Speaking Up For “Introverts”

As one who ends up more on the introvert side than extravert when I do a Myers-Briggs test, this TED talk by Susan Cain resonated with me. At last, one of us has managed to survive the glare of attention long enough to mount a defence of the introvert take on life – or as I prefer to call it, “non-extravert”. The word “introvert” makes us sound like we’re either shuffling Syd Barrett figures or we’re quietly nursing a monstrous plan to take over Western Europe from our bedrooms. But we introverts are not all – or even mainly – recluses; in fact many of us are perfectly sociable and enjoy working with people.

Syd Barrett in 1969
Syd Barrett in 1969 (Photo credit: Wikipedia). Arguably took introversion a bit far, though it was probably more the mind-bending drugs that did the damage.

I’m living proof myself, as my work revolves around watching and listening to people then understanding and explaining their points of view. There are both introverts and extraverts in my profession. I think each wonders how the other does the job – but we both manage to get to a similar place, albeit coming from different directions. So what has the introvert got to offer – I mean, who wants some shy wallflower in the workplace?

First we need to understand what is meant by “introvert” here. They are not some small segment of society, such as 7-foot-tall armchair Mansfield Town fans with rabies and the entire back catalogue of The Dooleys on vinyl (that was a tough recruit). Introverts are between one third and one half of the population. But it’s easy to forget that such a big section of society starts with this outlook on life, when so much of the media and popular culture reflect an extravert-dominated world.

Cover of "Personality: What Makes You the...
The multi-talented Daniel Nettle’s book ‘Personality’ – highly recommended

Introverts, for one thing, are not all shy wallflowers. Shyness, according to Daniel Nettle’s fine book Personality, is most often due not to low extraversion but high neuroticism and anxiety. The introvert is not necessarily shy, he/she just isn’t as driven by social activity as the average extravert and so can take it or leave it. As this suggests, extraversion / introversion is not the be-all-and-end-all of personality – far from it. It is only one of five major dimensions psychologists tend to use to describe and differentiate between human personalities. The “Big Five”, by the way, are:

  1. extraversion
  2. neuroticism
  3. conscientiousness
  4. agreeableness
  5. openness.

So Susan Cain in her TED talk and book is focussing on only one – and we shouldn’t think of this as some sweeping attempt to explain everything. But it’s a valuable ray of light shone on one of the (often misunderstood) dimensions, all the same.

So what is an introvert?

It’s mainly about how they are energised. Introverts’ energy comes from our inner engine rather than being drawn from external sources. So introverts tend to:

  • listen more than talk
  • concentrate well
  • think carefully before speaking
  • need time alone to recharge batteries
  • prefer to socialise in small groups
  • seek quiet
  • keep enthusiasms to ourselves
  • be content being on the sidelines.
English: Extraversion by state
US map of extraversion by state (Photo credit: Wikipedia). Wish there was one for the UK.

If the description of non-extroverts I gave above sounds a little surprising as a description of up to half of us, that perhaps shows how much of an extrovert’s world it is. Like Susan Cain, I love extroverts and know I rely on their greater restlessness, chattiness and spontaneity to bring out the best in me. She is not criticising extroverts, but just raising awareness of that other section of us who, as she reminds us with a cheeky smile, tend to “get better grades and be more knowledgeable”. And of course:

There’s zero correlation between being the best talker and having the best ideas.

And if some of these non-extravert qualities sound different from the template of the thrusting business person, perhaps they are. But it could be that the template’s a bit flawed. Taking my own field of qualitative research, for example – are these useful or not so useful personality traits to have as a researcher?

Well, we non-extraverts are well equipped to understand other people: we like listening and we’re good at concentrating; we think carefully before speaking; we revel in solo time mulling over our thoughts, which is perhaps why I love the analysis process; we don’t rush to grab the limelight – being an adviser is kind of perfect for us. Most of all, we don’t need a lot of external stimulus to get our thinking going – and qual research is very much the art of getting as much solid insight as possible from looking at fairly small samples of people, we are easily sparked into thought.

By the way, on Myers-Briggs, the one that I usually (though not always – a few of the categories are a very close call) end up falling into is “INFJ” (introvert/intuition/feeling/judging), which I’m told is for people who:

Seek meaning and connection in ideas, relationships and material possessions. Want to understand what motivates people and are insightful about others. Conscientious and committed to their firm values. Develop a clear vision about how best to serve the common good. Organised and decisive in implementing their vision.

That describes pretty well what I do as a qual researcher, so I can live with that.

There are lessons for researchers – and for business and government – in this:

  • When we try to understand people’s responses to stimulus, to brand communications or to the society there are in, we need to think carefully about their personality – not just where they are on the introvert / extravert scale, but all of the “Big 5”. It may be impractical and over-complicated to measure it every time, but a knowledge of the undulations of the landscape of personality can only help as background to researching modern life. Daniel Nettle’s book, helpfully, has something called the Newcastle Personality Assessor as an Appendix – it’s a brief, 12-point questionnaire. For more in depth studies, I could do worse than have participants mark themselves on it.
  • As Susan Cain suggests, creative development work is not all about groups. There has been a craze for it of late, but as I pointed out in my article on this in my Ipsos MORI days, lots of people are at their most creative alone; or in pairs; or alone first, then in a group, then alone again … group creativity can work for us but it should not be a default setting. Maybe that quick personality test is worth doing on research participants we’re about to do serious creative work with, to see which approaches are likely to work with each person. And recruit people for creative groups who are suited to creative groups but also recruit creative people not suited to groups but who can contribute through other means. One-to-one online methods, for example, may work well with some of these.
  • Teachers say they prefer extravert students, notes Cain; yet introvert students get the better marks. Why is this? Perhaps the same reason that Mo Farah is described as having a great personality, while Andy Murray rarely is – we all respond to a ready smile and people whose emotions we can read easily. Perhaps this makes them easier to manage. It wasn’t always so though: we moved during the 20th Century, says Cain, from a culture of character to a culture of personality: how you come across to strangers is considered very important. I can’t see this changing much in the near future. Even the “Olympic corrective” in the UK – the rediscovery of the importance of substance over sparkly show – is probably a fairly faint counter-blast in the long run to the much more powerful social forces that push display and appearance to the forefront. We are an increasingly visual culture. This is why to be introverted now is harder than it was for our parents and grandparents. It may be harder still for our children.
  • As managers, introverts are often better than extraverts at letting extravert employees develop and build their own ideas.

Introverts and extraverts need each other. Which is just as well, because we’re stuck with each other. Understanding our own strengths and weaknesses in these terms, as for all the Big 5 personality dimensions, can only help mesh teams, delegate smartly and get the best out of each other at work. And that’s not even going into the home …

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Published by Simon Riley

Qualitative researcher in the UK. I listen to people from all walks of life and think about what it all means. I work for leading brands, media companies and government.

4 thoughts on “Speaking Up For “Introverts”

  1. Hey Simon….I’ve always been amazed by the study about how introverts have a different physical reaction to extroverts when tasting lemon!

    Click to access ReportExample2.pdf

    There’s a lot of cynicism towards personality tests but I do believe in Myers Briggs from my experience….

    No doubt having groups with compatible personalities can create a more cohesive and productive dynamic. Do you think (time / budget allowing) qual would be better if you could screen people based on personality to maximise the chances that the group dynamics would gel and the session would be productive? (Assuming you know which combinations work well together)….


    1. It ought to make a difference – though I think the better recruiters often, without doing it so explicitly, engineer a mix of people that will “gel”. At the back of their minds is, who will be a big talker, who will be contribute once warmed up etc. Personality tests may make life unnecessarily hard for good recruiters. But if worried about quality of recruitment on a particularly high profile project, for whatever reason, a simple test may be no bad thing. Though I quite like not knowing what I am going to get!
      Daniel Nettle’s book is worth a read btw and may answer a lot of the personality cynics – though I’m not an academic psychologist myself. He’s an amazing polymath – I’ve actually met him, he used to be a colleague of my other half’s before he went to Newcastle – he’s a brilliant stage actor as well as psychologist, speaks umpteen languages etc, been on Start The Week … and he can write. Makes you sick. But it is a good book, explains “The Big 5” really well.


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