A few years ago, I walked into an introvert’s nightmare. I had to take a job, for financial reasons, at a high-pressure company. My coworkers were the boisterous and outgoing types. They were on average eight to ten years younger than me, liked office politics, and hated the smallest mistakes. As the new person who did not slickly fall into this pattern, I was soon the outsider. As a self-contained introvert, I was all right with that. I made friends with my ultra-extroverted shift partner but remained on shaky ground with everyone else.
They Mistook Low Self-Worth for Stupidity
I focused on my work. Even though I knew I did not make champagne conversation — you know, the sparkling kind — I wondered why people treated me so borderline disdainfully. I could sense their irritation, even when it was wrapped with politeness.
Then my shift partner called me “stupid” for making a small mistake. Then my boss yelled at me that I was “dumb” because I called him during a night shift when a power failure knocked out the computers and I didn’t know how to get them back online. He even threw the f-word in there.
I overheard people talking about another coworker who got fired for a mistake, and they said the person was “almost as stupid as Jana.” I realized my name had become a measurement for stupidity. Hey, how stupid is this apple? Oh, you know, about three and a quarter Janas. Great.
The cycle was vicious. My self-confidence tanked, and I made more mistakes because of it. It became so bad that I could not stand up to my inner confusion and fear of looking unprofessional. It didn’t help that I was aware that the more mistakes I made, the more their opinion of my minus 400 IQ grew.
To be fair, I knew I was not stupid. However, there was this little siren voice that disagreed. After all, 90 percent of people in your office agreeing on the same thing cannot be wrong. Right?
I cannot remember when I realized the root of their opinion, but at one point, someone told me I was too quiet. For once, there was no judgment. In fact, she shared that while still in school, she was often perceived as backward just because she didn’t talk a lot.
To some extroverts, the quiet ones can seem like starch lumps with empty heads. The truth is our heads think deeply, we just prefer not to speak. The truth is I’ve seen this woman work with numbers, and she’s a mathematical genius.
I worked for three years at that company. When my shift partner got fired for a mistake, I took her place as group leader. I managed hectic shifts alone when we were understaffed. When my work was checked the next day, the same boss expressed his surprise that he could not find a single error. I scored full marks on an exam the company offered to gain a qualification in the security industry. He expressed no surprise. When I left to become a full-time writer, they called and offered me my job back.
Guess I wasn’t that stupid. No, I never went back.
Here’s What You Need to Remember
1. Silence does not equal stupidity.
People prefer silence for a variety of reasons. They could be thinking about something else, other than the group topic. They could be tired. Introverts naturally prefer to listen when others converse, but unfortunately, for some, those who never say much in a group are often viewed as uninteresting. For too many, uninteresting equates with stupidity. This is a very shallow way of looking at people and is simply not true.
2. Reconnection is a daily thing.
Introverts caught in an environment where the outgoing type is preferred need to remind themselves of two things. First, there’s nothing wrong with us — but we do need to honor our quietness on a daily basis. Telling yourself once that you’re a worthy human being is not going to stick against the abrasiveness of judgmental coworkers, friends, or even family. Remember that silence holds great potential for creativity, problem-solving, and healing. That’s hardly the definition of stupidity.
3. Curb contact.
Avoiding toxic people is hard. We work with them and some are family. However, exposure to them can be limited. In the beginning, my coworkers tried to include me. Let’s give credit where it’s due.
However, they gave all the wrong kind of invitations my introvert nature could never be comfortable with. Some of these scenes included all-night, right-through-the-morning parties on the beach. The worst? We all had to work the next day. Just to put a finer point on why hangovers and sleep deprivation were problematic with our line of work — we protected the lives of civilians.
I turned down the invitations as gently as possible but was still branded as old (early 30s) and a boring prude. Needless to say, it contributed to their conclusion that I was stupid. Curbing contact with toxic individuals can have hurtful consequences. Some people fail to see a “no, thank you” as a genuine choice. When you turn their idea down, it’s often perceived as a personal rejection.
But curbing can swing the other way too. In many cases, people stop putting an introvert in uncomfortable situations.
Join the introvert revolution. One email, every Friday. The best introvert articles. Subscribe here.
Dear Fellow Unicorns
Introverts are something of a unicorn. People don’t always believe we exist, and instead brand the quiet ones as misfits, nerds, idiots, or surly. Everything except for what we really are: quiet, intelligent individuals who appreciate a low-stimulus environment. Nobody needs to point out that the world swings the other way. Everything is fast, brutal, and often violent.
Our way of dealing with things is not always understood or respected. But at the heart of introvert action, there’s power and strength. We don’t do things for the fans and the fireworks. We hold our families together. We turn away from the petty fights that set the world on fire.
Again… hardly the definition of stupidity.