The perks of being an introvert

10/09/2012 11:59 AM

10/09/2012 6:39 PM

Don’t be insulted if Cathy Hoag leaves your party early, or doesn’t attend.

The 50-year-old Olathe woman is not rude or antisocial. She just doesn’t like small talk — or loud talk. It intimidates her and saps her strength.

She needs solitude to rest and recharge.

Many people don’t understand introverts like her, she says. They ridicule and underestimate them.

But a chorus of voices is out to change that view, extolling the virtues of introverts.

The most visible: the new movie “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” a coming-of-age drama about an introverted, misfit high school freshman who surprises a new group of friends with his sensitivity and capacity to listen. It’s based on Stephen Chbosky’s best-selling novel, which has struck a chord with introverts — and anyone who has ever felt like an outsider.

A bevy of advice books also champion the introvert, including Marti Olsen Laney’s “The Introvert Advantage: How to Thrive in an Extrovert World” and Susan Cain’s “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.” And a popular Facebook post provides instructions on “How to Care for Introverts.”

The experts point to famous introverts, many of whom have used their introverted nature to change the world: Albert Einstein, Bill Gates, Mohandas Gandhi, Rosa Parks and Mother Teresa.

Hoag feels the benefits to her introversion too. She’s smart and sensitive, a deep thinker and persistent in solving problems. She, too, is a good listener.

And she can talk.

“I’d like extroverted people to know that we’re not stupid or unintelligent because we don’t talk all the time,” she said. “I’ll talk when I have something to say.”

And now she does — especially to extroverts, who make up about 75 percent of the population.

“Just have compassion,” Hoag said. “Don’t be judgmental, apply the golden rule and give people the respect they deserve. Understand that we’re all people at our core. It’s just that we’re all wired differently.”

Introverts, she said, are hardwired from birth to dislike outside stimulation. So meetings, phone calls, chitchat and parties can quickly become overwhelming.

That doesn’t mean Hoag doesn’t like people. A former accountant who is now going to school to learn graphic arts, she recently attended a local Square Pegs meetup group to meet friends. She knows it’s hard to understand and accept introverted people. For the longest time, she didn’t understand or accept herself.

“I envy people who are extroverts,” she said. “We put such a premium on being outspoken and being a ‘winner.’ I wondered what was wrong with me. Why wasn’t I outgoing like the other kids? Why didn’t I measure up?”

Finally, she learned, she was not broken — just different.

“To say I am less of a person because I am an introvert is to devalue myself, and that is wrong,” she said.

Amen, says “Quiet” author Susan Cain, whose star rose after a video of her “Power of Introverts” speech at a TED conference this year went viral.

“When psychologists look at who has been the most spectacularly creative over time, they almost always find people with serious streaks of introversion,” she said. “Like Albert Einstein or Steve Wozniak of Apple. Solitude is a crucial ingredient of creativity, and introverts crave solitude, and also tend to be very persistent. Einstein said, ‘It’s not that I am so smart, it’s that I stay with problems longer.’ “

Laney of “The Introvert Advantage” said introverts derive their energy from an internal world of ideas, feelings and impressions. If allowed to balance their energy with enough “down time,” they can use that perseverance to focus deeply, think independently and unleash their creativity.

Other benefits the authors tout:

Intelligence: Studies show a connection between introversion and giftedness.

Conscientousness: “If you give (introverted children) the chance to cheat on a game or a test, even if they think they can get away with it, they are more likely not to cheat,” Cain said. “If you tend to be more fearful when your parents are repremanding you, you internalize it more and seem to develop a strong conscience. And we actually know that extroverted adults lie more than introverted adults do.”

Sensitivity: “There is a classic experiment in psychology,” Cain said. “If you place a drop of lemon juice on the tongue of an introvert and an extrovert, the introvert will salivate more because introverts are more sensitive to stimulations of all kinds.”

Trustworthiness: “I know a lot of parents who are panicked that their son is a teenage introvert,” said Laney. “Introverts are late bloomers, but they also are much more rewarding in the end. They tend to stay in relationships with their families, and they tend not to act out. They grow up being people who contribute a lot to society.”

Expert specialization: While extroverts tend to know a little about a lot of things, Laney said, introverts concentrate deeply on only a few areas that interest them.

Leadership: “In my book I profiled some of the great transformative leaders of the 20th century, including Rosa Parks, Eleanor Roosevelt and Gandhi, all three of whom are described as quiet and shy,” Cain said. “The psychologist Adam Grant at the Wharton School of Business did a study and found that introverted leaders often delivered better outcomes than extroverts do.”

Sure, some introverts are who you’d expect them to be — bookkeepers, accountants, engineers, computer experts.

Others are not so obvious. Cain says President Barack Obama is an introvert. So was Johnny Carson.

Wouldn’t they be too shy?

Remember, Cain said, there’s a difference between shyness and introversion.

“Shyness is about the fear of social judgment,” Cain said. “Introverts might not have that fear at all.”

In fact, many entertainers are introverted, including Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks and Steve Martin. They can play a role for their jobs — even a wild and crazy one. They just prefer environments that are not over-stimulating, and they draw energy from quiet time and reflection.

Of course, some people may be “ambiverts,” Cain said, people who are equally introverted and extroverted.

No matter which personality trait a person has, she said, it is important to note that one is not better than the other.

“When we talk about all these advantages of introversion, that doesn’t mean that there are not advantages to extroversion,” Cain said. “I call for a world of yin and yang where both sides are working together to complement each other’s strengths. Right now we have a chauvinism of personality, where we appreciate extroverted traits more than introverted ones. I’m just looking for some balance.”

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