Can Introverts Thrive in A Pompous, Prahasanam-ish World?

  • When an unknown number calls, do you freak out, wait for the call to end and then check the number on Truecaller before deciding what to do?
  • When you have to make a call to the client, do you rehearse the lines three times in your head?
  • When you see that an item has been overpriced, do you refrain from bargaining just so an exhausting dispute can be avoided?
  • Do you wear headphones, just so that random people do not approach you with questions or small talk?

If your answer to most of the questions above is a “Yes”, there’s a high probability that you, my friend, are an introvert.

Decoding ‘Introverts’

Introverts, extroverts, ambiverts – We hear these terminologies being thrown around so casually in common parlance, that the meanings they hold for people have got muddled up. So let’s go with an agreed-upon definition.

By nature, people are arousing. They arouse, in each other, feelings of thrill, love, fear, anxiety and so on. Introverts are people who are averse to this stimulation, and hence stay away from socialising with other people.

Conversely, extroverts are people who tend to actively seek this stimulation. Ambiverts are people who are smack in the middle of this spectrum. They may flip to either side depending on the mood of the day, and alternately derive happiness from both these lifestyles.

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People use the words introversion and shyness interchangeably, but they are essentially different traits. You can be a shy extrovert (someone who craves for social arousal but doesn’t have the confidence to indulge in it) or a confident introvert (someone who knows how to deal with a social gathering but prefers not to). Anyway, the bottom line is that introverts choose not to have a flamboyant social life. Similarly, if you love the idea of chilling with a crowd, you’re most likely an extrovert (else, you are the coronavirus).

The Cultural Shift 

Over the last century, there has been a marked shift in the way we perceive people: from a culture of character to a culture of personality. Pop culture has mostly echoed this “extrovert ideal”, emphasising the importance of being outgoing and sociable. What this has led to, is an unrealistic benchmark for likeability that all people – irrespective of their nature – are subjected to. 

This cultural shift is real, and it has implications in our personal lives. People generally prefer their partners to be outspoken. A lot of them take it as a personal attack when their introverted partners ask for personal space. People feel bad when their friends or partners ask if they can leave a party early, or prefer a night-in to a night-out. 

Even more pronounced perhaps, is its effect in the professional sphere. In a job interview, if the recruiters have to choose between two equally skilled people – a restrained person and an outgoing person – they tend to go with the outspoken one. 

This ideal is knowingly or unknowingly imparted to children from various quarters. They go to school, and are often forced to put themselves out there. (Remember how it was mandatory to participate in the assembly when it was your class’ turn? It helped in personality development, they said. We’ll get back to this later.) Anyway, these kids come back home, switch on their televisions, and are subjected to celebrated “mass heroes” spouting lengthy, high-decibel dialogues and essentially being the life of the party. Children start thinking: maybe this is the only way to be loved and successful in this world.

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It’s 2021, and high time to chuck the extrovert ideal out of the window. So let’s bust some myths, shall we? 

“Professional Success”

From the looks of it, yes, extroverts seem to have a fair advantage on this front. They’re more likely to ask for the big projects, the promotions and the hikes. 

But the definition of success doesn’t include power and optics alone. There’s another important component: performance. A 10-year study called the CEO Genome Project reported that while boards tended to prefer extrovert leaders in a pack, it was the introverted leaders who were more likely to surpass the expectations of the board and investors. Another study by the National Bureau of Economic Research showed that CEOs who scored highly in extroversion ran companies with a 2% lower ROA than the average. Meanwhile, introverted CEOs ran companies that outperformed their peers. 

Some of the greatest modern-day visionaries –  from Mahatma Gandhi to Steve Wozniak to Elon Musk – have essentially been introverts. Their style of leadership, which tends to impose less and rather encourages proactive work from people, has borne fruits as big as, if not bigger than, those borne by extrovert leaders. 

“Personality Development”

Personality development seems to have become synonymous with “how to be an extrovert”. But an introvert can have a great personality too. Personality development is about building your capacities and talent, enhancing new skill sets, working on your weaknesses, and transforming them into strengths. And no, introversion is not a “weakness”.

A friend of mine peed his pants while hesitantly reading the pledge during a first-grade assembly. During middle school, he spent most of his time away from the rest of us in class, solving puzzles and making doodles. He got decent marks in high school, and eventually found his passion in design. Today he works as a budding design engineer at a leading automotive company and I don’t think all that first-grade peeing (pun intended) contributed to his success. If anything, it was his introverted nature – and the space he gave himself owing to it – that helped him. So I’d like to believe that personality development happens not when people are fitted into the extrovert mould, but when they get opportunities to hone their innate strengths.

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Random side-thought: I’ve often wondered why Big B became such a cult hit over time. And writing this article got me thinking; technical brilliance apart, Big B was the rare film which gave us, for once, a rather quiet, cerebral mass hero. Bilal spoke less, kept a low profile, and went all guns blazing only when it was absolutely necessary. Maybe I related to this reserved nature more than I related to the unabashedness of someone like Bellary Raja.

The Way Forward

The world needs both introverts and extroverts. Susan Cain, in her book Quiet, talks about how the biggest cultural Revolution in the United States, happened because a timid lady refused to get up from a bus seat, following which an outgoing young man took to the streets and protested with millions. No prizes for guessing who these two people are: Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr

If the gap between introverts and extroverts needs to be bridged, there first needs to be an acceptance of the fact that both these traits have their own strengths. The first step to this is having a reliable grading system for introversion. When everyone carries with them an introversion score, the metric could then be used by managers and spouses as a tool to better interact with their employees and partners (respectively). For example, if there is a client proposal in the works, a manager can delegate the research and strategic work to the introverted members, while letting the more outgoing members take care of the actual pitch. By better understanding introverts, we’re not only building a more inclusive world, but also a more productive one. 

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Having said that, oru palam ennu paranjal angottum ingottum avanam ennaanallo. Introverts should also learn to overcome their inertia to stimulation. Them not speaking up can have even disastrous consequences – for them as well as for others. In Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, he talks about a flying mishap where a Korean co-pilot saw the possibility of the impending crash but hesitated to report it to his senior owing to a high power distance culture. So while it’s absolutely fair for introverts to expect their space, it’s also important for them to know that there will be times in life where they need to put themselves out there. It’s best to have a social armour in the arsenal – so when the situation demands, they can put it on and head out to fight that damned battle! 

P.S: Ending this with a vote of thanks to the folks behind WordPress, Instagram, Facebook, Reddit, Pinterest and Twitter. You guys have given many thinking introverts a platform to release their ideas without the strain of real-world interactions. Umma!

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Navaneethakrishnan Unnikrishnan
When I'm not working or sleeping, I'm mostly observing people and making notes on my phone for content. (Hope to be) Your go-to man for laughs, good music and useless trivia around movies.

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