A few weeks ago, I was leading a workshop about communication between introverts and extroverts. The participants had broken up into smaller groups to do an exercise. Then it was time to share what they’d noticed. One of the groups in the front of the room went first. In deciding who was going to be their spokesperson, one man (an introvert) nudged one of the women, saying to her, “You share, you’re the extrovert.”
What if she hadn’t taken notes? What if she was feeling quiet that day? What if she didn’t like being put on the spot?
It’s the danger of a single story.
The single story many introverts have about extroverts is that they’re always ready, willing and able to talk. To be put on the spot. To carry the conversation, be super social, or be the life of the party. And it’s true: we all know “that” extrovert who fits all of the stereotypes, with whom we can never get a word in edgewise and who sums up everything that frustrates or mystifies us.
But it goes the other way, too, doesn’t it? The single story many extroverts have about introverts is a familiar one: we’re quiet, shy, aloof, bookish, and shun the spotlight. We’re deep thinkers, smart or geeky, and will always choose solitude over socializing.
Single stories are easy. They allow us to put labels on people, giving us a shorthand, broad brushstroke way of making the complex simple. Whether we’re aware of it or not, those single stories are often stereotypes that we’ve never challenged. Or they might have been born out of our first encounter with someone, and we’ve carried along the assumption that that one person represents all people who share what we see as that person’s defining trait.
This happens with race, religion, sexual orientation, age, gender, ethnicity, and yes, even with personality types. Think of all of the wonderful people you might miss connecting with because you’ve adopted a single story about them.
In speaking of her awareness of the power of single stories in her own life, novelist Chimamanda Adichie shares this in her fantastic TED Talk (see below for full video):
“All of these stories make me who I am. But to insist on only these negative stories is to flatten my experience and to overlook the many other stories that formed me. The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”
This echoes something I’ve often shared in my presentations: the stereotypes about introverts are there because there’s often a grain of truth in them. But often the reason they’re true is not what people expect. And they certainly aren’t the whole story.
Perhaps this is the reason some people resist or dismiss certain descriptors, because they fear it will put them into the teeny tiny box of someone else’s single story about that descriptor. They reject the label, which is certainly their right. It’s helpful to examine, though, if rejecting that label serves you. In my mind, labels inform, not define. They add another layer to my story, because no one else in the world shares the same combination of labels that I do. They unlock another tiny piece of the mystery that is me. I’m an introvert, and claiming that means I’ve accepted that I have a particular energy that needs to be honored if I’m going to be my best self. That’s only one story of the many stories that make me, me. If you want to put me into a teeny tiny introvert box, that’s your issue. And it’s your job to find out there’s more to me than my introversion.
That’s one of the points I took away from Adichie’s TED Talk: We have a responsibility to be curious when we notice our single stories about others, and to question those stories and find out what we’re missing (because we’re definitely missing something).
In addition, we each have a responsibility to be vulnerable enough with others that we share more than a single story about ourselves. If we don’t like the stereotype, let’s not be the stereotype!
And finally, we have a responsibility to own all parts of ourselves, and to trust that all of our stories are beautiful and worth sharing.