Why I can't keep quiet about being an introvert

Jo-ann Fortune

Head of Content

Being an introvert

Nothing has been more instrumental in my growth from painfully self-conscious to powerfully self-aware as learning I’m an introvert.

That on a physiological level I need more quiet time and space to be at my best, than people who take their energy from social stimulation.

So fundamental is this to who and how I am, that I mention it — often.

In fact, since working from home gave us introverts an unexpected time to shine, I really can’t shut up about being quiet. Because right now we have a unique opening to redress the balance of power and profile that favours the loud.

Quiet beginnings

I’ve always been one of the quieter ones in social situations — stamped with “shy” or “standoffish” beside louder friends. I prefer one-on-one relationships over big groups and am quite happy in my own company.

What may appear calm and still on the surface, though, masks a complex, noisy internal world. It blew my mind to learn that some people don’t have an inner voice, as mine never stops talking.

This interior chat is better channeled through considered writing, *waves*. In study I’d take coursework over exams any day. Often accelerating into anxiety so early in an assignment that I’d be fiddling with finishing touches when most were just starting.

If you can recognise yourself in much of this, I’m willing to bet open-plan offices in large organisations aren’t your spiritual home. But from a start in journalism, I brought my quiet determination to a large digital agency that was exactly that.

Open-plan anxieties

The early performance feedback was familiar — I wasn’t forthcoming with contributing ideas in group sessions. I needed to be more vocal, more visible, more confident. Then the less-constructive, observational notes that I had no idea what to do with — that I “seem distant, but am surprisingly gregarious” and have a “quiet sense of humour”.

As the responsibilities and demands on my time grew, I’d hide in empty meeting rooms to focus. Exhaust myself working on tasks that others made look easy. Spend days preparing for meetings, give it my all, then come away totally drained.

The “justs” that flew around didn’t feel like minor, simple asks to me. Why did I find it so difficult to “just jump in” or “just jump on”?

Over the years this contributed to bouts of stress and anxiety. But I’m ambitious and good at my job, so I learnt skills and strategies that helped make myself heard, set boundaries and progress to a leadership role. It probably took longer than for those who are excited by networking, fame and job-hops.

It was only when I devoured Susan Cain’s book Quiet that I realised these struggles weren’t failures of my personality or professionalism. They were issues of physiology and sociology.

Reactivity and rewards

Most psychologists seem to agree that introverts and extroverts react differently to stimulus. Us internal types don’t need as much of it to function well. We recharge in solitude. Whereas extroverts need to socialise to feel their best.

A longitudinal study by psychologist Jerome Kagan has shown that introverts are highly reactive to novelty. Our amygdala — an organ that Cain describes as the “emotional switchboard, receiving information from the senses and then signaling the rest of the brain and nervous system how to respond” — is especially excitable.

There’s also a theory that extroverts are more responsive to dopamine, the ‘reward chemical’ released in anticipation of pleasure, and so are more motivated by buzz. They’re more likely to jump into new situations with zest and work quickly. To think out loud and on their feet. And in a culture that values personality, speed and selling, those behaviours are often placed on a pedestal.

But quieter people have qualities we need in labour (and life) too. I strongly believe that being an introvert has shaped some of mine, to help me:

  • Build and nurture loyal relationships.

  • Maintain deep concentration under my own steam — working not for rewards, but for the gratification of being in the flow and of a job well done.

  • Talk passionately on subjects I feel confident and care about — and though it may not be my favourite, in public too. Providing I have time to prepare, then decompress.

  • Think deeply to solve problems and before I commit. I can spot and mitigate risks a mile off and you can be confident that if I’m contributing something, it’s considered.

  • Work well with different personalities, by taking time to consider how we can best collaborate.

The freedom to flow

The pandemic highlighted vast flaws in a system of labour that often fails to recognise these nuances of physiology. That expects everyone to work in the same way, in the same environment.

It gave introverts a ‘moment’, that needn’t now be bound to a period in time.

Despite the immense stress of juggling work with two young kids on my sensitive amygdala, I hit a new stride at home that’s continued to reap rewards since lockdowns lifted.

With all of this alone time to consider, prepare and reflect, I was more effective — in both strategy and communication. Virtual meetings offered an easier way to connect one-to-one, with fewer distractions, and I built deeper relationships with my colleagues.

Settling into a secure flow wasn’t such a battle. And all the energy no longer sapped by commuting, moving between spaces, office bustle, music and strip-light stimulation, I could plough into my work.

During this time we also began using an ‘Elements’ framework at my company to understand different personality styles. While little surprise to learn I’m a deep-thinking Air, with a second of let’s-get-this-done Earth, it’s been incredibly useful to talk openly about what this means. It also gave me guides to help communicate with novelty-driven Fire and relationship-led Water.

Make and hold space for introverts

Now how and where we work is still up in the air for many, we have a unique opportunity to rethink how we create empathetic systems that empower people to be their best. It starts in conversation; be that virtual, IRL, written or spoken. So long as everyone is heard.

I’ll also continue to wear my introvert badge with pride around friends, so they don’t take it personally when I retreat into solitude after a social splurge. And spark up the subject with my kids and mentees.

I’m here to be loud about being quiet — so the next generation of leaders can spot, nurture and hold space for the subtle superpowers of introverts too.

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