being outgoing and friendly. Not surprisingly, being consistently positive and happy is another requisite of American culture, as Barbara Ehrenreich so eloquently described in her book, Bright-sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America. Americans tend to be positive, sociable and happy as a people, which can be a great thing -- until it forces someone to be happy or put their chin up despite their circumstances in life.

As Ehrenreich writes, even following an unexpected and devastating diagnosis of breast cancer, she was required by society to be consistently positive. Straying off positive thoughts meant she was negative or angry, and blamed for her bad attitude by her breast cancer "support" group. If your body is giving up biologically (there is only so much fight an immune system can put up against tumor cells), does "thinking" that you can beat it when you realistically can't, help you recover? Research has shown that it doesn't, as Ehrenreich writes. There is no scientific evidence that a positive attitude helps you combat cancer better -- neither does it make sense biologically. This conventional wisdom that pervades our society about happiness being the superior emotion we must always aspire to, can be very damaging for those who don't conform to that line of thinking.

Being happy can no doubt make day-to-day life easier than constantly going about life in a funk, but there is no evidence suggesting that happiness -- especially feigned happiness -- contributes in any real way to health and well-being. If anything, the pressure of trying to be happy when you have no real reason to be can get you down. As Iris Mauss, author of the paper, Come On, Get Happy: The Ironic Effects of the Pursuit of Happiness, has said, "when we prime people to value happiness more, they become more unhappy and depressed."

The irony of it aside, a rose-tinted perspective may help you get through life easier, but only depending on your personality type. As Mauss and co-author Maya Tamir find in their paper, people with introverted leanings, when presented with a task, choose not to invoke happy feelings -- they'd rather be in a neutral emotional state.

Introverts work better in this state, and hence, the prevailing wisdom about workplace disposition can go against their natural leanings, as professional success in America is fiercely pinned to one's social and interpersonal skills.

As Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts, points out, the pressure to be an extrovert in America is pervading our schools and workplaces where meetings are arranged and furniture is laid out so everything can be done in teams, committees or groups.

It is presumed that being an extrovert or being able to work in a team makes you a better worker, whereas new evidence suggests otherwise. As this Time study proved, introverts are capable of being both successful and happy.

And neither are all successful people extroverts.

Would an introverted manager need to work harder at engaging his employees? Sure.

But no more so than an extroverted person needing to work harder to avoid social distractions. People have different skills and weaknesses, and they work differently according to them.

Introverts just have a lower threshold for stimulation, and don't like social situations. Hence, in the workplace, "brainstorming does not work for them," as Helgoe writes. "E-mail does."

Talking of e-mail, could technology be wiping out this extrovert-introvert barrier Wired's Clive Thompson thinks so. With e-mail, the focus is on thinking before interacting or voicing one's opinions -- situations introverts are comfortable in. As Thompson says, more and more office interactions now happen remotely. In an era when employees can sync up without coming into the workplace, people skills (at least in-person people skills) are becoming less and less important. In today's "gig" economy, workspaces are largely being redefined as smartphones and computer screens, teleconference sessions and chat windows -- settings where introverts are not overwhelmed by the push to be aggressive and vocal.

What is more, this transition could be making people more efficient. While group brainstorming has been shown to be less productive than thinking and concentrating on a task in solitude, "electronic brainstorming" outperforms individual thinking, and seems to get better with the size of the group, says Cain.

Working remotely can cut costs and save time, but if Cain is right, it can also likely boost productivity. This is hardly surprising. Online communication enables in-depth conversations, allowing more room for prudent thought and insightful discussions, often reducing the danger of snap decisions.

Technology may also be changing what it means to be an introvert. Guy Kawasaki sure managed to keep his nearly million followers in the dark about his inexcusably introverted traits for years. But can someone's Twitter feed be expected to be a reflection of what they are in real life? Perhaps not entirely. But sitting behind a computer screen does allow the inhibited a less-overwhelming platform to divulge very real thoughts and opinions (sometimes with dire consequences, but often with the potential to trigger prolonged conversations on a profound topic). This is more than what happens at the water cooler, because we tend to think deeper from behind a computer screen (or hand-held version thereof), delegating the more mundane tasks to the computer, and invoking the "outboard brain" that Cory Doctorow first introduced and Clive Thompson famously espoused.

In that sense, a Twitter handle or Facebook persona may just be a slightly mitigated form of a War of the Worlds avatar, allowing us the verbal equivalent of developing wings and flying.

And there is no reason why workplaces shouldn't benefit from this higher plane of creativity and thinking unleashed by electronic communication.

 

Follow Karthika Muthukumaraswamy on Twitter: www.twitter.com/KarthikaM

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