Christina Vasilevski

Toronto Writer/Editor for Content Strategy and User Experience.

On Being an Introvert and Flexing Your Socialization Muscles

Extroversion is a muscle you can strengthen over time. Image credit: Victoria Garcia, Flickr

Image credit: Victoria Garcia, Flickr

Introversion is currently having a bit of a moment on the internet. Susan Cain’s book Quiet: The Power of Introverts unleashed the floodgates, and now it’s nearly impossible to spend a day or a week online without seeing some sort of Buzzfeed article or numbered list about what it’s like to be an introvert, things extroverts don’t understand about introverts, and so on.

If this moment had happened a few years ago, I would have been full of justification and pride. I was right all along, I would have said. Being an introvert is super hard, and no one has understood how I’ve felt until now! In fact, traces of this attitude are visible in the review I wrote of Susan Cain’s book in 2012.

However, because of the effort I’ve put into into running my freelance business this year, all of these articles talking about how introverts are sensitive little snowflakes that the world just doesn’t understand have started to rub me the wrong way.

What I mean is that over the past year, I’ve realized something important: extroversion is a muscle you can strengthen; you just need to flex it enough.

What made me change

I remember years ago that whenever I attended WCDR events, I would come home happy but exhausted. All the people! All the conversations! But as I volunteered with the organization more and even began to be responsible for checking people off the registration list when they came in, I noticed that it became increasingly easier to be giggly — effervescent, even — and make small talk. It wasn’t so easy that I didn’t need time to recuperate afterwards, but I became comfortable in the role, slipping into it like a warm bath.

Fast-forward to this year, when I finally committed to taking self-employment seriously. All of a sudden, the events where I was interacting with people and presenting a shiny exterior increased in number from once a month to twice a week. (I still go to networking events twice a week, in fact. Sometimes even thrice, depending on the way things are scheduled.)

I get the sense that deliberately putting myself out there like that would exhaust a lot of people, especially those who wave the introvert flag with pride. It would have exhausted me a few years ago. But it doesn’t, now, because I’ve trained myself enough that these events are a new kind of normal.

How do you strengthen your socialization skills?

Let me make one thing clear: I still consider myself an introvert. I still need time to recharge after a long day filled with new people. But in case the “muscle” metaphor doesn’t work for you, I also liken my increased skill at socialization to flipping a switch — I can deliberately change my mindset for a few hours (or even a whole day) so that the intimidation and weariness I would normally associate with large events doesn’t affect me.

I’m sure there are lots of other people out there who are frustrated by the current special-snowflake paradigm when it comes to introversion. So what can you do if you’re one of those people, but don’t know how to break out of that mindset? Here are a few suggestions.

1. Start small, and do it consistently

One of the best things I did was join the WCDR. Eventually, I joined the Board of Directors; as a result, I volunteered on a regular basis and checked people off the registration list at every monthly meeting. This was beneficial in several ways:

  • I got to see the same people repeatedly and build a rapport because it was a monthly event.
  • I got a lot of time in between to cool off because it was only once a month.
  • I enjoyed talking to the people who attended because we shared a key interest.
2. Find a purpose behind what you’re doing

I’m attending so many networking events now because of my business coach. When we started about six months ago, that was one of her first pieces of advice. I admit that it helped to have someone to “blame” my new activity on, but my coach made it clear to me that doing this, even though it would be painful at first, was essential to making my business succeed.

I don’t know about you, but I like to eat. And if going out day after day to meet people will let me keep on eating, I’m all for it.

So if you want to be more at ease around new people, ask yourself “why” first. If it’s just because you want to conform to societal expectations, your plan won’t work. You have to have a deeper meaning in play.

3. Accept that it’s slow going

Like I said above, I still get tired. There have been times when I’ve bailed and not left the house. But thankfully, those are few and far between. Remember that bit about the WCDR volunteering? I checked people in for at least a year before I started attending to other types of events. Building that socialization muscle takes time, and that’s natural.

I wasn’t planning on making this an advice post, but here you go. I’m trying to change, and maybe you can too.

Book Review: Quiet: The Power of Introverts by Susan Cain

Title: Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking
Author: Susan Cain
Publisher: Crown Publishers
Rating: 4 out of 5
Format: eBook

It probably won’t surprise you to know that I’m an introvert. Hell, I work in editing and content management, and I write lots of book reviews online. My life is focused around technology and words – it would be a surprise if I weren’t an introvert!

However, I can become social and extroverted when the need arises, like when I attended this year’s World Fantasy Convention or WCDR breakfasts. The only problem is that exciting as these types of events are, I need a period to recharge afterwards.

One of the best aspects of Susan Cain’s Quiet is that it pays ample attention to this phenomenon, and the social and personal needs of introverts in general. I get overwhelmed in crowds when I don’t have a specific reason for being there, or don’t know a lot of people in attendance. Either that, or when I am in a crowd I’m comfortable with, I enjoy myself there and feel really tired afterwards at home. My idea of a well-spent weekend is to clean the house and write on this blog, or to generally get my life in order. Susan Cain, being an introvert herself and having done extensive research on how introverts process social situations and react to risk, gets that.

Cain brings together a fascinating collection of studies and anecdotes (many of them retellings of her own personal experiences) to analyze how introverts differ from extroverts. For example, the two types process dopamine differently, with extroverts exhibiting a greater response to it. As a result, they are often more likely to do riskier things in search of greater rewards, while introverts are more likely to analyze the results of their actions and avoid risky activities.

Likewise, introverts react more strongly to new stimuli than extroverts do. (Note: although this sounds like it contradicts the information in the previous paragraph, remember that dopamine is part of the brain’s reward system. There are several other types of stimuli besides rewards.)  Despite being counterintuitive, this discovery makes sense: reacting strongly to new stimuli requires vigilance. If you’re vigilant, you’re wary, which means that you’re probably going to be subdued in situations that expose you to lots of new stimuli, like, say, meeting a whole bunch of new people at once.

Ultimately, Cain uses this research to argue that the skills of introverts, which have been consistently undervalued, are extremely valuable to society. In fact, she brings up How to Win Friends and Influence People, another book I reviewed this year, as an example of the vaunting of extroverts that she says has been damaging to our culture. Instead of always focusing on who is the most confident, why don’t we focus on those who can produce the best ideas? Instead of valuing group work in classes, why don’t we value independence and intense focus?

Considering I preferred to work by myself in school, it’s a question I’ve thought about more than once, though never fully articulated.

Before I get into introverts-are-special-little-flowers-who-are-totally-misunderstood territory, though, I also want to highlight that Quiet is not perfect. In her quest to show how valuable introversion is, Cain invokes the idea of “introvert cultures” and “extrovert cultures” and then proceeds to uphold a host of massive culture-based stereotypes: “Western” society, especially American society, is an extrovert culture, but “Asian” society is an introvert culture.

What’s bad is that she devotes only one chapter to exploring this thesis in detail. What’s worse is that she treats “Asian” culture as a single monolithic idea. In addition, introversion and extroversion are only discussed in relation to Asia, North America, and Europe; all other parts of the world are mentioned only in passing, at best. Even more frustrating, she says that people often unconsciously associate fair hair and blue eyes with introversion, conveniently forgetting the fact that those physical traits just don’t show up in a massive majority of the world’s population.

All that aside, in many other ways the book’s information makes sense. Many times throughout, I felt a sense of identification with Cain’s descriptions of introvert life, and felt that she was able to discuss a variety of pressures I’ve felt about living within my society but was unable to explain, In other words, her book felt incredibly validating. Some people might find that self-indulgent, perhaps, but I think that in this case, I can live with it.

Up next: The Hum and the Shiver by Alex Bledsoe