Why we misjudge introverts and what we can do about it

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Popular American business culture says that the more someone “participates” by talking aloud during a meeting or networking event, the more “active,” “friendly” and “supportive” they are.

This (erroneous) definition ignores the fact that many quiet, introverted people are also “active,” “friendly” and “supportive,” just in a different way.

In this interview with Barbara Saunders, a “formerly shy introvert,” we discuss:

  1. What is the correct definition of an introvert?
  2. What are common misconceptions people make about introverts and why?
  3. How can you tell if you or someone in your life is an introvert?
  4. How can we design our training, meetings and events to be introvert-friendly, and maximize their contribution in a way that respects their style

Download the mp3 here:


Listen here:

Find Barbara at http://www.barbararuthsaunders.com or on Twitter @bsaunders

Some books we discussed on the call:

Gifts Differing by Isabel Briggs Meyers http://www.amazon.com/Gifts-Differing-Understanding-Personality-Type/dp/089106074X

Party of One: The Loners’ Manifesto by Anneli Rufus http://www.amazon.com/Party-One-The-Loners-Manifesto/dp/1569245134

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain http://www.amazon.com/Quiet-Power-Introverts-World-Talking/dp/0307352145

Susan Cain’s TED Talk: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c0KYU2j0TM4

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23 Responses to “Why we misjudge introverts and what we can do about it”

  1. Amanda says:

    One question and a couple of comments that I have- I know I am an introvert. I understand how to accommodate that for myself in nearly every situation (I akin to it being like a vegetarian. No matter what the situation, you can usually make your way through so you don’t go hungry.) I genuinely feel appreciation that the conversation is happening, but I don’t see it as something that unusual. Just leave space and create multiple channels for engagement is usually enough for most people in most situations. It’s just like a chef building a menu: create something of value for everyone to choose from. My question is how can you educate others in a way that doesn’t seem like this is a handicap? My manager and company that I work for place an enormous amount of value on strengths of an extrovert typically has. I am engaged and effective in my professional life, but I routinely get ‘docked’ for not speaking up as much as others in meetings (or petering out) or remove myself (or limit) from more social activities. I know there are others in the company who are also in similar situations, but it’s not something that is talked about or emphasized as being okay (and actually, is considered to be very much the opposite). I’m hoping more conversations like this in media and in the culture continue to happen so that we can take the value judgement out, but in the meantime, how do I make sure I am able to educate, particularly others who are my superiors in the company, without feeling like I am using this as a cop-out?

  2. Katie says:

    Loved this so much! I am an introvert, though I didn’t always know it. Like Barbara, I was shy as a little kid, and assumed my introverted qualities were attributed to shyness as I got older. It was only after taking personality tests over the years and realizing I no longer had fear/anxiety of people, that I realized what an introvert I was. So it was reassuring to hear someone else with the same experience. 🙂

    Barbara, I have to say you nailed it! Everything you said in the interview was right on. Thank you for being a voice for so many who are judged and misunderstood in their daily lives.

  3. Doris says:

    Excellent recording, Pam – great job in being committed to becoming more aware of other people’s styles! 🙂

    Some more thoughts:
    – everyone can do and be and behave using both sides of the attitude, we simply inherently prefer one of them.

    – Extraversion and Introversion describe not only the source of energy for a person, but the flow – where does the energy go first? When presented with an object in the outside world, the person with Extraversion preferences will instinctively prefer to go outside and engage with the object. The person with Introversion preferences will instinctively prefer to go inside and reflect upon it.

    – the USA is a rather Extraverted culture, which may be contributing to why many individuals with introverted preferences mis-type and think they have extraversion preferences – because that’s what you grow up learning how to be. Children growing up in Finland with Extraversion preferences are likely to be more adept at reflecting and thinking before speaking out, for example.

    – re: sales – absolutely agree! That’s why any personality type tool should never be used as a recruitment or team-building tool: just because you have the preference doesn’t indicate the skill. Everyone can do every job, it may just require more energy to learn the skills for one type compared to another. Having awareness of your personality type preferences is then a great basis for personal and professional development.

    – re: ambiverts: Type tools like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator(r) don’t measure amounts of, or traits like e.g. DISC or 5 factor models do. Type tools sort between two options, hence there isn’t “a lot” or “a little” of a preference. Think of it like living in a country: even if you live near the border (have “slight” E or I preferences), you’re still a national of that country (closer to that attitude than the opposite).

    Thank you so much Barbara for having the conversation and sharing your wisdom, I appreciate it very much. 🙂

  4. Jeff Yin says:

    Wow, thanks for the fascinating discussion! I’m an introvert, so this is a topic that I think about sometimes, but I’ve never done any real research into it.

    I’ve been to a number of conferences and meetings lately, and the ideas you presented help to explain how I navigate those sorts of events. People who know me (because it’s pretty easy to tell I’m an introvert) are a bit surprised to hear about how much networking I do at these events. The thing is, I have no problem going up and introducing myself to someone who is by themselves. If they really don’t want to talk, I’m confident that I can figure that out and politely move on, but usually people are happy to engage. So, I tend to have a string of in-depth, one-on-one conversations at conferences. On the other hand, I almost never approach groups of people. It seems like too much work to figure out when the right time is to speak up in front of the group.

    Actually, at conference sessions, I am much better at getting in line to ask a question at a microphone than I am at participating in a free-flowing discussion when people are just calling out from their seats. So, maybe setting up situations like lining up at the microphone, where introverts can signal their desire to talk and know when it’s their turn to speak, would help us to participate more?

    BTW, Barbara, good to meet you in the Brazen Careerist comments section the other day. Your name sounded familiar when I saw Pam’s email about this interview, and I’m glad I came and checked it out!

    • Hi, Jeff! Good to meet you, too.

      Another way I’ve met people at conferences – tweeting and following the tweets of others. “I’ve been enjoying your tweets this morning,” is a great, introvert-friendly icebreaker.

      • Jeff Yin says:

        Thanks…that’s a good idea! I agree that Twitter is an introvert-friendly place, although I am just starting to become more active there.

  5. For the serious geeks out there: http://samsnyder.com/2012/04/17/the-neuroscience-of-extraversion-and-introversion/

    This blog post has a link to numerous articles about the neuroanatomy and neurochemistry of extroversion and introversion. Most are based on the Five Factors personality typing model.

  6. Hello, all. I’m glad you enjoyed the talk. There’s one thing we didn’t cover that I think is important to mention. There’s another category out there, the “highly sensitive person.” Some of the traits and behaviors overlap with those of introverts. The main text on this is Elaine Aron’s “Highly Sensitive Person.” The book’s Web site is at http://www.hsperson.com/index.html

  7. Hey Pam and Barbara, great discussion and thanks a lot for sharing!
    I resonate with the misconceptions mentioned in the audio.

    Andy – I agree with your “multiverts” terms. I can be extremely introverted and extroverted at different situations. In a way, I feel introverted/extroverted is losing the distinction gradually, just like a well balanced man/woman can be both masculine and feminine 🙂

    As Pam pointed out, the key is to understand our audience and make sure they feel supported and understood, and safe to open up. Want to share a tip here:
    I am quite an alchemist – I normally start with talking about what I geniuely love, in a passionate and authentic way – this will raise the vibration in the group and gradually people start to talk about what they really love – and that’s when sharing and participating begin.

    • Hi, Yiye, I have a question. Since so many people resonate with the multivert idea, I want to understand better. Test my own prejudgments!

      At the times when you are being “extremely extroverted,” do you leave the situation feeling revved up or tired out? Ditto “extremely introverted”: if you spend a very extended period of time (whatever that might mean for you,) do you feel energized or do you feel like you need to go out and engage with folks to wake up a bit?

      I’m not arguing that multi-verts are impossible! (Who knows?) 🙂 The idea is not merely a tweak; it’s a major break from the foundation of the theory. For what it’s worth, neither extroverts nor introverts are “imbalanced” within the type construct. Balance seems to bring us back to the dangerous territory where some people are not OK and need to change.

  8. I believe that my daughter is an introvert. Parties exhaust her. Yet she is a leader. A quiet leader. Being her mother has puzzled me because I am a HUGE extrovert. It is so helpful to hear about being an introvert from the inside. Understanding what it feels like to be an introvert allows me to be a better mother because I can help her feed herself rather than trying to “help” her “overcome” her shyness.

    Love this.

    • Susan says:

      That’s definitely interesting, and is a good example that shows that leadership takes more than extroversion. People think that those who speak up all the time are making the most significant contributions, and that may not be the case all the time.

  9. faisal says:

    That is why all talk and no show can make you reach a good position, atleast so in the corporate world.

  10. Sveta says:

    Can you please provide transcripts for audio? Not everyone can access audio. Thanks!

  11. Andy Pels says:

    I don’t like to admit that I am way off about something that I thought I understood correctly, but I was one of those who misunderstood the term “introvert”. Luckily, I was quickly straightened out when I saw Barbara’s and others comments on the Facebook status you mentioned. This was very interesting to hear more about.
    Among the other things I took away is the necessity to be cautious about labeling others or ourselves. Yes, it is crucial to understand that different person types exist, and we can have more productive interactions when we keep that in mind. But just the fact that labels can be misunderstood or misinterpreted (as I think this one often is) can can lead us in the wrong direction when we rely too heavily on applying the labels to specific people, and assuming that they carry over from day to day or situation to situation. Let us not forget about about the multiverts. Omniverts? 🙂
    Anyway – thanks for the education!

    • Hi,

      First, I agree with your essential point: labels are inherently limited in their usefulness, and people are not labels.

      At the same time, though, I think the multi-vert concept undermines the most helpful aspect of making the distinction. In my opinion, the fact that people’s behaviors can switch make it more important, rather than less, to understand that the labels point to something stable.

      It is the concept that I am ALWAYS an introvert that might help my partner understand that I LOVE parties but need to limit my time spent there. It is the concept that my partner is ALWAYS an extrovert that might help me understand that although my partner LOVES sitting quietly reading the Sunday paper, he also needs to get out to the pub and socialize for a couple of hours on Sunday.

      • Andy Pels says:

        I was being a bit silly when I proposed the term multivert, but was being genuine in my wondering whether there is a recognized in-between type of person. It turns out there is a term “ambiversion” to describe those who fall more in the middle of a continuum between extroversion and introversion.

        I think we agree on the major points – the neuroanatomy and neurochemistry of extroversion and introversion makes it even more important for all of us to remember to be empathetic. It is the wonderful complexity of the human brain that explains our individual preferences and tendencies, and simultaneously makes our feelings and behavior more intricate than can be plotted on the extremes of a two dimensional line. I don’t see how recognizing the variability undermines the helpfulness of the concepts.

        I really enjoyed your talk with Pam and want to learn more by questioning your reply to me. I wonder why, even though it seems the definitions of the terms extroversion and introversion must include the importantly ambiguous noun “tendency”, you choose to emphatically use the decidedly unambiguous word “always” when applying the descriptions. And can’t (or shouldn’t) our partners learn and understand our preferences without us having to have a Jungian term to back it up? I am truly not being argumentative. If I simply thought you were wrong, I would not bother asking these questions. I suspect that you have a compelling explanation for this, and hope you have a moment to provide it. See what you’ve gotten yourself into now by being so informed?

        Thanks. :]

        • Hi, Andy. I love the back and forth!

          I think we’re closer in thinking than we may seem.

          One problem is that the language itself is difficult.

          If I have a general “tendency” (and I agree with that word) towards XX behavior, and that tendency is merely the outward manifestation of the way my brain or nervous system functions, then the tendency itself doesn’t disappear when I’m acting in a YY manner. The underlying structure of one individual’s brain – extrovert, introvert, or ambivert – isn’t switching as the person goes from activity to activity.

          I definitely agree that we don’t need Jungian terms to back it up! IMO, society (maybe any society!) tends not to accept entirely normal variations of human behavior, so people cling to for themselves or judge others with labels that indicate “disorder” (negative), “special gift” (positive), or capital-D “difference” (neutral, but explanatory where no explanation is necessary).

          Given that we’re stuck with the labels, the question for me is how make the best, most compassionate use of them. That for me seems to be: “Here’s the general pattern of how I tick. It’s not even an uncommon pattern. So even when you and I are enthusiastically doing [X or Y], I’m likely experiencing it differently than you are. That’s why the next moment may not be what you would predict or why I don’t want to do it 5 times a week or can’t sustain that for the long haul.”

          My suspicion is that people who fall in the middle of the scale aren’t the people “need” to use the labels most of the time. The people who need it are the raging extroverts who are accused of being “superficial” or “overbearing” or “won’t shut up” or whatever and the intense introverts who people are trying to drag screaming from their shells.

          I actually used to identify as an ambivert myself. Until I woke up one day irretrievably burned out by the clients whom I loved and loved working with. I was actually taken by surprise when spending six post-surgery at home with almost no human contact left me feeling more energized than I had in years!

          I’m not married to the constructs – as critics point out, the “scale” isn’t anchored to anything – which creates a major flaw, as theories go. But just from an analytical point of view within the system as it’s built: if extroversion – introversion is a scale with two poles and some sort of (arbitrary) threshold, it doesn’t follow that an individual near the threshold point would be “both” things. Ambivert might still mean a window where one is “not introverted or extroverted enough” for it to cause problems rather than being a separate category of people who switch back and forth.

          Also, most of the time I hear (and maybe your experience is different) people say “I’m introverted sometimes and extroverted sometimes,” and then describe being very social at times (which is not the same as being extroverted or precluded by being introverted) in some situations and wanting solitude or downtime at other times (which, also, is not the same as being introverted or precluded by being extroverted.) I don’t think it makes sense to use the labels to describe snapshots of behavior.

          • Andy Pels says:

            I agree that we are close in thinking, and you have made me even more confident of that with your further explanation. I think a lot of it comes down to people’s understanding, or maybe more often misunderstanding, of the terminology. I see now that part of where I got off track was in assuming in the back of my mind that if the labels (and the inherent misuse and misunderstandings of the labels) were to go away, then the non-compassionate behavior toward those who might generally fit the labels would go away. If it were only that easy…
            Thanks! This really has been eye-opening.

  12. Sheryl Schuff says:


    Thanks so much for posting this interview. I hope it’s just the beginning of the conversation about “what we can do.”

    I came across Susan Cain’s TED talk a few days ago and ordered her book today. Anxious to read more of what she has to say on this fascinating subject.

    I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how we could help our fellow introverted entrepreneurs do the connecting and networking that’s so often seen as the only/best way to grow a business, especially by attending live events.

    I think we definitely need to create more alternatives.

    I could really relate to what Barbara said about managing the dose of personal interaction and how the Internet is a great buffer for doing this.

    Your explanation about your brother’s speaking gig was really valuable to me. I had never thought about it in the way you described.

    On my way now to check out some of the other resources you posted.

  13. IZ says:

    Thank you for this! I subscribe to Escape From Cubicle Nation and was very pleased and surprised to see this post. I hope it will open some eyes.