Alumna Sets the Record Straight About Introversion in Her Book

Editor's Note: The following excerpt of The Introvert’s Way: Living a Quiet Life in a Noisy World (2012) appeared in the latest edition of UT Dallas Magazine from author Sophia Dembling BA’04. Dembling’s follow-up book, Introverts in Love, was released in January.

Sophia Dembling

Sophia Dembling BA’04

Introverts get mistaken for extroverts all the time because a lot of people think introversion is the same as shyness.

It’s not.

Yes, both shyness and introversion relate to socializing, but shy people are scared of socializing. Introverts just aren’t always interested in it. While there can be crossover, they’re not mutually exclusive.

Louis A. Schmidt, a neuroscientist at McMaster University who studies shyness, gave me a whole new way to think of introversion and shyness. He defines introversion as a motivation — in this case, a weak desire to be with people. Extroverts have a yen for company, a whole lot more than introverts do.

Shyness, on the other hand, he describes as a behavior. Shy people are inhibited, tense and uncomfortable in social situations. And while introverts can be shy, so can extroverts.

Schmidt further explains, “When we look at the interaction between shyness and introversion and treat those as two unrelated dimensions, it’s as though each independent measure is adding unique variants to behavior.” Translated to non-neuroscientist, that means that someone who is introverted and shy behaves differently from someone who is introverted and not shy, who behaves differently from someone who is extroverted and shy, who behaves differently from someone who is extroverted and not shy.

The Introvert's Way

The Introvert’s Way: Living a Quiet Life in a Noisy World

The unhappiest combination is extroverted and shy. Those sad souls want to socialize, but fear it. They’re the ones who turn up at every party and cower in the corner, or stand terrified and tongue-tied at networking events, or maybe even rely on liquor to bring out the party animal in them. (Introverts might also try this, especially when they’re young and trying to fit in to a college party crowd. But they usually grow out of it. More on that later.)

I am introverted and not shy. This means that when I want to step out from inside my own head, I can do so without much trouble. But don’t always want to. For example, my job often requires traveling and touring different areas with groups of people. Some days, I am right in the middle of things, chattering and joking and bringing my happy noise to the proceedings. Other days, I’m just not interested, so I hang back, let others have the spotlight, and enjoy my own company. Actually, this can happen hour to hour. I’m not a morning person, so I have my first cup of coffee in my hotel room, however revolting the in-room coffee is (and it’s usually pretty revolting). By afternoon, I might be in the mood for a little friendly fun and chatter, but by evening I’m usually ready to shut it down again.

To a large extent, shyness can be overcome. Introversion cannot, and that’s okay. Introverts who have embraced their nature don’t feel like they’re missing out on anything. Besides, many of us can behave like extroverts when we want to. If extreme introversion lies on one end of the continuum and extreme extroversion on the other, many of us live somewhere between the two, and the closer an introvert is to the middle, the easier extroverted behavior is. In one online discussion, a guy described himself as a “swashbuckling introvert,” for his ability to swing into a room and put on a show. Another woman called herself an “extroverted introvert.” When I decide to put on the extrovert, I call it my dog and pony show.

An Introvert’s Perspective

Most favorite things

  • A weekend with no plans
  • Deep conversation with a close friend
  • A good book and time to read it
  • Taking breaks from a party by hiding in the bathroom
  • People watching
  • Getting absorbed in a project

Least favorite things

  • The telephone
  • Audience participation
  • The question, “Why are you so quiet?”
  • Being dragged onto the dance floor
  • Team-building exercises
  • Getting cornered by a chatterbox

When we want to, not-shy introverts can nut up to the task of being charming and witty. We can meet new people. We can start conversations and keep them rolling, and even draw shy people out, since we’re good at not getting up in anyone’s face and we’re patient listeners. We know how to ease into conversation in a way that doesn’t frighten shrinking violets.

In some ways, the not-shy introvert could be considered to have superior social skills to extroverts because we can accept attention without requiring it. If I find myself in a situation where conversation needs to be perked up, I can do the perking. Introverts’ listening skills serve us well in keeping conversation going because we really hear what people say, and know what to ask or add.

At the same time, if someone comes along who clearly desires the spotlight, we’re equally happy to cede the stage. I accept attention, sometimes I invite it, but I don’t compete for it. I can’t, really. I’m not loud enough, bold enough or insistent enough. I can shut down my dog and pony show as easily as I can crank it up, and with no resentment at all — often with some relief. I’m just as happy to be in the audience while someone else takes center stage. Or, for that matter, just slip out the back door and let the show go on without me.

Introverts who are not shy are used to being told that they could not possibly be introverts. This can be irritating, but think of it as a teachable moment. Remember: We can do everything extroverts do, and do it well. The difference is that after a while, we lose interest.

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