Anyone who attended Working With Words -an annual event, run by UEA Career Central, about working in the creative industries- may have noticed a number of themes running throughout the day’s various panel discussions: the importance of work experience in your chosen field, for example, or of getting involved with clubs and societies whilst at university. There was one word in particular which came up time and time again: networking. Reactions to the suggestion that walking into a roomful of strangers with the express intent of making connections might be necessary in the pursuit of certain careers can range from begrudging acceptance to mild discomfort. For a lifelong introvert, however, it can come something close to panic.
What exactly it means to be an introvert -or, on the other side of the coin, an extrovert- is something which is often misunderstood. It’s by no means a clear opposition between shy and outgoing; it’s entirely possible to be a confident introvert, or a reserved extrovert. Equally, personalities aren’t fixed templates, and in many cases, traits which are frequently defined as being typically extrovert or introvert are situational. Even the most uninhibited extrovert can find themselves in circumstances where they prefer to remain in the background, and vice versa.
The simplest way to define the difference between an introvert and an extrovert comes down to energy. Extroverts draw their energy from company and society, from being with other people. Introverts, on the other hand, whilst they may enjoy spending time with people, will reach a point where it becomes draining, and they’ll need to spend time on their own to recharge their batteries.
It’s easy to see why being an introvert can sometimes be mistaken for being shy; if you’re an introvert, you’re less likely (although there are exceptions) to seek out situations where you’re spending significant amounts of time with large groups of people, because you know it isn’t suited to your temperament, and won’t show you at your best. It’s therefore also easy to see why networking can seem like a particularly daunting prospect. Yet if this is something we all have to go through to get to where we want in life, are we left to conclude that the world is biased against introverts?
Some people have cited social media as a means of levelling the playing field when it comes to networking. However, but I’m not sure I agree. It’s still something which requires social engagement, whether you’re doing it face-to-face or behind a computer screen. If anything, it can be more draining, because you’re expected to be engaging with people on a more or less constant basis. I find it awkward and mildly embarrassing to take any action which implies I think people should be interested in what I’m posting on Facebook or Twitter, just as much as if I were to approach them and say it in person, but these are the values which are extolled in the spheres many of us will go on to work in. We’re expected to be confident, to be sociable, to be chatty, and we’re expected to do all of this on command.
I understand the importance of these virtues. When you’re first starting out in your career, you’re an unknown entity. You have to come to the table prepared to give away something about yourself; no one’s going to reach inside your head and extract it for you. All the same, I can’t help but feel there are other, more introvert-centric traits that we aren’t focusing on as much as we should, and that are in danger of being sidelined in a world which demands self-promotion at every level. Certainly in the panels I attended, there was little mentioned at Working With Words about the value of people who get on quietly with the task at hand; who can function independently for long periods of time; who can look inwards and reflect on their work without the need for external validation -all vital skills in any number of environments. Networking might be important, but it isn’t the only thing that is.
As goes the old adage, it’s the squeaky wheel that gets the grease, but perhaps it’s time we started paying more attention the wheels that aren’t squeaking so loudly. Perhaps they too have something to say.