City Gallery

Myths about Introverts

In November, we finally got to hear Michael Davis’s NZIA City Talk on introverts, which had been postponed for months due to Covid-19. Sitting in the Gallery’s packed auditorium, I realised I was more introverted than I’d thought—and I wasn’t alone. The introverts among us are numerous, but—Davis asks—is the world we live and work in designed for us?
—Megan Dunn

Caspar David Friedrich Wanderer above the Sea of Fog 1818

I had always thought that being an introvert was about being shy and quiet, but a few years ago I read Susan Cain’s book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking and discovered that I had a few misconceptions. I’d like to look at three of the myths that apply to the between a third and a half of us who are to some degree introverted. Personality is, of course, complex, but what follows is of a very general nature.

Myth 1: Shyness and Introversion are the Same

No, they’re not. Shyness comes about because of a fear of social disapproval, so shy people simply don’t say much or put themselves forward in case they are humiliated in some way. On the other hand, introversion is fundamentally a sensitivity to stimulation, so introverts tend to avoid situations with lots of noise, people, visual disturbance, and the like, and would rather seek out quietude.

This means that you might meet someone—say in a work situation—who comes across as confident and a good communicator who may in fact be an introvert. If so, they will probably ‘re-energise’ by going home at night for a quiet evening. Similarly, you can have someone who doesn’t say much at work but is quite happy to socialise often and party hard.

An example of this difference is shown in the respective preferences for background noise levels while performing a task, with introverts preferring and performing better in quieter environments, while extroverts are the opposite. Good design of offices, schools, cafés, etcetera, should therefore provide a range of spatial treatments that recognise this neurodiversity.

Myth 2: Extroverted types make better managers and leaders

It is a common misconception that charismatic and extroverted personalities make better leaders and managers. The opposite is often the case. Management guru Peter Drucker said that the one common trait he observed among effective business leaders was what they didn’t have— charisma. Management studies also show that introverted leaders are more effective, particularly with proactive employees. ‘Because of their inclination to listen to others and a lack of interest in dominating social situations, introverts are more likely to hear and implement suggestions.’

Another truth: just because someone presents and speaks confidently does not mean they have the best ideas. For this reason, it’s really important, for example in a meeting or seminar, to ensure that quiet people get the opportunity to have a say.

Myth 3: Innovation—the Heart of the Knowledge Economy—Is Fundamentally Social.’

This is a quote from all-round clever guy Malcolm Gladwell. These days, it is common to think that we have to work in groups to be innovative, yet there is a lot of evidence that working alone can be more creative. For example, ‘brainstorming’ is a process that many of you will be familiar with, yet numerous studies show that more and better ideas are produced when people work alone. There are several reasons for this, but the main one is called ‘evaluation apprehension’, which means that, despite an invitation to throw ideas forward in the supposedly judgement-free arena of the brainstorming session, we are all somewhat conscious of what our peers, or bosses, or collaborators will think of our ideas. This impacts on the outcome of these sessions, so it’s important to manage this kind of collaboration to get the best out of everyone—introverts and extroverts alike.

On the subject of working alone rather than in groups, I like the advice of Steve Wozniak, Apple co-founder and introvert: ‘Work alone. You’re going to be best able to design revolutionary products and features if you’re working on your own. Not on a committee. Not on a team.’ But we have to acknowledge that innovation also comes about through collaboration, something that author Matt Ridley poetically describes as ‘ideas having sex’. The challenge is to do this in a way that harnesses together the individual efforts of all personality types in a constructive and positive manner.

More than dispelling a few myths though, Cain’s book is essentially a plea for a greater acceptance of quiet, thoughtful people. This is particularly poignant in our current cultural paradigm, which is increasingly stimulating, distracted, and seemingly more preoccupied with our image rather than our true selves.

Our culture made a virtue of living only as extroverts. We discouraged the inner journey, the quest for centre. So we lost our centre and have to find it again. 
—Anaïs Nin

—Michael Davis

Michael Davis is a registered architect and Senior Principal at Wellington’s Studio of Pacific Architecture. He has over thirty years experience in a range of projects, from interiors to urban design. He has a particular interest in ensuring that office workplaces and educational settings are designed to provide a range of spatial and acoustic qualities to accommodate and support our personality preferences.

Davis’s blog is based on his 2020 NZIA City Talk. The City Talks series begins again on Monday 22 March 2021.