Oh dear, did that headline sound exasperated? I think it did. Because I am.
Over the past 18 months, I’ve been especially in tune with articles and posts that mention introversion. And so often, there is a collapsing of the definitions of introvert and shy. The article will start out OK, positing that introverts can be leaders, or business owners, or sales people. Then they will highlight a particular person, first by describing how he or she was shy as a youth. The shyness may be true, and it’s somewhat irrelevant to his or her status as an introvert.
As long as I see credible news outlets and bloggers interchange “introvert” with “shy” (or almost worse, with “passive,” which is what the Harvard Business Review did in reports of recent leadership research), I know that we need to keep beating the “introvert-does-not-equal-shy” drum.
(Quick note: I am NOT saying there’s anything wrong or shameful with being shy. It’s simply that as long as we accept incorrect definitions, we’ll not have access to the solutions or information that can help us the most.)
[pullquote]100% of the time, “introvert” immediately triggers “shy.” Other words that make a regular appearance: quiet, reserved, thoughtful, pensive, contemplative, recharges through alone time, and sexy.[/pullquote] The past 12 months have found me in front of more than 25 different groups, for a total audience exceeding 1,500. Each time I speak, I start out by asking people what words or phrases come to mind when they hear the words “introvert” and “extrovert.” 100% of the time, “introvert” immediately triggers “shy.” Other words that make a regular appearance: quiet, reserved, thoughtful, pensive, contemplative, recharges through alone time, and sexy (sexy!? Yes, that one was shouted out at a presentation last week. When someone mentioned it was true for extroverts, too, I affirmed that yes, anyone who embraces who they are and radiates confidence in it is indeed attractive and sexy! Sounds like fodder for a future blog post, perhaps 🙂 ).
Here’s what I share about the difference between introvert and shy:
Introversion is a personal trait that informs where we gain and drain energy. Introverts gain energy from solitude and quiet, and we drain energy from social interaction. We are internally oriented, most closely in touch with and living from our inner world. We’re also likely to be internal processors; we think before we speak, rather than thinking out loud. We live from the inside, out.
I can see why this can be confused with shy. We see someone being quiet, or not approaching people at a party, or squirreling away to work on a project, and we think that person is not comfortable with people, i.e., shy. And that person might very well be shy. Or, s/he might simply be introverting. (More on that in a second.)
Your typical introvert enjoys people. Human beings are social creatures – we must interact with others. The introvert needs smaller doses of that interaction, most often on his/her own terms (planning a surprise party for an introvert? You might want to rethink that!). To have the energy for social interaction, solitude is required.
Shyness means that a person is not at ease in the company of others; easily frightened; timid (World English Dictionary). It’s about fear of approaching others.
Can an introvert be a shy person? Yes. Can introvert feel shy on occasion? Of course. Can an extrovert be or feel shy? Absolutely!
So an introvert walks into a party (sounds like the start of a joke, doesn’t it!?). If I’m simply introverting (preserving and pacing my energy), then I’m scoping things out, talking to a few people and slipping away to the restroom or outside so I can take periodic breathers from the activity. I see lots of interesting people in the room. I’m checking things out to see if approaching them is worth the expenditure of energy I know it will require. If I choose not to approach them, it’s not out of fear or shyness; it’s because I’ve decided to preserve or expend my energy in an intentional way.
If I’m a shy person at that party, I’m feeling some anxiety and self-consciousness. I want to talk to people, but I feel too much fear to approach them. Or I’m intimidated. Or the pressure is too much. My decision not to approach them isn’t so much about choice as it is about fear.
To be a shy introvert would be challenging, but in my mind, not as challenging as it would be for the extrovert. The extrovert gains energy from social interaction. If you are a shy extrovert, the fear of interaction is at odds with the need for interaction!
Another difference? You can overcome or work through being shy. In most cases, it’s desirable to make an effort to do so, if it’s showing up in unhealthy ways. You don’t “overcome” or “recover” from being an introvert. It’s not something to recover from! It’s a trait to understand and honor (remember, your sex appeal is at stake here!).
[pullquote]You don’t “overcome” or “recover” from being an introvert. [/pullquote]I’ve taken to thinking of introversion less as a personality trait and more of an energetic trait. Does it influence my personality and how I show up in the world? Definitely. But more than that, my introversion dictates my energy sources and suckers. It informs how I relate to the world, from that inside-out place. When we think of personality, we think of sociability (how likable, friendly or social someone is). That’s why I think shy and introvert continue to be confused. If we think of introversion as being an energetic – rather than social – trait, we might have a prayer of restoring the word to its original and truer meaning.
Some people think common usage trumps correctness. In other words, if we keep using two words interchangeably and society morphs the meaning, then we should just go along with it. There are times when that’s OK (for instance, for the sake of my blood pressure, I’ve given up on the correctness battle between “more than” and “over.”). Other times, it’s not acceptable (its vs it’s, anyone!?). To me, it’s critical to bust the introvert=shy common usage. To allow introversion to continue to be equated with shyness (and visa-verse) is doing a disservice to people with either trait and keeps us from getting information that would best support us.
Please share in the comments: How do you see the difference between introversion and shyness? Are you a shy introvert or extrovert? How has that affected your life?