Opinion: Introverts often are misunderstood

March 10, 2013


It’s not just a women’s issue.

Granted, that’s how many of us are framing last month’s decision by Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo! Inc., to end telecommuting and require all employees to report to the office. It ignited a firestorm of controversy over whether Mayer, a working mother herself, has backstabbed the sisterhood. Columnist Kathleen Parker called it the latest iteration of the “mommy war.”

But there’s another reason we should be debating Mayer’s policy: some people simply work better alone.

My colleagues are rolling their eyes now, so let me rush to provide full disclosure. I’ve worked mainly from home for more than 20 years, going into the office just enough that they don’t give my desk away. I don’t do it because it’s more convenient. I don’t do it because I hate the commute. I do it because I’m an introvert.

The word is not a synonym for “shy,” though as a boy, I was that, too. But where shyness is an outsized fear of other people’s disapproval or of social embarrassment, to be an introvert is to be inward turning, more at home in small, intimate groups than large, boisterous ones. It is to prefer the quiet to the loud, reflection to exhortation, solitude to socializing.

For years, I struggled with that, wondered why I prefer the rainy afternoon spent watching old movies or reading a book to the sunny afternoon at a backyard barbecue watching people do the electric slide. Then, last year, I chanced upon a book, “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking” by Susan Cain. It was the first time anyone had ever explained me to me. Turns out I’m not the only one. Turns out introversion is perfectly normal.

Except that our culture is biased toward extroverts. It’s a bias reflected both in Mayer’s decision and in the attagirls she has received from the likes of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. He argues, as she did, that collaboration — “synergy” is the buzzword — produces the best results. This is conventional wisdom in American business. Indeed, Cain notes that per person square footage in offices has shrunk by over half since the ‘70s in the belief that “open space” floor plans that force people together facilitate teamwork and, thus, productivity.

For some of us, it probably does. But not for all. The savvy CEO will understand this, will realize that the alone space is where introverts find the stuff that powers their best work and will — wherever practical — accommodate that.

And, as Cain points out, quiet people, left to their own devices, have produced rather significant moments in culture, science and politics. Her list of their contributions includes: the theory of relativity; “1984,” “Schindler’s List,” Charlie Brown, Google and the Montgomery bus boycott.

All that said, I have a sinking fear that after this column, I’ll never be invited to another backyard barbecue again. Good friends, please invite me; I’ll even bring the banana pudding. But at the same time, please forgive me if I leave early.

As Cain notes, it is not that the introvert doesn’t enjoy the company of others. Rather, it’s that after a certain point, it leaves him feeling physically drained. That’s who I am — less Bill Clinton than Al Gore — and I’ve given myself permission to stop fighting it.

Marissa Mayer may or may not be a traitor to modern mommyhood. But she has certainly bought into the one-size-fits-all mentality that says productivity and creativity are found when colleagues meet at the water cooler — and only there. She is wrong and I am proof.

This week, I’ll go into the office to make sure my desk is still there. I’ll kibitz with my friends. But when it’s time to get down to work I’ll slip on the noise-cancelling headphones, block out the world and seek what people like me always, instinctively seek: a quiet and alone inner space where it is possible to simply, finally …


— Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald. He chats with readers from noon to 1 p.m. CDT each Wednesday on www.MiamiHerald.com.


Paul R Getto 5 years, 1 month ago

Good column, Sir. We share some of these traits.

tomatogrower 5 years, 1 month ago

Exactly. People need to recognize that many people need the quiet. People often wonder why I get up earlier than everyone else in my home. It's because I need the quiet, before the riot begins. I've read bits and pieces of this book, and there's a video of a speech she gave on YouTube. I think I need to download the book and read the whole thing. In blessed quiet.

Leslie Swearingen 5 years, 1 month ago

This is who I am. I can get exhausted trying to deal with people after a certain amount of time. I am tired of never getting a word in edgewise because like a fool I wait for them to stop talking before I say something. I was taught that is the polite thing to do.

parrothead8 5 years, 1 month ago

I agree with a lot of what Pitts writes, but he should also be willing to admit that there are certain jobs that aren't good fits for introverts. Perhaps Ms. Mayer knows more about what it takes to run a large corporation than Mr. Pitts does, and feels that a team must be together to best work together. I get that being a writer may be a desirable career for an introvert, but let's be reasonable: Not all careers are one size fits all.

hannahss 5 years, 1 month ago

All my life, my family told me there was something wrong with me, that I was crazy. I don't mean in a fun, teasing way, but in a way that hurt me deeply. All that "crazy talk", and I was also the one who took care of everybody. Then I found The Highly Sensitive Person, by Elaine Aron. It was a huge help, and it sounds like this book has some similar information. Not only am I an introvert, an HSP, but at the more sensitive end of the spectrum. Quiet is essential, as is order. Yet I have been able to make significant contributions doing jobs that other people would find too demanding! True, not every job would be appropriate! There are many that I would hate. But the contributions of the "quiet ones" can be enormous.

verity 5 years, 1 month ago

There are certainly as many sides to the issue as there are people. In my opinion, the open office concept should go the way of the windowless office---inhumane. And cubicles---surely the work of the devil. They're far worse than an open office with all the drawbacks and none of the benefits.

On the other hand, some people working from home have taken advantage of the situation and some don't have the self-discipline needed. It also depends on the kind of job. Some can be done from home and some can't. Too bad we seem to be going back to a one size fits all. That certainly doesn't lead to creativity.

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