I have been called a natural introvert since starting to understand myself as a person. In school years, I didn’t get involved with new activities without first cautiously holding back to watch what was happening. At high school, I became a ‘specialist’ in missing my peers’ parties, making excuses such as “sorry, but I had a wretched headache,” whenever I knew there would be loud music, dancing and the torture of having to mingle during the party. When I became a grown-up, I continued refusing invitations to places that were expected to get crowded. At family gatherings, it was commonplace to hear: “Oh, Silvia is quiet, isn’t she?” or “Has the cat got your tongue, love?”
We live in a society that loves and encourages extroverts, making life seem harder for us introverts. It’s no surprise that extroverts are so loved: they act quickly, are outgoing, magnetic, charismatic and appear to be friendly, natural leaders. Actually, what distinguishes an introvert from an extrovert is that the first type has a greater preference for quiet introspection, whilst the second ones seem to prefer interaction in noisy settings to feel at their best. I understand these differences between introverts and extroverts much better after reading former lawyer and bestselling author Susan Cain’s Quiet. Her book made me remember episodes of my life and my career as a manager of police officers at Sao Paulo Civil Police Force, in Brazil. Those episodes made the difference between sink or swim (I know it isn’t bad to be quiet!), others when my nature didn’t matter (what will be will be), regardless of personality and behaviour of the people involved in that situation.
As soon as I joined the police in 1991, family members and my few friends made points, saying that it didn’t seem the right place for someone like me: “We don’t think you’re cut out for the police force, as being so shy and withdrawn, you are going to suffer among your more outgoing work colleagues.”
Anyway, I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life being supported by my parents, nor to continue as a solicitor either (again, not the right nature). So, after working for a short time in a rural police station, I started my career in the Internal Disciplinary Service. There I noticed that our strict and hard Director didn’t approve of my delicate manners to deal with corrupt police officers. I was told he had plans to cut me off and send me to work elsewhere. My job there only involved paperwork, I was never operational, but I don’t think he expected me to be so quiet. As such, after about six months, my presence in that place had been completely overlooked and as that Director had a personal problem with his own boss, he was the one who lost his position. I continued in mine, quietly safe and sound.
Two years later, I was still working hard for the Internal Disciplinary Service, when a new Director decided to promote one of the managers. A person like me would never be considered for that type of promotion, being so quiet and with no friends to pull strings, but one morning the head of administration came to my office and said: “Congratulations, the Director has nominated you for a promotion on merit!” I was puzzled. How could a natural introvert like me be promoted on merit?! Anyway, I went to the Director’s office, to thank him for the nomination. His answer, “As you know, nobody likes the Internal Disciplinary Service. So, we have been given only one place for promotion. My secretary went through all the files and found out you are the oldest manager here by time of service. So, it’s fair enough to nominate you for a promotion on merit. However, it is not going to happen now, there are other managers to be promoted before you, according to what I was told.” I replied: “In this case, thank you very much for the nomination, sir.”
Finding the situation amusing, I quickly put all the issues about the non-promotion to the back of my mind. One month later, I had just arrived at my office, when the head of administration came by again: “Congratulations, you have been promoted on merit! I took a photocopy of the page of the official diary, where your promotion was published, as I thought you would like to keep it with you.” Puzzled again, I went to thank the Director: “But, sir, you had said that despite the nomination, the promotion wouldn’t happen at this time…” His answer, “Have you forgotten I replaced my boss during his last holiday? In doing so, I became the top authority in the police force and promoted you!” It was unbelievable! My promotion by merit had happened because of extraordinary circumstances. I was lucky to have a Director who was known for being “a general without an army,” who promoted an introvert without connections.
I spent the next years wrapped up in my job at the Internal Disciplinary Service, when a new change of Director brought us someone who had worked there before. I wasn’t worried about this, knowing that my competence had been fully proven over the previous seven years. So imagine my shocked surprise when I was told that my removal from that police branch had been published in the official diary! It seemed that the nightmare that hadn’t happened previously had somehow become reality. I had been sent to the Police Academy instead. Talking with a friend about my devastating removal from the Internal Disciplinary Service, she pointed out a possible explanation for my loss, “I think you lost your office because you didn’t know how to make friends. Always working quietly… You weren’t one of the friends of the new Director and his staff.” My response, “But I don’t think I was an enemy either…” She said, “No, surely you were no enemy. But also no friend. You’re such an introvert!”
Was she meaning that I had lost my office by being an introvert? She was probably right, but I don’t think I will ever become the extroverted type, so loved by everybody. But nowadays, more than ever our workplaces are geared around the way extroverts like to work, because it’s said that creativity and productivity comes from chance encounters. So, according to this modern tendency, important conversations only make us more creative and help to generate ideas about how to do things in better ways. However, I gather that if everybody decides to follow this inclination, going out and having conversations all day long aiming to improve production, we will be living on a very noisy planet!
Actually, through being an introvert, I heard the best praise of my life at my headquarters. When I was working at Civil Police Academy in 2001, I had a strict boss. I was known not just for my discretion, but also for my endless patience. Once, fulfilling one of the tasks he had given to me, I made a mistake. He became angry, lecturing me about the importance of “leaving my own world and concentrating in the outside world.” But suddenly, he stopped that lecturing and said: “I shouldn’t be telling you off. You have rare qualities in a human being. You aren’t a nosey parker, you aren’t a gossip.” I shall keep this praise forever in my memory.
I never denied my true nature and always did my best in my job as a manager of police officers, although I clearly had no vocation. Working quietly inside my office in the Police Academy, in 2002 I met my husband; a retired English police officer, who was supervising a course there. We married nearly 13 years ago, I left the police force and moved with him to England, where we have four wonderful children. He isn’t an introvert like me, but he guesses my thoughts and being a happy couple for a long time means we are getting a lot of things right already and we are always finding ways to celebrate or at least acknowledge that, just the two of us.
Nowadays, I can see a lot of my behaviour in my children, with some little differences according to their own identities. As these days it’s common to see 30+ students in UK classrooms, the extroverts are also favoured in that environment, because they speak up and very loudly if necessary. On the top of that, it seems many teachers overlook the needs of introverts to have sufficient time to work through new subjects on their own, creating individually, imagining and revising in their own heads, before getting ready to work with others. Therefore, they push them to join group activities sooner than they would like it. In this way, introverted children inevitably learn to reject their own nature, thinking that ideally they should act like extroverts.
I appreciate that teachers have been trying to figure out how to use the nature of their students to maximise productivity, but I don’t think that educating everybody to behave like extroverts is the right way. I believe that teachers will have to stop encouraging quiet students to speak up, as they should be entitled to their reserved personality, without feeling like a failure. Susan Cain argues that introversion should be more respected, supporting the thesis that introverts need to be allowed to learn and develop at their own pace, without being called aloof or antisocial. When extroverts can finally understand the needs of introverts for more space and stop taking it personally, both major personality types will be able, with all their energy, to live side by side…peacefully.