Most people, after they have seen me speaking on a stage and interacting with people afterward, find it difficult to digest that the reason I want to crawl into an empty room and spend the next twenty-four hours on my own is not because I am physically tired, but because I am an introvert and am done with people for a while.
“You didn’t sound like an introvert.”
Well, I am. I am an introvert. I am not shy. I am not unopinionated. I, sure as hell, am not uninformed. I don’t lack confidence. But I am an introvert. I am very comfortable in public speaking. One-on-one conversations make my palms sweaty, and the prospect of initiating a small talk makes me faint. I hate phone calls. Please send me a message instead.
Growing up in a society that didn’t care for such psychological subtleties, I was branded shy as a child. Looking back, it was not shyness, just the discomfort with small talk that dominated most of the day-to-day conversations. And that still does! Half-jokingly (the joke was strictly half only, I think), I was also labeled a misanthrope from time to time by my super-social extended family.
Life outside the home, starting with hostel-life as a 10-year-old, could be a challenge initially, but ultimately I wasn’t shy. I was an introvert. Meaning, I can deal with, hey actually get comfortable with and have a meaningful relationship with, people I am familiar with. A close, known group. Of hostel-mates, batch-mates, and later co-workers. It just takes some time to reach there with every new group. That means that the first impression I give, and the lasting impression I leave, can be very different. Former can be shy and docile or aloof, the latter can be difficult or cool – depending on how things turned out between us.
When I didn’t understand introversion, I lived with a slightly odd notion about myself for a long time that “I was shy at home, but not so outside.” Because the “shy period” was usually limited in any new environment after which I found my people! The discomfort with salespeople in shops or elsewhere and some other day-to-day manifestations of introversion were not noticed or ascribed to personality quirks. (And my family always wondered at the public speaking skills of this shy child!)
But then, at some point of time, I understood the idea of introversion and extraversion. And also, the difference between shyness and introversion. Since then I have lived comfortably with the “introvert” label and used it to make sense of my behavior for myself.
And while I was aware that my introversion created problems in certain situations (networking events, my God! And I never aspired for a sales or business development job!), I hadn’t realized until recently that it is considered an active handicap in the western professional world, and hence now in Indian one too. The number of articles on the Internet trying to boost the confidence of introverts, giving them public speaking tips, and generally telling them how to be more like extroverts is astounding, baffling, and to be honest, a bit offending.
And then there is Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts… I haven’t read the book, but the fact that such a book exists, and it has taken the world by storm… Dear God! I didn’t know I was living in such an uninformed world.
But yeah – this one I was woefully uninformed on. It wasn’t just the members of my extended family who misunderstood introversion. Far too many people all around the world have a similar misunderstanding, so much so that introverts seem to need an Internet-wide defense!
In case someone needing a lesson (or needing to identify themselves as a perfectly normal introvert) lands here, here are a few things about me as an introvert.
- Yes, I am comfortable in public speaking. I am not shy. I don’t lack confidence. I am not unopinionated. (Some introverts, and extroverts for that matter, can be one or more of these things. But simply being an introvert isn’t equivalent to any of these.) Since I don’t have any of these issues, there is nothing that stops me from being comfortable in public speaking. Not only comfortable, I am even good at public speaking, part of which is about using some advantages introversion brings to me (about that, see a later point), and part of which is just preparation, technique and some natural flair.
- Every instance of talking as an introvert involves first asking a question – why does the other person need to hear this? There has to be a good reason. And dear God! Is that reason difficult to find? Small talk never passes the test. Public speaking is fine because the very arrangement that has resulted in the assignment has answered the question. So, are the conversations with a clear, pre-set agenda (the small talk before we come to the agenda? oof!). One-on-one conversations with the audience after public speaking is also fine. Because presumably they know who I am and they initiate the conversation (so they have a reason to hear what I say in reply), and the conversation would typically be related to what I spoke on (so the agenda is sorted).
- Despite the difficulties I have in socialization, I don’t have a problem in understanding people. As an introvert, I am perfectly comfortable not being the talker in a group; I may indeed prefer not having to talk (see the previous point); I listen, and more importantly, I observe. So, I understand people. I understand them more than most gregarious people who won’t stop to listen and observe. It’s the reluctance to talk without a good reason that makes me appear unsocial. Not the inability to understand.
- For people who are in need of being understood, I can be a great comfort. If I were a more shrewd person, I would be able to use this understanding to my immense benefit. But since I am not that, the usefulness of this understanding is limited. And sometimes it even becomes debilitating. I can sense disinterest very quickly, and very acutely. Makes me a very bad salesperson. At other times, since I understand a person very well, it becomes too difficult to keep the pretenses up in a conversation that depends on my not understanding them. Do you know what I mean? Makes for a very difficult social (and sometimes professional!) situation.
- Coming back to public speaking, this understanding helps me be a good public speaker. I can think from the point of view of my audience. If my point of being on stage is to tell them what they want to know and hear, it is straightforward. But even if I am on the stage to tell them what I want them to know, I would be able to do everything possible to make it about them! As an introvert, it is easy (natural!) for me not to be consumed by my agenda, but to remain focussed on my audience. Yes – that’s my introversion benefit.
- If I come across as someone whom you would like to prove wrong but aren’t able to, it isn’t because I pretend to know everything. It is usually because I keep my mouth shut on things I don’t know or understand. As mentioned several times earlier, as an introvert, I don’t have a compulsive need to talk. I am happy to remain quiet. So, when I don’t know things, I am perfectly fine listening to other people on such matters rather than giving cooked-on opinions. In a new and unfamiliar environment, I may not open my mouth even on things I know about. Same will be the case where it is likely to result in fierce arguments that I have no interest in winning or energy for continuing. I don’t derive much satisfaction from winning an argument. I will get into an argument, only if winning it is really needed for some other end important to me.
Finally, as an introvert, it is very difficult to talk so much about myself. 😂 It is only online or on social media that I can do that. Because if the other person doesn’t want to know this, they can totally ignore it. So – that question is sorted.