The Perks of Being a Wallflower

ImageI’m the bookish type. So it’s apt that the inspiration for my new blog and first blog post both come from great books I’ve read this year.

The book that finally convinced me to start blogging was Organisations Don’t Tweet, People Do, by Euan Semple. There was lots of great stuff in there, which I might write more about later, but one key thing that I took from it was…

Start blogging – for yourself, and not because you’re necessarily expecting anyone else to read it. The book made me see the value of blogging is in organising your thoughts, sharing tips or knowledge, and taking a position on things. Ideally it can be the start of a conversation – but even without commenting, you can hope others will read and value what you say … and even if no-one else reads it, you’ll still be the richer for writing it down.

‘Quiet: the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking’
The book that I’m focusing on for (at least) my first post is the amazing ‘Quiet’, by Susan Cain. Or to give it its full title: ‘Quiet: the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking’. On the basis of a recommendation from Jon Ronson on Twitter, I read the book and found it really resonated with me. It changed the way I think about myself and others, and inspired me to write my first blog post.

This might seem to be contradictory, starting a blog as a result of reading about the traits that make some people, like me, keep themselves to themselves.

But one of the many things I took from the book is that, if introverts decide to share their thoughts with the world, then we do best when we have the chance to stop and collect our thoughts first, and work on crafting something alone before sharing it with others.

I was also encouraged to learn that key voices such as Guy Kawasaki and Peter ‘Mashable’ Cashmore ‘outed’ themselves on social media as introverts.

“Studies have shown that, indeed, introverts are more likely than extroverts to express the ‘real me’ online, and to spend more time in certain kinds of online discussions. They welcome the chance to communicate digitally. The same person who would never raise his hand in a lecture hall of two hundred people might blog to two thousand, or two million, without thinking twice. The same person who finds it difficult to introduce himself to strangers might establish a presence online and then extend these relationships into the real world.”

What is an ‘introvert’?
We might all think we know what we mean by ‘introvert’ and ‘extrovert’ but I think it’s useful to explore the terms a bit more:
Cain says that “today’s psychologists tend to agree on several important points [when defining introversion and extroversion]: for example, that introverts and extroverts differ in the level of outside stimulation that they need to function well.”

“Stimulation is the amount of input we have coming in from the outside world. It can take any number of forms, from noise to social life to flashing lights. [Research psychologist, Hans] Eysenck believed that extroverts prefer more stimulation than introverts do, and that this explained many of their differences: introverts enjoy shutting the doors to their offices and plunging into their work, because for them this sort of quiet intellectual activity is optimally stimulating, while extroverts function best when engaged in higher-wattage activities like organising team-building workshops or chairing meetings.”

Introverts are said to have ‘high reactivity’, which means that they do best when they are not over-stimulated. High reactivity is also known variously as negativity, or inhibition, or sensitivity.

And Cain makes it clear that, while some introverts might also be shy, shyness and introversion are not the same thing: “Shyness is the fear of social disapproval or humiliation, while introversion is a preference for environments that are not overstimulating. Shyness is inherently painful, introversion is not. One reason that people confuse the two concepts is that they sometimes overlap.” The author also makes some very insightful points about how it is often others’ perceptions of outwardly similar states – introversion and shyness – that can lead to introverts being overlooked or valued less at work or at school… something that deserves more exploration in a later post.

Where are you on the introvert–extrovert spectrum?
I highly recommend the book, especially if you think you might have introvert traits, but also if you might be an enlightened extrovert and want to understand introversion better – and if you’re not sure which you are, there’s even a handy test at the start of the book! The informal quiz helps you assess “where you fall on the introvert–extrovert spectrum” – with true or false answers, where more ‘trues’ = more introverted, and more ‘falses’ = more extroverted. Questions cover how you express yourself, how you enjoy yourself, how you work and how you relate to others. I answered 15 true, 5 (mostly) false, meaning I am at the introvert end of the spectrum, which was not a surprise. Here is one of my answers:

“Q10. People describe me as ‘soft-spoken’ or ‘mellow’.”
A: TRUE

Funny that I was virtually shouting inside when I answered ‘true’ there, and again when empathising with one of the introverted Harvard Business School students Cain interviewed, who worries that he’s not loud enough. “‘I just have a naturally soft voice,’ he says, ‘so when my voice sounds normal to others, I feel like I’m shouting. I have to work on it.'”

Interestingly, studies found that babies who cried and made more noise tended to be quieter, more introverted adults, and vice versa. This is thought to be because high reactivity manifests itself as signs of distress in infants, but gradually through childhood and into adulthood becomes the more expected, quieter signs of introversion. More sensitive, thoughtful children, more reactive in childhood, are more likely to become an introverted adult. This is contrasted with calmer, quieter children who react less in infancy but who tend to be more extroverted as they grow up.

Cain is quick to point out that no-one is likely to be purely introverted or extroverted (quoting Jung: “There is no such thing as a pure extrovert or pure introvert. Such a man would be in the lunatic asylum.”), but people will instead find themselves towards one end of the scale or the other. Or will perhaps be more introverted, but able to act in a traditionally extroverted way because of ‘free trait theory’ – the ability for introverts to be extroverted when they’re focusing on something about which they really care and have a lot of knowledge. The book explores how introversion and extroversion manifest themselves differently in all of us, and how understanding this can help us in many ways, at work, study and in our personal lives, and everywhere that these overlap.

What does an introvert look like?
I found it fascinating that many introverts had been found to share certain physical traits. Cain writes about how one researcher believes, “based on his data, that high reactivity is associated with physical traits such as blue eyes, allergies, and hay fever, and that high-reactive men are more likely to have a thin body and narrow face. Such conclusions are speculative and call to mind the nineteenth-century practice of divining a man’s soul from the shape of his skull. But whether or not they turn out to be accurate, it’s interesting that these are just the physical characteristics we give fictional characters when we want to suggest that they’re quiet, introverted, cerebral. It’s as if these physiological tendencies are buried deep in our cultural unconscious.”

Thin-skinned = not cool
I always thought my sensitivity to heat was just my Indian and Mediterranean heritage letting me down somehow, but it turns out it might be thanks to introversion:

“Among the tests researchers use to measure personality traits are skin conductance tests, which record how much people sweat in response to noises, strong emotions and other stimuli. High-reactive introverts sweat more; low-reactive extroverts sweat less. Their skin is literally ‘thicker’, more impervious to stimuli, cooler to the touch. In fact, according to some of the scientists I spoke to, this is where our notion of being socially ‘cool’ comes from; the lower-reactive you are, the cooler your skin, the cooler you are.”

What makes us introverted?
Cain writes about research that showed that possession of a particular variation of a certain gene (the serotonin-transporter/SERT gene, or 5-HTTLPR, which helps to regulate the processing of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that affects mood), is thought to be associated with high reactivity and introversion.

There was also a nice quote in the book speculating on people’s fear of public speaking maybe coming from a primaeval, inbuilt fear of standing tall on the savannah – fear of being spotted by a predator.

Cain recognises it’s not that simple and that it’s not necessarily just genes or temperament but also childhood and ongoing experiences that shape us.

“Psychologists often discuss the difference between ‘temperament’ and ‘personality’. Temperament refers to inborn, biologically based behavioural and emotional patterns that are observable in infancy and early childhood; personality is the complex brew that emerges after cultural influence and personal experience are thrown into the mix. Some say that temperament is the foundation, and personality is the building.”

How to get the best out of being introverted: find your ‘sweet spot’
Cain encourages readers to put themselves in the best position to suit their introversion (or extroversion), and to get the best out of their natures:

“When combined with [developmental psychologist, Jerome] Kagan’s findings on high reactivity, this line of studies [on levels of stimulation preferred by introverts and extroverts] offers a very empowering lens through which to view your personality. Once you understand introversion and extroversion as preferences for certain levels of stimulation, you can begin consciously trying to situate yourself in environments favourable to your own personality – neither overstimulating nor understimulating, neither boring nor anxiety-making. You can organise your life in terms of what personality psychologists call ‘sweet spots’, and by doing so feel more energetic and alive than before.

“Your sweet spot is the place where you’re optimally stimulated.”

So one of my sweet spots would be when I get the chance to really focus on a piece of work in solitude, without distraction. But realising that it’s an important part of my job to also work collaboratively and sometimes speak publicly, I understand that I work best in those situations when I’ve had time to fully prepare. Whereas an extrovert’s sweet spot might involve winging it or fielding unexpected questions, I realise that preparation, for me, is key.

And when I don’t get the chance to prepare for meetings or public speaking – even understanding what is happening (thanks to the book) makes me feel better – so that even when I’ve been put in the opposite to my ideal situation, just knowing why I’m not performing so well is reassuring and helps me to keep it together, and to learn for next time.

Thoughts on future posts
I got so much out of ‘Quiet’, I know I’ll devote at least one more post to it; I’m especially interested in introversion at work, and where introverts’ strengths seem to lie in this and other areas.

Meanwhile, I’m not sure exactly what shape my blog will take, but I’m looking forward to finding out. I think I will use it to share my thoughts and work in the non-profit digital world, but I also have a love of words, books, art, design and architecture, so might see if I can cover any or all of these in future posts.

‘Quiet’ is one of the best books I have read, and I’m full of admiration for Susan Cain. I’m grateful to Jon Ronson for his tweet about Susan Cain’s TED talk, which I happily happened across at the start of this year. Since then I’ve enjoyed the video of the talk and Storified some of the tweets from the livestream of Susan Cain’s conversation with Jon Ronson at the RSA in March, .

Finally, I also want to tip my hat to another book, which I recently read for Book Group – The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky – and which, with serendipitous timing, provided the perfect title for my first blog post.

Advertisements