Introverts Are People People Too

Even though it’s often joked about, the world doesn’t really see introverts as people haters.

But there’s a fairly widespread, frequently unspoken belief out there that we introverts are merely tolerant of or, at best, indifferent toward or uncomfortable around other people — that while we don’t actively and vocally dislike being around others, we don’t necessarily enjoy it either; we simply put up with it.

Basically, the prevailing thought goes, we introverts are just not people people.

It’s not true. It’s frustrating to have to say it, but it’s simply not true.

I so enjoy talking to other people — but not in a noisy party or reception environment amidst dozens of other people battling for the same airspace, over blaring music no less. Let’s find somewhere a little quieter so we can chat one on one, perhaps over a cup of coffee or a glass of wine. I really want to hear and understand what you have to say. It’s important. You’re important. I am too, for that matter. We both deserve to be truly heard.

I so enjoy talking to other people — but not about the weather or the football game on TV. Let’s get into a deeper, more thought-provoking subject. You’ll have both my attention and my appreciation as we exchange observations and ideas about a topic that really matters. We’ll probably both learn something in the process. Even better.

I so enjoy talking to other people — but not for hours on end, nonstop. Let’s take a teeny tiny break once in a while to catch our respective breaths for just a few minutes, then get back together to continue the conversation. You’ll be refreshed. I’ll be refreshed. And our discussion will get a jolt of new energy because we’ve had a chance to reflect and recharge.

I like being with people. I’m a people person; I really am. Introverts are people people too.

It’s the way we like being with other people that is so significantly different from the typical extravert’s way of enjoying people. And it’s this difference in our preferences for interacting that is, sadly, apt to be misconstrued for the sinister something it is not.

You Don’t Need to Be Talking to Be Engaged

One day a few years ago, I drove 40 miles east to my hometown of Detroit Lakes, Minnesota, to participate in the care conference for my 79-year-old mom, who lived in the memory care unit of a nursing home there. (She has since died of Alzheimer’s disease.) I brought with me a copy of my new book, The Introvert Manifesto, to show her and my dad, who was also on hand for Mom’s periodic health update.

The book ended up tagging along to our meeting with the nurse and the social worker who were most involved in my mom’s day-to-day life at the facility. The social worker, Barb — who had always struck me as an introvert to begin with — took one look at the book, picked it up, and started reading.

She opened up to page 24, where she was immediately drawn to a piece entitled “Just Because I’m Not Talking Doesn’t Mean I’m Not Engaged.” As she sat there reading, she nodded and said “yes, yes.” Then she shared with me that she had struggled to articulate this very concept to the other people in her life, especially professionally — and that she was even concerned she might be perceived as disengaged for her upcoming election run for the Detroit Lakes City Council.

“I’ll listen for a long time before I say anything,” Barb stressed. “But that doesn’t mean I’m not participating. And it doesn’t mean I have nothing to say.”

I couldn’t have put it any better myself.

And yet, too often, engagement is equated solely with talking. Not talking is seen as not caring. Which is ironic, because I can’t think of a better way to demonstrate caring than to listen to someone else. Quietly.

This same dilemma resurfaced for me when I ran into Bruce Macfarlane’s thought-provoking Times Higher Education (United Kingdom) article entitled “No Place for Introverts in the Academy?” There he wrote, in the context of the college/university classroom:

“[T]here is no place in the new regime of student engagement for shy students who might participate in less obvious ways through active listening, making eye contact, taking good notes and even, dare I say, thinking. … Yet … listening and reflective introspection need to be understood as legitimate forms of class participation. Silence is just as likely as talking to indicate an engagement with the ideas of others.”

You can challenge Bruce on his use of the term “shy” as a synonym for “introverted,” but his argument is solid. In fact, he and Barb might as well change places. For they are thinking the exact same thing about engagement — an ocean apart, in completely different work environments. And they are most certainly not alone in their frustration.

The typical introvert is going to listen more than he/she talks, especially in settings like work meetings or classroom discussions. The typical introvert is going to take in the information, analyze it carefully, synthesize it in silence, and then — then — perhaps make a comment or offer some feedback or new insight.

That’s not disengagement. It’s the ultimate in true engagement. It just looks and feels a little different from the typical extravert’s idea of engagement.

As an introvert, you might not say much during a conversation or a presentation, at least not right away. But it’s not because you don’t care.

It’s because you do.