Just Let Us Introverts Be Introverts

A couple of years ago I wrote about how I often went entire meetings without saying a word. I called it doing my Clarence Thomas impression.

I suggested that such behavior was probably linked to my introverted nature, as well as a lack of confidence. And not much has changed since I wrote that post.

Sometimes I think what I would have to say is too obvious, so what’s the point. I’m not sure if anyone notices my silent behavior, and if they do, I often wonder what they might be thinking.

I’ve also noticed that there are people who behave the opposite of me- they like to share their opinions at such meetings. I often think what these people have to say is also too obvious, but it doesn’t stop them from speaking up.

Such behavior doesn’t bother me, in fact, deep down I’m probably glad that there are such people at these meetings. If they’re talking, that means I can’t be, which is how I prefer it.

That’s why when I read Dan Ariely’s column in the Wall Street Journal today, I got a little concerned. He mentioned how technology could possibly be used to publicly track how much people talk at meetings.

Dan shared this information as part of his response to a reader who was bothered by the fact that some people interrupt others at meetings by just calling out what’s on their minds. Here’s the original email, followed by Dan’s response:

I’m on the board of trustees of a large nonprofit organization. At our meetings, it can be difficult for the chair to lead the discussion because some members interrupt and don’t raise their hands before speaking. Even though this behavior has been called out, it continues. I’ve also noticed that the men on the board are the most frequent offenders. Is it helpful to call attention to this kind of gender-based entitlement?

Calling out bad behavior and entitlement can lead to temporary improvements, but the change probably won’t last for more than a few meetings, and you’re likely to offend people in the process. A better approach would be to make a structural change.

A few years ago, my lab at Duke University designed a test: at a meeting, we connected all the participants’ microphones to a screen that displayed in real time how much each person was talking. It turned out that simply showing this information led to much more equal participation; in particular, the people who usually never talked started expressing their opinions.

Until this technology is commercially available, you could try using a whiteboard or timer to keep track of how much everyone in your meeting is talking. My guess is that it will help the interrupters realize what they are doing and encourage the quiet ones to participate more.

I would not be a fan of that microphone technology or timers; I already know that I’m not saying much; having that fact publicly displayed would just further erode my confidence. I don’t think it would encourage me to participate more; in fact, it would probably increase the likelihood of my not going to the meeting at all.

Let the extroverts be extroverts and the introverts be introverts. When I’ve got something to say that I think adds some value, I’ll be sure to share it, just don’t try to get me to say something just for the sake of participating.

This is one of the things I like about blogging; it gives me a chance to say what I want to say on a variety of topics when I want to say it, and without interruption.

Maybe at my next meeting, I’ll just spend the time working on my blog. It will be a win-win for everyone involved.

And just remember: “Speech is silver but silence is golden.”

*image from Birth Right