Posted Online: Nov. 13, 2012, 2:07 pm

Are introverts the social misfits of society?

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By Barb Braun

We've been called aloof, reclusive, even anti-social. We are an often misunderstood group in society, even though up to half of the population is considered this type. We are introverts.

Put simply, introverts are individuals who get their energy from being alone. In contrast, extroverts feel the most energized when they are around other people.

Let's look at a common situation from each group's perspective. Extroverts see someone eating alone at a restaurant and feel sorry for him because the person didn't have anyone to talk to. Introverts, on the other hand, view the same person and think he was lucky to have some time to himself and not have to worry about carrying on a meaningless conversation.

It's taken me years to accept that I'm an introvert because of the negative label associated with the trait. Early in my career, I was told to speak up more and not be so shy. Trying to be the consummate professional, I pushed myself to be more aggressive and outgoing. I've learned to be an effective extrovert when the situation calls for it. But, I'm an introvert at heart.

Misconceptions abound about us, especially from our more outgoing counterparts. Extroverts perceive us as having few friends, hating parties, and being unable to carry a conversation. While exceptions always exist, these perceptions are often incorrect. Most introverts enjoy spending time with a healthy network of friends. The difference lies in how much time we give to other people. For instance, when we've had our fill of a social gathering, we politely give our good-byes and retreat to a place where we can relax and quietly process our thoughts.

We aren't inept conversationalists, either. Give us an in-depth topic, with opportunity to explore different perspectives, and we can endure a talk marathon. What drives introverts away from other people is the inane ritual of small talk. Discussing superficial niceties is a waste of our finite energy.
If you're an extrovert, you may be saying, "Who cares that introverts are miscast as being unfriendly, solitary figures who prefer an empty room to a fun-loving group?"

Well, you should care, and here's why. When you need to vent about a problem or share ideas, we are attentive listeners, and we'll give you carefully constructed feedback and support. If you're looking for a task-oriented, independent professional to tackle an important project, we're you're men (or women). And please don't dismiss us as not-quite-ready for leadership duties. While we may like a little private down time, we can still soar high as executives in a variety of organizations.

Because introverts often don't seek the limelight, their successes can be overlooked, too. Despite our low-key demeanor, introverts are valuable members of society. Consider the contributions of introverts like former U.S. Vice President Al Gore, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, Indian spiritual master and politician Mahatma Gandi, and civil rights activist Rosa Parks. Their internally-motivated perspective has shaped our world in many positive ways.

Introverts can be wonderful complements to their gregarious comrades. I enjoy and appreciate my extroverted friends, as they give me the push I sometimes need to join the proverbial party. I hope they value me for my thoughtful feedback and quiet guidance. Like most people, introverts feel misunderstood when we're assigned a label that inaccurately depicts our character. We don't want to change our personality -- or yours. We just want to be respected for the positive influence we have on the world.
Barb Braun of Rock Island enjoys debunking the introvert stereotype as a PR consultant, college instructor and active community member.