Mythbusters: Introverted Doesn’t Mean Impervious

Welcome to 2015 everybody, happy to be here!

I am backlogged on a lot of business writing about introversion, which is in its own way a very good thing! Too few people have spoken about introversion in the past, which has led to its status as an enigmatic and mysterious way of being. If I’m behind, it means that there’s more out there than ever before (or…that I haven’t been reading as much as I should…)

However, every now and again something will pique my interest enough that I feel compelled to respond. Ready? Because here it comes.

On December 31st, John Brandon of Inc. Magazine published a piece called “Why Introverts Should Work Hard to Raise Their Emotional Intelligence.” Now, if you’re anything like me, the title alone evoked a reaction like this:

Hol’ up. What?! IMAGE CREDIT: NoCookie.net

But as I dove into the article, I was somewhat vindicated in that the article wasn’t actually about emotional intelligence. Further, the communications major in me had a lot of fun pulling out what Brandon was actually saying.

The revised thesis: Your emotional intelligence is (probably) fine. But your kinesics may- may – need some work. 

Emotional intelligence is a topic that’s becoming increasingly popular as we insist that recent entrants to the work force lack “soft” skills- the ability to converse civilly with coworkers, empathize with people around them, and other social skills that we’re convinced that increased screen time is to blame for. It is a fascinating construct, and those interested in learning more about what it actually is, should explore the work and research of Daniel Goleman. But it is also a construct that, for the record, is not out of the bounds of introverts. While the conventional definition of introversion implies an inward focus, their propensity to stand back and watch first means they are often exceedingly aware of the emotions of others. And with people they know, even the slightest change in inflection or difference in posture could be picked up on by an introvert; further, they are often well-suited for meaningful and intensive listening.

That definition of emotional intelligence isn’t the one that Brandon speaks about in his article. What he identifies as emotional intelligence, is actually kinesics– the communication that comes through nonverbal cues and behaviors, namely body language. An example (for those who didn’t click through):

I first noticed my problem at meetings when I realized I was folding my arms way too often. It’s cold up here in Minnesota in winter, so maybe I’m trying to give myself a bear hug, but folding your arms sends a hidden messages that you are not that interested in the topic, you are closed off to new ideas, or you’re too pious and smart to really pay attention to other people. I’ve since taken it upon myself to keep my arms unfolded at all times, trying to give the impression that I am more open.

Let’s break down this anecdote, shall we?

Arm folding does elicit the assumptions that Brandon cites, I won’t fight him on that. It is a somewhat defensive stance, and is often assumed to signal standoffishness or disengagement. In fact, this became a topic of conversation several years back on Top Chef: Chicago, when contestant Lisa Fernandes was criticized as defensive of feedback when she stood cross-armed during judging. In reality, she claims that she was most comfortable standing that way, and it wasn’t a signifier of her mental state.

But what Brandon’s talking about is a kinesics issue, not an emotional intelligence issue.

Sitting with my arms crossed in a meeting (or averting my eyes, the other example that Brandon gives) doesn’t mean I’m any less aware of what’s going on in the room, or how other people are feeling. Their propensity for observation before reaction means introverts can be extremely adept at divining how others are feeling or thinking. They may not speak up or approach you about it right away- but they’ve noticed. If I’m being completely honest, this was the element of the piece that frustrated me most.

However, I will grant Brandon the idea that being aware of kinesics is important. Assumptions about attentiveness, dedication, and competence are deeply embedded in the nonverbal cues we display to one another. I am often guilty of equating those on phones at meetings, with a rude disposition, I can own that- even though I’m aware that some of the behaviors we so malign are actually essential to people’s success. So should I be aware of how my stance and idiosyncrasies could be interpreted as an introvert? Yes…but that’s true irrespective of temperament. The argument presented in the article is predicated on the idea that these behaviors are exclusive to introverts, or that they are only perceived as negative if introverts engage in them.

The tendency to cross arms, avert gaze, or carry ourselves in ways that aren’t always the most hospitable, is a universal ailment. The nature of our world, be it because of a technological distraction or because of (completely natural) hesitation to reach out, is such that we sometimes close ourselves off from genuine connection. So rather than ascribing that habit to the quieter members of our families, offices, and society…let’s instead acknowledge that an understanding of kinesics and its occasional implications is essential for everyone: what am I doing? How could it be perceived? What could I do instead?

For example, I’m aware of how sitting or standing cross-armed can appear. Do I stop? Sometimes, yes. But I’ll make sure to compensate for that by appearing alert and holding eye contact. I say often that I don’t believe any (civil) behaviors are out of bounds for anyone of any temperament. But in the case of kinesics, it’s important to ask what am I doing? How could it be perceived? What could I do instead? to prevent misunderstandings or misconceptions such as the one that John Brandon attributed to introverts.

Regardless of your style, do you have any quirks that make people think you’re inattentive? Have you been asked to correct them?

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