Why are introverts interesting people to talk to?

Prof. Dr. Detlef Stern

If I mention in a conversation that I count myself among the introverted people, the people I talk to are often amazed. Many only know me in one of my many roles, e.g. via Twitter or as someone who offers courses at a university. Initially, the people I spoke to did not believe me any more than did many of my students. "But you don't notice it on Twitter" or "How can I even give lectures as an introvert?" are frequent replies.

I then think to myself that many mistake me for a shy person. Sure, many introverts are shy too, but there are differences. While shy people have a certain fear of socializing, introverted people focus more on their inner workings. This is why introverted people often seem shy because they tend to be less with many people. But there are also extroverted people who are shy.

As an introvert, I also like to be with people, just not with so many people at once. Parties are not my thing. I even prefer to spend my own birthdays with a few people. In discussions, I always need some time to participate. I prefer to listen to what other people have to say before reacting to them rather than just sorting out my statements.

Larger gatherings of people exert themselves on me, draw energy from me. On the other hand, I can talk to a single person for as long as I want, from which I (also) draw my energy. It seems to be the other way around for extroverted people.

And what about lectures? Are there still 20-50 other people in the same room? During a lecture I play a role, in a way improvised theater. I've trained that over the years. Based on my position, I control communication and even the very extroverted participants keep pausing to listen to me. Nevertheless, I am exhausted after lectures and need a quiet break.

Since the majority of people appear to be extroverts, many think that introverts have some sort of "defect" that needs to be fixed. In the past, left-handers (like me) were also trained to be right-handers.

School reports

Even in elementary school, my teacher at the time seems to want to convert me. After the first year of school he wrote:

Detlef follows the lessons quietly and attentively and only answers questions from the teacher. Even in play, his temperament by no means overflows; he would always prefer to remain a spectator.

Yes! I like to observe and learn a lot from it. I see that as one of my strengths. As a manager, it has helped me a lot to recognize and promote my employees in their strengths.

In the second grade my teacher wrote:

Unfortunately Detlef does not get in touch too often, usually not even when he has something to say about the subject. Courage, Detlef!

That had less to do with courage (even if I was much more shy at the time), but with my observational attitude. Then as now, I need some time to respond to someone else's request to speak. And if someone else has spoken up in the meantime (if you don't listen to others, you can do it faster), then the whole thing starts all over for me.

In third grade, I seem to like my teacher more:

Detlef's performance has improved a bit. This is not least due to the fact that Detlef is now more actively involved in teaching. Keep up the good work, Detlef!

When I read this (and am currently writing) I ask myself which evaluation criteria prevail in our society. In positive terms, one might think that discourse is preferred to quiet reflection. I always think about how many books arose from the discourse.

The semester report for the fourth grade gives further information:

Detlef's achievements have changed little over the past year. Surely he could increase it if he would speak up more often to express his opinion on the questions raised.

Does a well-represented opinion result in increased performance? In many discussions, I always think to myself why my opinion should be important. Why do I have to express my opinion in a discussion? Is it considered gross if you think your opinion or write about it in peace? If others care about my opinion, why don't they ask me?

I always read the last elementary school certificate with a certain amusement:

In the last six months, Detlef tried, with some success, to take part in the oral lessons. He will also have to work well in the future if he wants to assert himself in high school.

That seems to have worked out with the grammar school ...

Seriously, the first few years, in lower and middle school, were rather difficult for me. More or less satisfactory written work was accompanied by a hardly sufficient oral work. I only got along better in high school, because there I no longer just had to learn stupid facts and vocabulary by heart, but was allowed to spend the afternoons thinking about complex things. And how glad I was that that didn't change during my studies.

After that

In the years after my apprenticeship I have been able to use my strength again and again. I was lucky (in part) that my customers and superiors were more convinced of my performance than of my poor extroverted behavior.

In many areas the expectations of a manager seem to be extroverted. The boss as a leader who gathers his subordinates behind him. The superior as a beacon, as an orientation and a better example for his subordinates. But that's just a model.

Another model is that of the manager, who enables employees to perform well. Not as a driver, but as someone who makes achievements possible. No better model, just another one. One in which I was allowed to be successful.

If I'm not too mistaken, many Indian tribes had two chiefs for good reason: one for peacetime and one to lead combat.


Lately I've realized that my introversion is my real strength. It is not a personal defect, not a disease, but something (for me) valuable. I look for situations in which I don't have to "defend myself", try to bring pauses into the conversation.

At the same time, I notice how many social situations are designed for extroverted people. By that I mean, for example, meetings in which people only talk to supposedly strengthen their own position. In conversations during breaks, I am always looked at funny because I say little to nothing. Less introverted people tend to speak up in seminar lectures. Instead, thin thought boards predominate.

I don't want to create a contrast between introverted and extroverted people, on the contrary. I am interested in the fruitful togetherness. Of course also in my own interest ;-)

While introverts tend to prefer small groups, extroverts seem to be more comfortable in larger groups. I have no problem with that. But there are group sizes that can be a good compromise for both types. In sizes of 3-12 people (maybe more, that depends on the people) both types could interact well.

If everyone in a group like this just talks when and how they want, then as an introvert I tend to stay calm. So there have to be "rules" that extroverts shouldn't find too restrictive. What can these look like?

A pure lecture in which only one person speaks seems to be more comfortable for introverts than for extroverts. It is probably the other way around for seminars. Break conversations are more for extroverted people. Both types can bring their strengths to bear in project work, provided you let them.

Our type of society seems to favor extroverts. In the US this seems to be even more pronounced. Do other societies, e.g. the Japanese, value introversion more than we do? Why?

As an introvert, many of these mechanisms have become clear to me, not just from my own (painful?) Experience. How much do extroverts want to leverage the strengths of the introvert? Are you even aware of their strengths? There are many examples of poorly understood introverts, including in leadership positions.

How can situations look like in which both types can contribute their respective strengths without hindering the other?