It’s fairly early and I’m snuggled on the sofa with just a side-lamp on whilst Howard catches up on some sleep upstairs and I’m writing a post that’s been swirling round my head since yesterday. I’m already fulfilling at least four of the introvert statements in the quiz in Susan Cain’s ‘Quiet‘ and that’s before I’ve really started –
- preferring to express myself in writing
- enjoying solitude
- ‘diving in’ without interruptions
- not showing or discussing work before its finished
‘Quiet’ was a book that genuinely changed my life. All of a sudden a lot of things made a lot more sense – not only that but I realised that the various oddities I have could be explained under a broad umbrella and it was amazing. Our world values extraversion and is geared up to promote and reward it but we need to take a step back and see how damaging it can be if we don’t recognise that this is not the way everyone is and see things from the introverts’ point of view.
Yesterday there were a couple of weaving Twitter conversations about ice-breakers and ‘motivational’ activities during insets. Some of it was tongue-in-cheek but much of it was a collective expression of doom at those fateful words ‘Everyone get up on your feet…’. I genuinely have a sinking feeling thinking about it. I wrote about my own feeling on this sort of thing a couple of years ago after my own ‘Motivational Incident‘ at a TeachMeet. I hadn’t read ‘Quiet’ then but having spent time analysing myself I think I’ve got more to say on it all so here it is.
There have been two occasions I can think of where I have flat-out refused to take part in a ‘fun’ inset activity. The first was a whole federation day where there were several activities to do and being asked to stand up and juggle fabric was too much for me. To the presenter’s credit she did tell everyone it was optional and we could sit it out if we wanted, but I’m pretty sure I was the only one. The second was a TA inset where we had to split into groups, come up with a type of machine and each act out a part for other groups to guess the machine. I can vaguely see why you might get people who didn’t already know each other to do something like this but even then I’d be horrified. There were two of us in our group who refused to do it and I did feel a little for the presenter as she’d possibly not come across this before but after some gentle persuading she just said it was very disappointing but we could sit it out. That second one was post-‘motivational incident‘ but pre-‘Quiet’ and I was, I have to say, proud of myself.
Coming out as an introvert is an interesting thing. I’ve not shouted it from the rooftops (which isn’t necessarily surprising for an introvert) but I’ve had a fairly universal reaction from the people I have told, most clearly from my mum who, laden with supportive sympathy, said “Oh, no, you’re not” as if I was putting myself down. The realisation that I’m an introvert has transformed the way I think about myself and for the better; by telling people I’m actually bigging myself up. My mum’s (and others’) reaction is perfect evidence of how society values the extrovert and why, as an aside, I think we need to keep it in mind with students we teach.
Me as an introvert
For me, the realisation I’m an introvert has explained a lot of things. For example, I like to spend a lot of time by myself – in the holidays if I don’t plan outings I could stay at home for the whole time not wanting to go and talk to anyone or deal with ‘people’. I think it’s an extension of Cain’s ‘If I had to choose, I’d prefer a weekend with absolutely nothing to do to one with too many things scheduled’. I recognise that it can build up and actually can be bad for my mental health so I do force myself to do things but it really can be forcing myself.
I also realise now that there’s a reason why I find social events exhausting and actually it’s good to give myself restorative space away from things. This recognition is an important one. Knowing that when I have to do something that’s going to put me ‘out there’ that I need to schedule in an opportunity to be away from it a bit too actually makes it easier. There are about 17/20 of the statements on Cain’s list that I would say are true for me but I don’t think that’s made me resigned to the fact I like to do things a certain way, I actually think it’s made me aware of how to cope with trying new things.
Why people are confused and think I’m not one
I can understand why people are surprised when I say I’m an introvert. I’m quite good at getting involved with things, I’ve presented at conferences, I quite like a bit of fancy dress, I’m quite vocal in discussions. All things that seem fairly extrovert. The thing is though I do these things as an introvert. I get involved with things I want to get involved with, I have presented at conferences where I know the set up, I like fancy dress I have control over*, I’m vocal in discussion with people I know and once I’ve got the measure of a situation – I’ll rarely jump in for the sake of it. The technicalities are perhaps subtle but I think for me it’s about controlling a situation.
Introversion and me
Control is key.
Put me in a situation I have no control over and I will panic. If I can find some control I can cope. Leading a project or volunteering to speak means I can control what’s happening. If I don’t have any control, familiarity is important. This can be as simple as obsessively planning a route on Google streetview or when doing a presentation I’ll start in a fairly scripted manner but by the end I’ll be more comfortable and chatty (not that I think this is unusual for people). I won’t start up a networking conversation but if someone talks to me I’m likely to be able to prattle on til the cows come home. It just takes time to get going sometimes.
*Fancy dress is one I’ve had a long-standing theory about. With fancy dress you actually have more control over a situation. My theory, probably starting as a teenager, is that if you are dressed bizarrely on purpose people can’t take the piss. If you’re dressed in something fashionable that you think makes you look hot-as and someone laughs their head off it is crushing. If you’ve covered yourself in glitter or you’re dressed as Bert Raccoon it’s quite clear you’re not expecting mainstream acceptance and you get away with more. It makes it a performance and you can control how people react to you.
I realise that defence mechanisms in extrovert situations are about control and I think introverts get quite good at them. Whether that’s faced with whole-group country dancing, sticking with a small group of friends to take the piss, or taking the plunge and muddling through til it’s over and controlling the come-down.
I think there are two types of extraversion – the one that you control and the one that’s controlled by others. The first you get to pick and turn on and off. If you want to join in you can and you have a good idea of the reaction it will have and how that will impact on you. The second is both controlled and judged by others – a step into the unknown. It may be this is short-lived and the situation quickly becomes familiar but it may be that the outcome is completely in the hands of others. I know it’s healthy for me to challenge myself and not get too comfortable but I’m more aware of my limitations now, how to deal with that and the fact that, actually, it’s OK.
There’s a phenomenon when it comes to forced participation. If it’s not quite for you and you don’t want to join in you’re accused (openly or implied) of being miserable and boring. I am one of these ‘miserable and boring’ people – to the point of stubbornness. Thing is, why should I feel I have to prove something? I don’t like clapping in time, I don’t want to join in with actions or move round a room in a role play. I’m far from mature but I’ve got a comfort zone for a good reason, and it’s comfortable.
Last week I went to a teachmeet that was kicked off with a positive motivation-fest. For quite some time the impending keynote was enough to make me not go at all, and I had to give myself a talking to – why should I miss an evening that I wanted to go to for the sake of 30 minutes at the start? I cringed my way through it (using ‘taking photos of the participation for Twitter’ as a superb cover for not joining in), but afterwards was left feeling that I really needed to prove my get-up-and-dance, look-at-me-I’m-crazy-you-never-know-what-I’m-going-to-do-next credentials. I had a bit of a moment at work the next day. Still irritated by the forced participation, I let my views on the subject be heard and heartwarmingly, everyone there agreed with me. I felt much better.
This isn’t a dig at our keynote speaker, they’re very good at their job and very successful at keynoting. Lots of people were probably there as much to see them as I was there not to. They were excited and happy and motivated in all the right places which is great. It makes sense that the best we can be for our pupils is happy and positive and for them to feel the same – it’s just that different people get that in different ways.
I’ve thought about it quite a bit – why, if we work with children, are we expected to want to jump up and down on command in a room full of people we don’t know? Or perhaps, worse, do know. Surely there’s a difference between being happy and being extrovert? Why should those that don’t want to be told how to have fun be labelled as – ‘lemon-suckers’ or ‘dark lords’? I did my fair share of joining in when I was a youth – sometimes it was ok, sometimes it was awful. After a careful consideration of my experiences I have decided I’ve done enough of that stuff and I’m happiest not to. Makes me think though, I’m a grown up and to a great extent get a choice, but what about those more introverted kids that we work with? We plan great events, performances, shows and for every child who revels in it, there’ll be those for whom it’s a nightmare.
Is it perhaps a primary thing rather than a secondary thing? Are you more likely to have an expectation of extroversion if you work in a primary setting? I had an interview for primary teacher training light-years ago that was enough to put me off schools for life, and there was certainly some gentle ribbing about singing with actions in assembly when one of our secondary trained staff left for a primary school. Do secondary schools go too far in the opposite direction? Do they turn their noses up at things like this? I certainly think there’s more reluctance among staff to ‘take part’ – a workload thing? Maturity? Losing face?
I’ve actually got some pretty good ‘get-up-and-dance, look-at-me-I’m-crazy-you-never-know-what-I’m-going-to-do-next credentials’, thank you very much:
- We very successfully ran the University of Essex Silly Society, that’s pretty daft. We were so good at that it probably had an impact on my degree classification…
- I’m quite adept at a Steps routine. Perhaps a little rusty nowadays, but give me half an hour with the Gold DVD and I’ll be fine.
- I make dens in the garden if I get bored in the holidays. Actually, Howard’s never quite sure what he’ll come home to. I’d created the whole Solar System out of coloured paper and stuck it to the ceiling one year.
- We used to have a sign on the back of the front door reminding me to check if I’d drawn cat whiskers and a nose on my face after I once went to the post office without remembering to wipe them off.
- Eurovision ALWAYS involves fancy dress.
- Actually, anything can involve fancy dress. I’d go to the pub as a pirate just because I’ve got the hat.
Why do I need to list these things? Maybe because there’s also these things:
- I make Howard go first and talk to people (restaurant, hotel reception, shops – anywhere).
- I make sure I miss out numbers in bingo so I don’t win and have to yell out.
- I hate talking to people I don’t know on the phone. Have to properly work myself up to calling any company to sort something out.
- I’m rubbish at networking or talking to people at parties. The chances are I’ll be sat sitting in a corner.
- I’m even more rubbish at self-promotion. I don’t have t-shirts or anything.
Turns out there’s not one thing or another. It’s perfectly possible to be a bit of both and to be honest, I think that’s what makes it seem natural. If you’re ‘up’ all the time it doesn’t seem genuine.
Now I’m fully aware that the comfort zone can be a dangerous place and I’m getting quite good at stepping out of it, just to test the waters. In the past few years I’ve done scary MEd tutorials, scary speaking at conferences, sat at the front in a comedy club and got picked on (seats were allocated, I’m not completely daft). I do a similar thing with olives – try them again every one in a while and see if I like them. I’m at a place where I wouldn’t pick them off a pizza, but I’m still not buying a pot from the deli counter.
There is one other reason we might be asked to do all these stupid things of course. The joy of uniting in hatred of the motivation. The swearing in corners, the days of feeling disgruntled either side of it, and the coming together with a common enemy. Maybe it’s all a clever tactic to unite us? The ultimate team bonding exercise as we debrief at the pub afterwards. Shouldn’t be at the expense of making us not want to go in the first place though.
Two days after the motivational incident it was my birthday and I got the most wonderful necklace from Howard that I think says it all. Meet the Indifferent Iguana. The card inside the box reads, “With the exception of you, this little reptile doesn’t really like human beings all that much. She is very sarcastic and will give you confidence and help you to stop worrying about stuff“. I think the iguana has got it pretty much sorted. Let’s listen to her.