Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking - Susan Cain (2012)
Part IV. HOW TO LOVE, HOW TO WORK
Chapter 10. THE COMMUNICATION GAP
How to Talk to Members of the Opposite Type
The meeting of two personalities is like the contact of two chemical substances; if there is any reaction, both are transformed.
If introverts and extroverts are the north and south of temperament—opposite ends of a single spectrum—then how can they possibly get along? Yet the two types are often drawn to each other—in friendship, business, and especially romance. These pairs can enjoy great excitement and mutual admiration, a sense that each completes the other. One tends to listen, the other to talk; one is sensitive to beauty, but also to slings and arrows, while the other barrels cheerfully through his days; one pays the bills and the other arranges the children’s play dates. But it can also cause problems when members of these unions pull in opposite directions.
Greg and Emily are an example of an introvert-extrovert couple who love and madden each other in equal measure. Greg, who just turned thirty, has a bounding gait, a mop of dark hair continually falling over his eyes, and an easy laugh. Most people would describe him as gregarious. Emily, a mature twenty-seven, is as self-contained as Greg is expansive. Graceful and soft-spoken, she keeps her auburn hair tied in a chignon, and often gazes at people from under lowered lashes.
Greg and Emily complement each other beautifully. Without Greg, Emily might forget to leave the house, except to go to work. But without Emily, Greg would feel—paradoxically for such a social creature—alone.
Before they met, most of Greg’s girlfriends were extroverts. He says he enjoyed those relationships, but never got to know his girlfriends well, because they were always “plotting how to be with groups of people.” He speaks of Emily with a kind of awe, as if she has access to a deeper state of being. He also describes her as “the anchor” around which his world revolves.
Emily, for her part, treasures Greg’s ebullient nature; he makes her feel happy and alive. She has always been attracted to extroverts, who she says “do all the work of making conversation. For them, it’s not work at all.”
The trouble is that for most of the five years they’ve been together, Greg and Emily have been having one version or another of the same fight. Greg, a music promoter with a large circle of friends, wants to host dinner parties every Friday—casual, animated get-togethers with heaping bowls of pasta and flowing bottles of wine. He’s been giving Friday-night dinners since he was a senior in college, and they’ve become a highlight of his week and a treasured piece of his identity.
Emily has come to dread these weekly events. A hardworking staff attorney for an art museum and a very private person, the last thing she wants to do when she gets home from work is entertain. Her idea of a perfect start to the weekend is a quiet evening at the movies, just her and Greg.
It seems an irreconcilable difference: Greg wants fifty-two dinner parties a year, Emily wants zero.
Greg says that Emily should make more of an effort. He accuses her of being antisocial. “I am social,” she says. “I love you, I love my family, I love my close friends. I just don’t love dinner parties. People don’t really relate at those parties—they just socialize. You’re lucky because I devote all my energy to you. You spread yours around to everyone.”
But Emily soon backs off, partly because she hates fighting, but also because she doubts herself. Maybe I am antisocial, she thinks. Maybe there is something wrong with me. Whenever she and Greg argue about this, she’s flooded with childhood memories: how school was tougher for her than for her emotionally hardier younger sister; how she seemed to worry more than other people did about social issues, like how to say no when someone asked her to get together after school and she preferred to stay home. Emily had plenty of friends—she’s always had a talent for friendship—but she never traveled in packs.
Emily has suggested a compromise: What if Greg gives his dinner parties whenever she’s out of town visiting her sister? But Greg doesn’t want to host dinners by himself. He loves Emily and wants to be with her, and so does everyone else, once they get to know her. So why does Emily withdraw?
This question, for Greg, is more than mere pique. Being alone for him is a kind of Kryptonite; it makes him feel weak. He had looked forward to a married life of shared adventures. He’d imagined being part of a couple at the center of things. And he’d never admitted it to himself, but for him being married meant never having to be by himself. But now Emily is saying that he should socialize without her. He feels as if she’s backing out of a fundamental part of their marriage contract. And he believes that something is indeed wrong with his wife.
Is something wrong with me? It’s not surprising that Emily asks herself this question, or that Greg aims this charge at her. Probably the most common—and damaging—misunderstanding about personality type is that introverts are antisocial and extroverts are pro-social. But as we’ve seen, neither formulation is correct; introverts and extroverts are differently social. What psychologists call “the need for intimacy” is present in introverts and extroverts alike. In fact, people who value intimacy highly don’t tend to be, as the noted psychologist David Buss puts it, “the loud, outgoing, life-of-the-party extrovert.” They are more likely to be someone with a select group of close friends, who prefers “sincere and meaningful conversations over wild parties.” They are more likely to be someone like Emily.
Conversely, extroverts do not necessarily seek closeness from their socializing. “Extroverts seem to need people as a forum to fill needs for social impact, just as a general needs soldiers to fill his or her need to lead,” the psychologist William Graziano told me. “When extroverts show up at a party, everyone knows they are present.”
Your degree of extroversion seems to influence how many friends you have, in other words, but not how good a friend you are. In a study of 132 college students at Humboldt University in Berlin, the psychologists Jens Aspendorf and Susanne Wilpers set out to understand the effect of different personality traits on students’ relationships with their peers and families. They focused on the so-called Big Five traits: Introversion-Extroversion; Agreeableness; Openness to Experience; Conscientiousness; and Emotional Stability. (Many personality psychologists believe that human personality can be boiled down to these five characteristics.)
Aspendorf and Wilpers predicted that the extroverted students would have an easier time striking up new friendships than the introverts, and this was indeed the case. But if the introverts were truly antisocial and extroverts pro-social, then you’d suppose that the students with the most harmonious relationships would also be highest in extroversion. And this was not the case at all. Instead, the students whose relationships were freest of conflict had high scores for agreeableness. Agreeable people are warm, supportive, and loving; personality psychologists have found that if you sit them down in front of a computer screen of words, they focus longer than others do on words like caring, console, and help, and a shorter time on words like abduct, assault, and harass. Introverts and extroverts are equally likely to be agreeable; there is no correlation between extroversion and agreeableness. This explains why some extroverts love the stimulation of socializing but don’t get along particularly well with those closest to them.
It also helps explain why some introverts—like Emily, whose talent for friendship suggests that she’s a highly agreeable type herself—lavish attention on their family and close friends but dislike small talk. So when Greg labels Emily “antisocial,” he’s off base. Emily nurtures her marriage in just the way that you’d expect an agreeable introvert to do, making Greg the center of her social universe.
Except when she doesn’t. Emily has a demanding job, and sometimes when she gets home at night she has little energy left. She’s always happy to see Greg, but sometimes she’d rather sit next to him reading than go out for dinner or make animated conversation. Simply to be in his company is enough. For Emily, this is perfectly natural, but Greg feels hurt that she makes an effort for her colleagues and not for him.
This was a painfully common dynamic in the introvert-extrovert couples I interviewed: the introverts desperately craving downtime and understanding from their partners, the extroverts longing for company, and resentful that others seemed to benefit from their partners’ “best” selves.
It can be hard for extroverts to understand how badly introverts need to recharge at the end of a busy day. We all empathize with a sleep-deprived mate who comes home from work too tired to talk, but it’s harder to grasp that social overstimulation can be just as exhausting.
It’s also hard for introverts to understand just how hurtful their silence can be. I interviewed a woman named Sarah, a bubbly and dynamic high school English teacher married to Bob, an introverted law school dean who spends his days fund-raising, then collapses when he gets home. Sarah cried tears of frustration and loneliness as she told me about her marriage.
“When he’s on the job, he’s amazingly engaging,” she said. “Everyone tells me that he’s so funny and I’m so lucky to be married to him. And I want to throttle them. Every night, as soon as we’re done eating, he jumps up and cleans the kitchen. Then he wants to read the paper alone and work on his photography by himself. At around nine, he comes into the bedroom and wants to watch TV and be with me. But he’s not really with me even then. He wants me to lay my head on his shoulder while we stare at the TV. It’s a grownup version of parallel play.” Sarah is trying to convince Bob to make a career change. “I think we’d have a great life if he had a job where he could sit at the computer all day, but he’s consistently fund-raising,” she says.
In couples where the man is introverted and the woman extroverted, as with Sarah and Bob, we often mistake personality conflicts for gender difference, then trot out the conventional wisdom that “Mars” needs to retreat to his cave while “Venus” prefers to interact. But whatever the reason for these differences in social needs—whether gender or temperament—what’s important is that it’s possible to work through them. In The Audacity of Hope, for example, President Obama confides that early in his marriage to Michelle, he was working on his first book and “would often spend the evening holed up in my office in the back of our railroad apartment; what I considered normal often left Michelle feeling lonely.” He attributes his own style to the demands of writing and to having been raised mostly as an only child, and then says that he and Michelle have learned over the years to meet each other’s needs, and to see them as legitimate.
It can also be hard for introverts and extroverts to understand each other’s ways of resolving differences. One of my clients was an immaculately dressed lawyer named Celia. Celia wanted a divorce, but dreaded letting her husband know. She had good reasons for her decision but anticipated that he would beg her to stay and that she would crumple with guilt. Above all, Celia wanted to deliver her news compassionately.
We decided to role-play their discussion, with me acting as her husband.
“I want to end this marriage,” said Celia. “I mean it this time.”
“I’ve been doing everything I can to hold things together,” I pleaded. “How can you do this to me?”
Celia thought for a minute.
“I’ve spent a lot of time thinking this through, and I believe this is the right decision,” she replied in a wooden voice.
“What can I do to change your mind?” I asked.
“Nothing,” said Celia flatly.
Feeling for a minute what her husband would feel, I was dumbstruck. She was so rote, so dispassionate. She was about to divorce me—me, her husband of eleven years! Didn’t she care?
I asked Celia to try again, this time with emotion in her voice.
“I can’t,” she said. “I can’t do it.”
But she did. “I want to end this marriage,” she repeated, her voice choked with sadness. She began to weep uncontrollably.
Celia’s problem was not lack of feeling. It was how to show her emotions without losing control. Reaching for a tissue, she quickly gathered herself, and went back into crisp, dispassionate lawyer mode. These were the two gears to which she had ready access—overwhelming feelings or detached self-possession.
I tell you Celia’s story because in many ways she’s a lot like Emily and many introverts I’ve interviewed. Emily is talking to Greg about dinner parties, not divorce, but her communication style echoes Celia’s. When she and Greg disagree, her voice gets quiet and flat, her manner slightly distant. What she’s trying to do is minimize aggression—Emily is uncomfortable with anger—but she appears to be receding emotionally. Meanwhile, Greg does just the opposite, raising his voice and sounding belligerent as he gets ever more engaged in working out their problem. The more Emily seems to withdraw, the more alone, then hurt, then enraged Greg becomes; the angrier he gets, the more hurt and distaste Emily feels, and the deeper she retreats. Pretty soon they’re locked in a destructive cycle from which they can’t escape, partly because both spouses believe they’re arguing in an appropriate manner.
This dynamic shouldn’t surprise anyone familiar with the relationship between personality and conflict resolution style. Just as men and women often have different ways of resolving conflict, so do introverts and extroverts; studies suggest that the former tend to be conflict-avoiders, while the latter are “confrontive copers,” at ease with an up-front, even argumentative style of disagreement.
These are diametrically opposite approaches, so they’re bound to create friction. If Emily didn’t mind conflict so much, she might not react so strongly to Greg’s head-on approach; if Greg were milder-mannered, he might appreciate Emily’s attempt to keep a lid on things. When people have compatible styles of conflict, a disagreement can be an occasion for each partner to affirm the other’s point of view. But Greg and Emily seem to understand each other a little less each time they argue in a way that the other disapproves of.
Do they also like each other a little less, at least for the duration of the fight? An illuminating study by the psychologist William Graziano suggests that the answer to this question might be yes. Graziano divided a group of sixty-one male students into teams to play a simulated football game. Half the participants were assigned to a cooperative game, in which they were told, “Football is useful to us because to be successful in football, team members have to work well together.” The other half were assigned to a game emphasizing competition between teams. Each student was then shown slides and fabricated biographical information about his teammates and his competitors on the other team, and asked to rate how he felt about the other players.
The differences between introverts and extroverts were remarkable. The introverts assigned to the cooperative game rated all players—not just their competitors, but also their teammates—more positively than the introverts who played the competitive game. The extroverts did just the opposite: they rated all players more positively when they played the competitive version of the game. These findings suggest something very important: introverts like people they meet in friendly contexts; extroverts prefer those they compete with.
A very different study, in which robots interacted with stroke patients during physical rehabilitation exercises, yielded strikingly similar results. Introverted patients responded better and interacted longer with robots that were designed to speak in a soothing, gentle manner: “I know it is hard, but remember that it’s for your own good,” and, “Very nice, keep up the good work.” Extroverts, on the other hand, worked harder for robots that used more bracing, aggressive language: “You can do more than that, I know it!” and “Concentrate on your exercise!”
These findings suggest that Greg and Emily face an interesting challenge. If Greg likes people more when they’re behaving forcefully or competitively, and if Emily feels the same way about nurturing, cooperative people, then how can they reach a compromise about their dinner-party impasse—and get there in a loving way?
An intriguing answer comes from a University of Michigan business school study, not of married couples with opposite personality styles, but of negotiators from different cultures—in this case, Asians and Israelis. Seventy-six MBA students from Hong Kong and Israel were asked to imagine they were getting married in a few months and had to finalize arrangements with a catering company for the wedding reception. This “meeting” took place by video.
Some of the students were shown a video in which the business manager was friendly and smiley; the others saw a video featuring an irritable and antagonistic manager. But the caterer’s message was the same in both cases. Another couple was interested in the same wedding date. The price had gone up. Take it or leave it.
The students from Hong Kong reacted very differently from the Israeli students. The Asians were far more likely to accept a proposal from the friendly business manager than from the hostile one; only 14 percent were willing to work with the difficult manager, while 71 percent accepted the deal from the smiling caterer. But the Israelis were just as likely to accept the deal from either manager. In other words, for the Asian negotiators, style counted as well as substance, while the Israelis were more focused on the information being conveyed. They were unmoved by a display of either sympathetic or hostile emotions.
The explanation for this stark difference has to do with how the two cultures define respect. As we saw in chapter 8, many Asian people show esteem by minimizing conflict. But Israelis, say the researchers, “are not likely to view [disagreement] as a sign of disrespect, but as a signal that the opposing party is concerned and is passionately engaged in the task.”
We might say the same of Greg and Emily. When Emily lowers her voice and flattens her affect during fights with Greg, she thinks she’s being respectful by taking the trouble not to let her negative emotions show. But Greg thinks she’s checking out or, worse, that she doesn’t give a damn. Similarly, when Greg lets his anger fly, he assumes that Emily feels, as he does, that this is a healthy and honest expression of their deeply committed relationship. But to Emily, it’s as if Greg has suddenly turned on her.
In her book Anger: The Misunderstood Emotion, Carol Tavris recounts a story about a Bengali cobra that liked to bite passing villagers. One day a swami—a man who has achieved self-mastery—convinces the snake that biting is wrong. The cobra vows to stop immediately, and does. Before long, the village boys grow unafraid of the snake and start to abuse him. Battered and bloodied, the snake complains to the swami that this is what came of keeping his promise.
“I told you not to bite,” said the swami, “but I did not tell you not to hiss.”
“Many people, like the swami’s cobra, confuse the hiss with the bite,” writes Tavris.
Many people—like Greg and Emily. Both have much to learn from the swami’s story: Greg to stop biting, Emily that it’s OK for him—and for her—to hiss.
Greg can start by changing his assumptions about anger. He believes, as most of us do, that venting anger lets off steam. The “catharsis hypothesis”—that aggression builds up inside us until it’s healthily released—dates back to the Greeks, was revived by Freud, and gained steam during the “let it all hang out” 1960s of punching bags and primal screams. But the catharsis hypothesis is a myth—a plausible one, an elegant one, but a myth nonetheless. Scores of studies have shown that venting doesn’t soothe anger; it fuels it.
We’re best off when we don’t allow ourselves to go to our angry place. Amazingly, neuroscientists have even found that people who use Botox, which prevents them from making angry faces, seem to be less anger-prone than those who don’t, because the very act of frowning triggers the amygdala to process negative emotions. And anger is not just damaging in the moment; for days afterward, venters have repair work to do with their partners. Despite the popular fantasy of fabulous sex after fighting, many couples say that it takes time to feel loving again.
What can Greg do to calm down when he feels his fury mounting? He can take a deep breath. He can take a ten-minute break. And he can ask himself whether the thing that’s making him so angry is really that important. If not, he might let it go. But if it is, then he’ll want to phrase his needs not as personal attacks but as neutral discussion items. “You’re so antisocial!” can become “Can we figure out a way to organize our weekends that works for us both?”
This advice would hold even if Emily weren’t a sensitive introvert (no one likes to feel dominated or disrespected), but it so happens that Greg’s married to a woman who is especially put off by anger. So he needs to respond to the conflict-avoidant wife he has, not the confrontational one that he wishes, at least in the heat of the moment, he were married to.
Now let’s look at Emily’s side of the equation. What could she be doing differently? She’s right to protest when Greg bites—when he attacks unfairly—but what about when he hisses? Emily might address her own counterproductive reactions to anger, among them her tendency to slip into a cycle of guilt and defensiveness. We know from chapter 6 that many introverts are prone from earliest childhood to strong guilt feelings; we also know that we all tend to project our own reactions onto others. Because conflict-avoidant Emily would never “bite” or even hiss unless Greg had done something truly horrible, on some level she processes his bite to mean that she’s terribly guilty—of something, anything, who knows what? Emily’s guilt feels so intolerable that she tends to deny the validity of all of Greg’s claims—the legitimate ones along with those exaggerated by anger. This, of course, leads to a vicious cycle in which she shuts down her natural empathy and Greg feels unheard.
So Emily needs to accept that it’s OK to be in the wrong. At first she may have trouble puzzling out when she is and when she isn’t; the fact that Greg expresses his grievances with such passion makes it hard to sort this out. But Emily must try not to get dragged into this morass. When Greg makes legitimate points, she should acknowledge them, not only to be a good partner to her husband, but also to teach herself that it’s OK to have transgressed. This will make it easier for her not to feel hurt—and to fight back—when Greg’s claims are unjustified.
Fight back? But Emily hates fighting.
That’s OK. She needs to become more comfortable with the sound of her own hiss. Introverts may be hesitant to cause disharmony, but, like the passive snake, they should be equally worried about encouraging vitriol from their partners. And fighting back may not invite retaliation, as Emily fears; instead it may encourage Greg to back off. She need not put on a huge display. Often, a firm “that’s not OK with me” will do.
Every once in a while, Emily might also want to step outside her usual comfort zone and let her own anger fly. Remember, for Greg, heat means connection. In the same way that the extroverted players in the football game study felt warmly toward their fellow competitors, so Greg may feel closer to Emily if she can take on just a little of the coloration of a pumped-up player, ready to take the field.
Emily can also overcome her own distaste for Greg’s behavior by reminding herself that he’s not really as aggressive as he seems. John, an introvert I interviewed who has a great relationship with his fiery wife, describes how he learned to do this after twenty-five years of marriage:
When Jennifer’s after me about something, she’s really after me. If I went to bed without tidying the kitchen, the next morning she’ll shout at me, “This kitchen is filthy!” I come in and look around the kitchen. There are three or four cups out; it’s not filthy. But the drama with which she imbues such moments is natural to her. That’s her way of saying, Gee, when you get a chance I’d appreciate it if you could just tidy up the kitchen a little more. If she did say it that way to me, I would say, I’d be happy to, and I’m sorry that I didn’t do it sooner. But because she comes at me with that two-hundred-mile-per-hour freight-train energy, I want to bridle and say, Too bad. The reason I don’t is because we’ve been married for twenty-five years, and I’ve come to understand that Jennifer didn’t put me in a life-threatening situation when she spoke that way.
So what’s John’s secret for relating to his forceful wife? He lets her know that her words were unacceptable, but he also tries to listen to their meaning. “I try to tap into my empathy,” he says. “I take her tone out of the equation. I take out the assault on my senses, and I try to get to what she’s trying to say.”
And what Jennifer is trying to say, underneath her freight-train words, is often quite simple: Respect me. Pay attention to me. Love me.
Greg and Emily now have valuable insights about how to talk through their differences. But there’s one more question they need to answer: Why exactly do they experience those Friday-night dinner parties so differently? We know that Emily’s nervous system probably goes into overdrive when she enters a room full of people. And we know that Greg feels the opposite: propelled toward people, conversations, events, anything that gives him that dopamine-fueled, go-for-it sensation that extroverts crave. But let’s dig a little deeper into the anatomy of cocktail-hour chatter. The key to bridging Greg and Emily’s differences lies in the details.
Some years ago, thirty-two pairs of introverts and extroverts, all of them strangers to each other, chatted on the phone for a few minutes as part of an experiment conducted by a neuroscientist named Dr. Matthew Lieberman, then a graduate student at Harvard. When they hung up, they were asked to fill out detailed questionnaires, rating how they’d felt and behaved during the conversation. How much did you like your conversational partner? How friendly were you? How much would you like to interact with this person again? They were also asked to put themselves in the shoes of their conversational partners: How much did your partner like you? How sensitive was she to you? How encouraging?
Lieberman and his team compared the answers and also listened in on the conversations and made their own judgments about how the parties felt about each other. They found that the extroverts were a lot more accurate than the introverts in assessing whether their partner liked talking to them. These findings suggest that extroverts are better at decoding social cues than introverts. At first, this seems unsurprising, writes Lieberman; it echoes the popular assumption that extroverts are better at reading social situations. The only problem, as Lieberman showed through a further twist to his experiment, is that this assumption is not quite right.
Lieberman and his team asked a select group of participants to listen to a tape of the conversations they’d just had—before filling out the questionnaire. In this group, he found, there was no difference between introverts and extroverts in their ability to read social cues. Why?
The answer is that the subjects who listened to the tape recording were able to decode social cues without having to do anything else at the same time. And introverts are pretty fine decoders, according to several studies predating the Lieberman experiments. One of these studies actually found that introverts were better decoders than extroverts.
But these studies measured how well introverts observe social dynamics, not how well they participate in them. Participation places a very different set of demands on the brain than observing does. It requires a kind of mental multitasking: the ability to process a lot of short-term information at once without becoming distracted or overly stressed. This is just the sort of brain functioning that extroverts tend to be well suited for. In other words, extroverts are sociable because their brains are good at handling competing demands on their attention—which is just what dinner-party conversation involves. In contrast, introverts often feel repelled by social events that force them to attend to many people at once.
Consider that the simplest social interaction between two people requires performing an astonishing array of tasks: interpreting what the other person is saying; reading body language and facial expressions; smoothly taking turns talking and listening; responding to what the other person said; assessing whether you’re being understood; determining whether you’re well received, and, if not, figuring out how to improve or remove yourself from the situation. Think of what it takes to juggle all this at once! And that’s just a one-on-one conversation. Now imagine the multitasking required in a group setting like a dinner party.
So when introverts assume the observer role, as when they write novels, or contemplate unified field theory—or fall quiet at dinner parties—they’re not demonstrating a failure of will or a lack of energy. They’re simply doing what they’re constitutionally suited for.
The Lieberman experiment helps us understand what trips up introverts socially. It doesn’t show us how they can shine.
Consider the case of an unassuming-looking fellow named Jon Berghoff. Jon is a stereotypical introvert, right down to his physical appearance: lean, wiry body; sharply etched nose and cheekbones; thoughtful expression on his bespectacled face. He’s not much of a talker, but what he says is carefully considered, especially when he’s in a group: “If I’m in a room with ten people and I have a choice between talking and not talking,” he says, “I’m the one not talking. When people ask, ‘Why aren’t you saying anything?’ I’m the guy they’re saying it to.”
Jon is also a standout salesman, and has been ever since he was a teenager. In the summer of 1999, when he was still a junior in high school, he started working as an entry-level distributor, selling Cutco kitchen products. The job had him going into customers’ homes, selling knives. It was one of the most intimate sales situations imaginable, not in a boardroom or a car dealership, but inside a potential client’s kitchen, selling them a product they’d use daily to help put food on the table.
Within Jon’s first eight weeks on the job, he sold $50,000 worth of knives. He went on to be the company’s top representative from over 40,000 new recruits that year. By the year 2000, when he was still a high school senior, Jon had generated more than $135,000 in commissions and had broken more than twenty-five national and regional sales records. Meanwhile, back in high school, he was still a socially awkward guy who hid inside the library at lunchtime. But by 2002 he’d recruited, hired, and trained ninety other sales reps, and increased territory sales 500 percent over the previous year. Since then, Jon has launched Global Empowerment Coaching, his own personal coaching and sales training business. To date he’s given hundreds of speeches, training seminars, and private consultations to more than 30,000 salespeople and managers.
What’s the secret of Jon’s success? One important clue comes from an experiment by the developmental psychologist Avril Thorne, now a professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Thorne gathered fifty-two young women—twenty-six introverts and twenty-six extroverts—and assigned them to two different conversational pairings. Each person had one ten-minute conversation with a partner of her own type and a second conversation of equal length with her “dispositional opposite.” Thorne’s team taped the conversations and asked the participants to listen to a playback tape.
This process revealed some surprising findings. The introverts and extroverts participated about equally, giving the lie to the idea that introverts always talk less. But the introvert pairs tended to focus on one or two serious subjects of conversation, while the extrovert pairs chose lighter-hearted and wider-ranging topics. Often the introverts discussed problems or conflicts in their lives: school, work, friendships, and so on. Perhaps because of this fondness for “problem talk,” they tended to adopt the role of adviser, taking turns counseling each other on the problem at hand. The extroverts, by contrast, were more likely to offer casual information about themselves that established commonality with the other person: You have a new dog? That’s great. A friend of mine has an amazing tank of saltwater fish!
But the most interesting part of Thorne’s experiment was how much the two types appreciated each other. Introverts talking to extroverts chose cheerier topics, reported making conversation more easily, and described conversing with extroverts as a “breath of fresh air.” In contrast, the extroverts felt that they could relax more with introvert partners and were freer to confide their problems. They didn’t feel pressure to be falsely upbeat.
These are useful pieces of social information. Introverts and extroverts sometimes feel mutually put off, but Thorne’s research suggests how much each has to offer the other. Extroverts need to know that introverts—who often seem to disdain the superficial—may be only too happy to be tugged along to a more lighthearted place; and introverts, who sometimes feel as if their propensity for problem talk makes them a drag, should know that they make it safe for others to get serious.
Thorne’s research also helps us to understand Jon Berghoff’s astonishing success at sales. He has turned his affinity for serious conversation, and for adopting an advisory role rather than a persuasive one, into a kind of therapy for his prospects. “I discovered early on that people don’t buy from me because they understand what I’m selling,” explains Jon. “They buy because they feel understood.”
Jon also benefits from his natural tendency to ask a lot of questions and to listen closely to the answers. “I got to the point where I could walk into someone’s house and instead of trying to sell them some knives, I’d ask a hundred questions in a row. I could manage the entire conversation just by asking the right questions.” Today, in his coaching business, Jon does the same thing. “I try to tune in to the radio station of the person I’m working with. I pay attention to the energy they exude. It’s easy for me to do that because I’m in my head a lot, anyways.”
But doesn’t salesmanship require the ability to get excited, to pump people up? Not according to Jon. “A lot of people believe that selling requires being a fast talker, or knowing how to use charisma to persuade. Those things do require an extroverted way of communicating. But in sales there’s a truism that ‘we have two ears and one mouth and we should use them proportionately.’ I believe that’s what makes someone really good at selling or consulting—the number-one thing is they’ve got to really listen well. When I look at the top salespeople in my organization, none of those extroverted qualities are the key to their success.”
And now back to Greg and Emily’s impasse. We’ve just acquired two crucial pieces of information: first, Emily’s distaste for conversational multitasking is real and explicable; and second, when introverts are able to experience conversations in their own way, they make deep and enjoyable connections with others.
It was only once they accepted these two realities that Greg and Emily found a way to break their stalemate. Instead of focusing on the number of dinner parties they’d give, they started talking about the format of the parties. Instead of seating everyone around a big table, which would require the kind of all-hands conversational multitasking Emily dislikes so much, why not serve dinner buffet style, with people eating in small, casual conversational groupings on the sofas and floor pillows? This would allow Greg to gravitate to his usual spot at the center of the room and Emily to hers on the outskirts, where she could have the kind of intimate, one-on-one conversations she enjoys.
This issue solved, the couple was now free to address the thornier question of how many parties to give. After some back-and-forth, they agreed on two evenings a month—twenty-four dinners a year—instead of fifty-two. Emily still doesn’t look forward to these events. But she sometimes enjoys them in spite of herself. And Greg gets to host the evenings he enjoys so much, to hold on to his identity, and to be with the person he most adores—all at the same time.