Would You Rather Be Left Alone?
Are you the type who goes out with the gang but always excuses himself early to go home and spend the rest of the evening curled up with a book or watching Netflix? When you say you’re going to the restroom do people say goodbye to you because they know you’re about to make a French exit? When you get several invitations for the same evening do you usually end up ditching all of them?
Do you need time alone to recharge your batteries? Thus, do you enjoy taking long drives alone with the radio off? Savoring meals alone? Reading Time magazine alone? Do you sit in the very first row of the movie theater so that you can at least pretend that you are watching the movie alone, as in with no one else in the entire theater?
At the office do you often end up keeping good ideas to yourself because you’re uncomfortable speaking up at big meetings? Or, if you do speak up, are you a mumbling, incoherent mess because your mind is moving faster than your mouth? Are you overwhelmed and paralyzed at your desk in the open office space? Have you been rushed into a decision by noisy colleagues who say idiotic things like: A wrong decision is better than no decision? Are you offended by the idea that it is better to ask for forgiveness than for permission? Would you rather email than call?
Chances are, you are—like me—what is broadly known as an introvert. Most probably, you’ve been put at a disadvantage because of it and perhaps even bullied for it, too, in one way or another.
Take, for example, the fact that the time-honored social tactic of leaving a big party without saying goodbye was first called a “French exit” by the English. The French, on the other hand, call it “taking an English leave.” In other words, the terms are cross-Channel insults and cultural put-downs, ethnophobic and pejorative. When people say you do it, they are actually calling you rude, somehow inferior, and at best weird. (Really?? All I wanted to do was go home quietly without interrupting everyone’s conversations in order to air-kiss every single person twice!)
What about that young woman at a top-rated steakhouse having dinner alone? The couples and groups at the surrounding tables were practically snickering and clearly whispering made-up stories about her. (What the hell?? She just wanted to eat steak! What’s so strange about that?)
In corporate and business settings, the discrimination is even worse and very serious. Extroverts are celebrated and introverts, disparaged. Promotions go to the good presenters, while the quiet guys who actually create the Powerpoint decks are relegated to pushing the arrow buttons on the laptops forever. Big risk-takers are rewarded with the big bucks, while the cautious observers are lucky to get small fixed fees. Opportunities are given to those who speak in media-friendly sound bites, no matter how insane they sound to the people who actually listen and think. (Bitter Ocampo? Yes.)
It can get so bad for introverts that we often deny who we are and try to force ourselves to change, with disastrous consequences: burn-out and failure; or we suffer from low self-esteem and engage in destructive behavior; or we are simply unable to function.
Fortunately, there are better ways for introverts to live. Over the past 50 years—in the beginning without my even knowing it—I’ve been thinking about this. Back in the first grade, I was asked to lead the entire school in the Panatang Makabayan. Standing beside the flagpole with hundreds of bigger boys and girls looking at me with my little right hand raised, I froze and forgot the words of the pledge. From then on, I’ve been trying to figure out how to avoid or get through situations like that. Still, there were other incidents when I got tripped up by my introversion. Early in my career, for instance, after a stressful industry association election, I was suddenly asked to give the opening prayer at the inaugural board meeting. I totally blanked. I resigned from the board not long after. The twenty years since that embarrassment have taught me a lot. Some of it may sound funny, especially to the outgoing types out there, but they are lifesavers.
Survival (and Success) Strategies for Introverts
1. Make time and space for yourself.
Carl Jung first described an extrovert as someone who feeds off the energy of others; whereas the energy of an introvert is actually sapped by being with others. Extroverts need and enjoy inputs, while introverts are super sensitive and can easily get overstimulated. The trick for introverts is to carve out a little “me time” every couple of days. Have a secret lunch spot that you can escape to in the middle of the day. It doesn’t have to be empty, for as long as the people there don’t know you and no officemates ever show up. It can be an out-of-the-way ramen place, Tropical Hut or UCC—anywhere you can gather yourself for a few minutes before rejoining the rat race. (My absolute favorite secret lunch spot was in Cebu where I worked in the early 90’s. I could drive out to a beach resort and be back at the office, refreshed, by the time the lunch break ended.)
Aside from me time, you also need to protect your personal space. Forget the open door policy. Close your door now and then and let people know that when your door is closed they should stay the f*ck out. If you don’t have the luxury of an office with a door, you need to have a facial expression that tells people to stay the f*ck away. Use the face especially for those jolly people who just bounce around with nothing important to say.
2. Structure your interactions with others.
Introverts are not necessarily anti-social. It’s just that we prefer smaller groups of friends and relatives with whom we can have meaningful conversations. Unfortunately, large gatherings and small talk can’t always be avoided. The solution? Arrive early. There’s a good chance you will enjoy talking with a few fellow early birds. Then, when the party people start arriving, you’ve already put in your time and can ghost your way out.
In work situations, you may be at your best doing deep dives into problems on your own, but you will probably have to collaborate with others, too. One technique is to join or build a team to work with on a regular basis. By this I mean you should try to work consistently with the same people and on fixed days of the week. Even better, set your team meetings over comfort food. Corned beef breakfasts. Siopao Wednesdays. Sisig Fridays. So much less stress that way. (Of course, my Crispy Pata Tuesdays in Pasig were the best.)
3. Prepare, prepare, prepare.
Winston Churchill, incredibly, was an introvert. He succeeded as a parliamentarian, prime minister and wartime leader partly because he wrote out all his speeches beforehand and rehearsed them. You may not be rallying a nation to fight on the beaches, to fight on the landing grounds and to never surrender, but you, too, can benefit from preparation. Map out the agenda of every meeting with your talking points for every item. Go as far as choosing the exact words you want to use. Don’t rely on your memory for this! Write it all out. On your phone, laptop or good old yellow pad. (Secret: I used to carry written talking points on a little piece of paper when I visited this girl whom I successfully married 31 years ago this month.)
So there: Find moments to be alone, structure your interactions, and prepare.
It gave me great pleasure to be able to organize this in my head and share it with everyone. To be able to do so, I wrote very early in the morning when the rest of the world was still sleeping. (Me time.) I assured myself that publishing through the internet would allow me to reach people yet keep them beyond an arm’s length away. (Structure.) And I read books and articles on the subject, notably Susan Cain’s 2012 book “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking”. (Preparation.)
The little boy who froze after reciting the words “Iniibig ko ang Pilipinas” can finally relax.