I recently discovered that introversion and shyness are not the same thing. I was operating under the (misguided) impression that “introvert” and “extrovert” were synonymous with “shy” and “outgoing.” This is inaccurate. Introversion and extroversion merely refer to where we get our energy from, or how we recharge our brains:
Introverts recharge by spending time alone. They lose energy from interacting with other people for long periods of time, particularly in stimulating, crowded environments.
Extroverts, conversely, lose energy from spending time alone. They recharge by interacting with other people in highly social environments.
This personality dimension has nothing to do with shyness. According to author Susan Cain, presiding commander in chief of the introverts, shyness is a fear of negative judgment, while introversion is a preference for quiet, minimally stimulating environments. In other words, a lack of interest in socializing (introversion) is clearly different than fearing it (shyness).
A second popular misconception about introverts and extroverts is that people are definitively one or the other. Carl Jung, who introduced the terms in the first place, underscored the importance of the sliding-scale interpretation, claiming that if “pure” introverts and extroverts did indeed exist, they would be institutionalized. Most people actually fall somewhere in between the two, exhibiting stronger tendencies toward one or the other. Left- and right-handedness is a fitting analogy: most people will be one or the other, but the writing with one hand doesn’t render the other inoperative.
All of this makes sense to me. My personality skews toward introversion–I consider myself a member of the growing band of introverts that are becoming increasingly disgruntled about nightmarish desk pods–but I am not shy. I find networking events and conferences draining, but not because I’m afraid of small talk or initiating conversations with strangers; I would just rather go spend some quality time with the plants in my apartment to recharge after meeting and greeting.
Networking is an essential skill. Everyone has to do it, and better yet, do it well. There’s a lot out there already about how to network if you’re shy (under the guise of how-to-network-if-you’re-an-introvert), which is useful, but a separate topic. Let’s talk about how to network as an introvert without losing your mind.
Approach a large networking event like a chess grandmaster–always be thinking a few steps ahead. Large, crowded events aren’t designed for cultivating deep relationships, but rather for making initial contact. Use your time and energy at large events purposefully: spend just enough time with a person that you will feel comfortable emailing afterwards to arrange a coffee or other one-on-one meetup (and keep in mind that this threshold is pretty low for most friendly humans). Meet a few people, establish quick connections, and escape, ready to follow up on your fledgling relationships!
If breaks aren’t built into your conference schedule, invent some! There’s a great post on Lifehacker that talks about making alternative plans to explore a mysterious castle to break up a long weekend into more manageable chunks. Similarly, if I’m going to an all-day (or longer) event, I’ll plan ahead for alone time, whether that’s a ten-minute walk between sessions, a nap in my hotel room before dinner, or an early-morning jog. Consistently taking the time to recharge alone allows you to approach your networking sessions with renewed spunk.
Listening is an underrated conversation hack. Yes, conversation hacks have been covered to death, but I don’t think tricks can outperform basic listening skills. It has been widely recognized that people love to talk about themselves–usually true–but I’ve also found that I actually quite like listening to people talk about themselves (in a normal, non-creepy way). Asking people questions (I’ve been to events where I feel like a particularly inquisitive interviewer) is the best way for introverts to both conserve their own limited energy and discover interesting backstories. I love hearing about peoples’ stories, ideas, projects, and opinions; genuine interest often begets authentic connection.
Have you ever thought about networking in non-traditional places? Pairing networking with an activity you enjoy is a foolproof strategy to make networking feel more natural (and to manage your energy). I love to play soccer, and I’ve joined after-work coed teams in every city I’ve lived in. Whether I’m in Palo Alto, London, or San Diego, I can always find a team to jump in on, and some of my best business contacts (and perhaps more importantly, most enduring friendships) have been made with my fellow soccer enthusiasts.
Start doing something you love–join an art class, a hiking group, a cheese meetup, a nap enthusiast coalition–and meaningful relationships will naturally follow.
Is “networking finds you when you least expect it” a widely accepted adage? It should be.
—Kate Finley is the Marketing Manager for McGoodwin James, a San Diego-based startup incubator.