Is 2020 the year of the introvert?


For at least a decade, introvert activists have been calling for a revolution: remake the extrovert-dominated workplace. Stop penalising the third of us who don’t fit the loud, highly sociable ideal fostered by open-plan offices; create a more inclusive culture equally suited to those who work better alone, with less outside stimulation.

Then came the pandemic and many of us had to work from home. The 2020 “office” suddenly looked like the answer to an introvert-employee manifesto. It would be “a chance to play to our strengths”. Five months on, how is the year of the introvert working out? 

At first it felt unsettling. “Introverts recharge their batteries by being alone,” writes Susan Cain in her best-selling Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking. Home is where we do it. So turning a place of escape into an office, and sharing a refuge via video calls, was weird. 

Yet for introverts anxious about public speaking, it can also be helpful. You may feel less anxious addressing big groups when you’re in your own space secretly wearing your slippers. I do. Which is why I’ve accepted online speaking invitations I would have dodged otherwise.

WFH meetings have been a revelation. An introvert-friendly etiquette has evolved. For the first time it is perfectly acceptable to say nothing unless you have something constructive to contribute. In fact, it’s encouraged in the name of efficiency. This is a relief compared to real life, where it can feel like making your voice heard at any cost is rewarded. Noa Herz, a neuroscientist and a neuropsychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, has written about how this can disadvantage introverts — who tend to listen closely and chip in only with ideas they consider worth sharing. Herz’s description of a culture where “each participant contributes thoughts in a disorganised, dominance-based manner” calls to mind far too many unproductive, uncomfortable gatherings.

In March, when many of us were still new to all this, my team leader shared tips to help things run smoothly. Simple signalling systems — a stress-free way to show you have something to share — have been a game-changer. Type “hat” in the chat box if you want to say something, she said. If it’s urgent, type “top hat”. No one knows why we use headgear (anyone?). You can just as easily raise a hand or turn your mic on or off. Even better, via the chat box, you can contribute without speaking at all. 

Also invaluable for softer-spoken people in a culture that rewards loudness: the levelling power of the volume control. Just as even the most voluble are expected to switch off their mic or risk polite censure (“Can everyone please mute”), so we can now all make ourselves equally audible. This relieves introverts of a frequent worry: “Will they be able to hear me?”

Together, all this has ended the scourge of the introvert: dominant colleagues cutting other people off or ignoring them. In an online room, everyone waits their turn. 

In theory, that is. Badly run online meetings can be as much of a bear pit as analogue ones. I’ve watched discussions deteriorate in seconds if two people get into a heated disagreement.

Similarly, working from home is often held up as a calmer, pro-introvert alternative to the notoriously distracting open plan office. But the insulating power of those noise-cancelling headphones turns out to be just as essential at home for keeping domestic sounds at bay (rubbish lorries, a locked-down teenage neighbour with a keen interest in afrobeats).

And what about the lack of workplace camaraderie? Soon after we were all sent home, my super-sociable work friend raised a concern: “Won’t you miss your colleagues?” For introverts, who do their best work alone, this is not necessarily a problem. And it turns out I see my teammates every day at our online morning meeting. Since March, I have seen them more than anyone I’m related to (luckily they are lovely).

“OK, but won’t you miss the office chat working at home?” asked Super-Sociable Friend, by now sounding a bit incredulous. “Won’t you feel lonely?” It might sound odd but, typically for a solitude loving introvert, I’m not sure I understand the question.

kesewa.hennessy@ft.com

Pilita Clark returns next week



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