How to Be an Introvert in the Communications World

Or, learning to be loud about being quiet

If you’ve been on the Internet at all the past few years, you’re no doubt familiar with the onslaught of ~Introvert Awareness~ content that has spiraled into virality. So much of that content, honestly, is total BS.

Introverts, by definition, are individuals who “recharge” by spending time alone. That’s it. They aren’t necessarily socially awkward, misanthropic bookworms, or special snowflakes who get it in a way their loud, brash, overbearing extrovert counterparts could never dream of.

There is a neurological basis to introversion and extroversion — in essence, an “introverted” brain is one that is more sensitive to external stimuli. Too much going on can leave introverts feeling drained and needing to recharge. Often, they work best in quiet cubicles, separated from the din of office life. They prefer one-on-one conversation to group settings. They tend to get lost in their own thoughts; they can be daydreamers. They are not always shy, unconfident or socially anxious — many introverts fill the roles of “life of the party,” “class clown,” “the friend with all the best stories.” Introversion is not a social disorder, it’s simply a different way of interacting with the world.

It’s a shame that so much of the current discourse on introversion is so off-putting, because the more we as people and as workers can become attuned to the different styles of being, the better off we’ll all be.

Guess now’s a time as good as any to “come out”: I am a textbook introvert. I like people, enjoy parties, like giving presentations and know how to schmooze when needed, but when the workday is over, I can’t get home fast enough. I’m always thrilled to spend the night in with a book, some takeout and my cat. Also, episodes of The Bachelorette and Dancing with the Stars. #onlygodcanjudgeme

Growing up, it was drilled into my being that the way I was by default was wrong. “Why are you so quiet?” people would ask, as though asking why I had an arm growing out of my face. “You need to start speaking up,” my teachers would chide.

I feel the need to note that I wasn’t a mute by any stretch. I raised my hand, answered questions, made jokes and loved taking the lead in group projects. I had friends over after school and even started my own playground business, selling mini-bookbags made out of paper towels and glue. But at the end of the day, my proclivity to choose books over buddies apparently signified impaired social development, leaving me with a big ol’ chip on my shoulder and the heavy realization that if I wanted to get ahead, I had to start acting differently.

Even though I felt like a phony, I started gossiping loudly and saying yes to every social activity that crossed my path. In middle school, a teacher sent home a note that I had been talking too much during a project, and I showed that note to my parents with a sick and twisted sense of pride. I had fun being a social butterfly, but that center could not hold — I grew tired of having to fake a boundless energy I just didn’t have — and I eventually reverted to my introverted ways, and learned to feel comfortable and confident with my personality.

Being a writer, I fell into a blogging job out of college and over the next eight years found my way diving ever deeper into the world of marketing and communications. It’s an interesting world — sometimes it seems like there’s an even split between the bubbly, assertive socialistas who excel at their comms jobs (in PR in particular, thanks to their ability to build great relationships) and the sensitive introverts who are conscientious workers and kickass writers but don’t need/enjoy tons of socializing. Both types have their strengths; both have their weaknesses. To expect one-size-fits-all workplace processes to bring the best out of both personality types is at old-school at best, and at worst, close-minded and internecine.

In the marcom world — hey, in the business world at large — it’s necessary for us to recognize that great minds come in different packages. A great leader is not always the loudest person in the room; the person who talks the most doesn’t always have the best ideas. This may sound silly — nobody actually thinks that, Briana! — but studies show time and again that outspoken contributors are perceived as more competent than their quieter peers, even if the opposite is actually the case. Real talk: even being hyper-attuned to this kind of thing, I still occasionally catch myself putting talkative individuals on a pedestal for no other reason than…they talk a lot — oftentimes regardless of things like confidence, charisma, or even content of their speech. This kind of association is ingrained in American culture, and it’s going to take a lot of work and effort to change that.

So in the meantime, how do we introverts find a way to thrive in a culture that exalts the extroverted ideal? I’m no Susan Cain, but I’ve got a few ideas:

First of all: learn to advocate for yourself. Find out how you work best and don’t be ashamed of it. If you relish working alone but have an open-plan office, try getting in to work an hour earlier than everyone else in order to start your day feeling refreshed and collected. If you’re asked a question in a meeting and your mind goes blank, just say, confidently, “I want to be able to process this more before I give you an answer. Can I think on this a little, then regroup with you later?” Better yet, to avoid this occasionally awkward response, come over-prepared to meetings. Write down questions, ideas and suggestions in advance. Then, once you’re in the meeting, actively listen: take notes, nod, ask questions. Recognize that even if you’re listening intently, staring off into space without engaging in conversation can translate as boredom or lack of interest. While advocating for yourself, though, be careful not to use introversion as a crutch, an excuse not to improve your presentation skills, office friendships or client interactions. You’re amazing the way you are, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t always be trying to improve.

Of course, while introverts need to routinely step outside of their comfort zones and work to better themselves, I’d be remiss if anyone’s key takeaway here (business jargon — you can’t escape it) is that introverts are wrong and need to fundamentally change. That’s the message we’ve received our whole lives, and y’all? That’s not the case.

What I am encouraging is for leaders and workers alike to recognize that leadership potential, smarts and creativity don’t always look like we’ve been accustomed to believe they do. Instead of writing off the quiet person in the meeting as uninterested or lazy, consider that they might just be processing everything going on around them. (I mean, yeah, they might honestly be uninterested or lazy, but that’s not always a fair assumption to make.) Don’t put too much pressure on people to speak up — putting an introvert on the spot will only contribute to the overstimulation that’s going on in their minds. To get the best ideas out of introverts, have organized, small group meetings instead of rowdy brainstorms. When in doubt, flat out ask your colleagues what style of working they feel most comfortable and productive with. Recognize that there are different ways to learn and contribute and yes, even to lead.

And most importantly: learn to really, honestly listen. Having an open mind means being able to realize that the systems you know and love and are familiar with, may need to change. It might be tough to start changing the style you communicate with, but somewhere in between the “Everyone works in cubicles and gChats all day long” introvert extreme and the “Let’s have group meetings and brainstorm out loud forever” extrovert ideal, there’s a happy medium where everyone involved can feel productive and confident. Let’s never stop working toward finding that balance.

Post originally appeared on LaunchBlog, the blog of LaunchSquad, a communications firm that, in this writer’s humble opinion, does a bang-up job of creating an introvert- and extrovert-friendly culture.