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Published: 6/10/2012

Introverts are meeting up, speaking out

BY NARA SCHOENBERG
CHICAGO TRIBUNE
Tannia Benefield organized an introverts’ group in Austin. Tannia Benefield organized an introverts’ group in Austin.
CHICAGO TRIBUNE Enlarge

Want to join the hot new meet-up group?

You don't have to be the life of the party. In fact, you'll be more welcome if you're not.

Seeking to socialize with others of their kind, introverts have organized fast-growing Internet meet-up groups in cities such as Austin and Washington, where the "Introverted and Loving It" group claims 260 members.

"It's nice to be around a group that's a little quieter," says Tannia Benefield, organizer of the Austin Introverts Meet-up Group.

"We have games night -- board games, cards, any kind of game -- and it's huge fun for me, but it's not loud, it's not boisterous, it's low-key, and I leave feeling energized," Ms. Benefield said. "I don't feel worn out; I feel I can do that again. And I feel accepted."

In the past 10 years, America's estimated 80 million to 160 million introverts have been increasingly getting together, speaking out, and celebrating their quiet gifts and strengths. They've written popular books, including this year's Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking (Crown) by Susan Cain. They've formed meet-ups in Denver, Minneapolis, and Silicon Valley. They're even making headway at extrovert-happy Harvard Business School, where a professor co-authored a recent study that found when employees are proactive, introverts -- not extroverts -- make the best leaders.

"It's a great time," says psychologist Laurie Helgoe, author of the 2008 book Introvert Power: Why Your Inner Life is Your Hidden Strength (Sourcebooks). "When you talk about introversion now, people are really hungry to talk about it, and to share experiences. I think they find it very reassuring to realize 'No, we're not alone at all. We are all over the place.'"

Introverts are often viewed by the general public as, essentially, failed extroverts: If only they could learn to speak more frequently, spontaneously, and assertively in large groups, they could be more successful and popular.

But experts say that introverts aren't better or worse than extroverts; they just function differently.

"Everything a more introverted person does in the outside world -- it drains energy from them. Everything a more extroverted person does in the outside world gives them energy," says psychologist Marti Olsen Laney, author of The Introvert Advantage: How to Thrive in an Extrovert World (Workman).

Extroverts, she says, need stimulation -- not just people, but events and activities. Introverts need quiet downtime to recharge their batteries.

These differences are deep and wide-ranging, affecting nearly every aspect of our lives, and they coincide with underlying differences in brain chemistry. The neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which triggers the ability to focus and concentrate deeply for long periods, appears to play a stronger role in introvert brain functioning, Ms. Laney writes.

Dopamine, which promotes novelty-seeking and fast action, plays a stronger role in the brain functioning of extroverts.

Introverts have many strengths: They typically have long attention spans, work well on their own, form deep friendships, and listen and problem-solve well, experts say. They can have excellent one-on-one social skills, and can be very talkative when they're comfortable. But they lack the extrovert's social energy and verbal spontaneity, and they can easily get drowned out at meetings and parties.

Most introverts know they're different from society's smooth-talking, outgoing ideal from an early age, and many harbor some degree of shame for not measuring up, according to Ms. Laney.

That was Ms. Benefield's experience when she was growing up.

"Once you got me alone, [people] were like, 'Oh my goodness -- she's very talkative and chatty.' And yes, I am. But if you got me in a group of four or five, I wasn't the one who was going to be cracking jokes or keeping the conversation going, because it's exhausting [for me]. I just wanted to listen and watch. But there would be a lot of times when I did listen in a group, where there would be that one person who would say, 'You're not saying anything. Are you a snob? Are you stuck up? What's wrong with you?'

"And I'd be thinking, 'What is wrong with me?'"

Ms. Benefield, 38, a special ed teacher, spent six years in the extrovert-oriented Air Force, where she rose to the rank of captain but became increasingly unhappy with the constant pressure to network and self-promote. She began getting stress-related headaches and back pains, and decided to leave the military.

Now she's determined to work with her temperament, not against it, an approach that means taking time out of her busy day to be by herself and socializing at her own pace.

"People see introverts as antisocial and we're not antisocial, it's just a different kind of socializing," she says.

"We find this core group that knows us and that we have these deep, meaningful conversations with and relationships with, instead of just being [social] butterflies."

SUPPORTING YOUR INTROVERTED CHILD

Marti Olsen Laney, author of The Hidden Gifts of the Introverted Child (Workman), says there are many ways you can help your little introvert to shine, among them:

● Read up on the topic. Understand that this is a temperament that isn't going to change, although, like extroverts, introverts can learn good coping strategies.

● Accept your child's need for quiet time. If his friend wants to play after school but he likes to take a break first -- affirm that's it's OK. Everyone's different.

● Help your child ease into social situations. At a birthday party, she may want to stand and watch for a while before joining in, even if she knows the kids.



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