In an industry drawn to bombast, it's time to find value in quietness.
Listen closely and you'll hear the communal sigh of relief as America races toward reopening. It's been more than a year since we began commuting from our bedrooms to the dining room. And while we are seeing glimmers of freedom from our work-from-home confinement, there's no doubt that video-conferencing platforms like Zoom, Teams and Google Hangouts are here to stay. I bring this up because if you were to meet me over Zoom, you might think I'm shy or standoffish—or worse, that I have nothing to contribute. But those assumptions would be wrong. I'm simply a Zoom introvert.
Navigating this industry as a soft-spoken, often awkward person who actively avoids chit-chat is challenging enough. But the pandemic and our new working reality thrust these social anxieties into a new echelon. Plagued by technical difficulties, Zoom is a virtual purgatory where people's thoughts get kicked around in a vicious circle of "You go. No, you go!" Trying to get a word in among a choir of loud voices can be like trying to breach an impenetrable wall. And so I am keenly aware of my own silence.
Don't get me wrong. I have things to say and certainly yearn to be heard. But video-conferencing technology naturally favors performers—folks like our extrovert counterparts who gladly hop on camera and make the screen their stage. In a society where the loudest voice often wins, it can feel like introverts get left behind. So how do we address the preconceptions and stigma attached to introversion and uncover our blind spots to excavate these silent talents?
My parents were raised in Hong Kong, one of the most crowded places on Earth. And they instilled in me a hyper-consciousness of how much space I take up. Every move is made with the consideration of others in mind. As a child of this upbringing, you are acutely attuned to your presence and the space you inhabit. This subconscious radar of mindfulness has informed how I navigate the world, from the way I cross my legs on a subway to how I've piloted my career. And I'm not the only one.
By some accounts, between one-third and one-half of the workforce are introverts to varying degrees. For most introverts, the razzle-dazzle does not come naturally. Rather, we are guided by modesty and introspection. We do not compete for the spotlight. We value focus, quiet concentration, and minimally stimulating surroundings. Our superpower is listening rather than talking. Instead of engaging in duels of words and ego, introverts are doers and thinkers. And we abhor the culture of office optics. Occupying the opposite end of the spectrum are extroverts who are fueled by social situations and often think out loud and on their feet.
Over the decades, Western culture has gravitated toward prioritizing the latter. It's easy to be seduced and glamoured by bold, bombastic leaders who swoop in to command a room's attention. But in this era when we are becoming more invested in diverse bodies, isn't it also time we became invested in diverse management styles as well? Encouraging introverts to embrace their authentic quiet selves rather than being pressured to act like extroverts will only help advance company culture and add diversity of voice. And we can begin to hear those solutions which may have otherwise been drowned out.
So how can we make Zoom an inviting and inclusive environment for all? First, let's reframe the notion that not only those who speak have ideas or opinions. Since the comfort zone of introverts is usually in silence, hold space and ask questions, and engage in deep listening. If someone has confessed their introversion, invite them into the conversation or follow up after. This is a great way for extroverts to exercise allyship. Encourage Zoom participants to make their point, then give the floor over to underrepresented voices and POVs.
Remember, small talk for introverts is hell and Zoom has become the ninth circle of it. Give purpose to each meeting. Stop early if you can. And don't fill up the allotted time for the sake of filling up time. Return those precious minutes to your employees who want to retreat to their sanctuaries and get down to work.
And finally, introverts should make friends with technology. The native tools of these platforms can help mitigate that awkward dance of trying to cut into a conversation. Drop notes in the chat. Use the virtual hand-raise function to be noticed without being interruptive. And finally, the not-so-secret secret silver lining in video presentations is you can have written notes in eyeline with your camera, and viewers are none-the-wiser.
Let's begin to change the perception that our industry is filled with hot air and smoke by finding value in quietness, and recognizing that sometimes the brightest voices in a room may say nothing at all. When introverts are engaged, we hear the whispers of unspoken ideas and uncover hidden points of view. We start to listen to what's not being said. And when that happens, a quiet revolution can begin.