Hush pt.1 - What Introverts Aren't

Our culture celebrates all things alpha; being the best means being the one in the limelight, the most popular, the most sociable. This culture runs through our schools, our businesses and our government. Our society promotes extrovert values so completely, that the very word 'introvert' carries associations of oddness.

Introverts are often judged to be 'weird' or shy by their extrovert classmates or colleagues, sometimes even by their friends, because of the widespread lack of awareness about what it means. And it's not just extroverts who don't get it; many introverts have painful experiences because they don't understand their own psychological preferences, believing that what they're feeling is somehow wrong.

Speaking as a staunch introvert myself, here's what I've learned about what it means to be quiet in a world that loves to talk:


1. SHY

This is perhaps the most common misapprehension. Some dictionaries still use the word 'shy' in their definition of 'introvert'.

“...shyness and introversion are completely different, they just look similar from the outside.”

Most introverts will have grown up with their parents trying to get them to 'come out of their shell'. I have many memories from my childhood (and adulthood, actually) of ending up in social situations I had no interest in, and feeling disapproved of for not being gregarious. But shyness and introversion are completely different, they just look similar from the outside.

A shy person feels anxious about being judged negatively in a social situation. This makes them clam up, becoming less willing to engage, even though they want to. An introvert doesn't feel anxious about social judgement (unless they also happen to be shy).

Instead, they focus more on their thoughts than on talking, taking time to process new information and form their own opinions.

See a shy extrovert and an introvert sat in a meeting and you'll see two people keeping quiet. But one of them will be comfortable with it and performing at their best by using the quiet approach.


This tends to be the go-to judgement of extroverts, starting in adolescence. At the time in our lives when other people's opinions of us are most important, an introvert's lack of desire to join in with social events and small talk often leads to them being branded as 'boring' or 'anti- social' (or much ruder things). 

“...assuming that introverts don’t enjoy socialising is overly simplistic.”

Their quieter nature can make them more difficult to get to know than a talkative extrovert who always lets you know exactly what he's thinking. But assuming that introverts don't enjoy socialising is overly simplistic.

As an introvert, I love to spend time with friends and family, all of whom I value hugely.

Introverts are still social creatures, and very few of us are hermits. While we often have fewer people we call friends, those relationships tend to be deeper. What we often find difficult is small talk, preferring instead to discuss ideas or events. This is why I choose to do so much of my socialising with my drama groups, as the shared project of putting on plays provides meaning to conversations. Likewise, I am social at work and enjoy the company of my colleagues. But the difference is that socialising tires me. 

Extroverts recharge their batteries by socialising. Introverts recharge their batteries by spending time alone.


I'd imagine that many introverts, as I did, spent much of their school life feeling that they were doing something wrong. Over the past few decades, lessons have become increasingly about group work and discussion, an approach that suits introverts very poorly. Introverts work better on tasks alone and don't benefit from the instant question-and-answer style of teaching that Ofsted so heartily recommends. I found myself constantly asked to contribute by teachers frustrated that I knew the answers but wouldn't share them. But answering questions in class didn't help my learning, it simply broke my concentration.

“Evidence from science suggests that business people must be insane to use brainstorming groups. If you have talented and motivated people, they should be encouraged to work alone when creativity or efficiency is the highest priority. (Adrian Furnham)”

Even today, business environments tend to emphasise meetings and 'let's sit in a room and come up with something' approaches, which cater solely for the needs of extroverts. Introverts like to think things through on their own and work out their own solution. But being branded as 'not a team player' is still the kiss of death to most career plans, and this narrow acceptance of personality types is stunting the huge creative potential of the introverted workforce. 


Again, while it's perfectly possible for an introvert to feel lonely, it's not related to the fact they're an introvert. An extrovert, seeing a person staying home in the evenings on their own, seeing them sit on their own in the work cafeteria, and might assume that they are lonely. But being alone doesn't make introverts feel lonely. In fact, that's what calms and refreshes us. I've felt lonely at a crowded party surrounded by people I don't really know making small talk, but never when I've been on my own. 


Being introvert or extroverted is no more a choice than being gay or straight, or being a man or a woman. It's a distinct personality type set in your DNA. There's a sliding scale, of course (and a section of 'ambiverts' in the middle), but fundamentally any person will either work better when thinking or when acting. Describing genetic traits as 'choice' is simply how people who don't understand assign blame for behaviour they don't approve of.


Now, let's look at what introverts are in part two.

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