Introverts don’t like people. Or so goes the common belief, anyway, which gets propagated by those that don’t fully understand introverted personality traits. Having talked with someone that performs behavioural analysis in the veterinary profession, they estimated that at least 70% of the profession (in the UK) are strongly introverted as compared to an estimated a third of the general population. This is a very close match with the quoted 70-80% of introverted veterinarians in this article. If you know a bit about introverts and actually understand where they’re coming from, the proportion of introverted vets isn’t too surprising.
I’m an introvert, and like other introverts, I feel more of a connection to animals than people; they are a lot less complicated and don’t get into small talk barring the occasional baby babbles to a cute puppy. Also, the introverted traits of quiet persistence, extended solitary study and being detail orientated are the exact traits that are selected for in the vet school selection criteria. I was bullied through high school partially for being a ‘nerd’ and different and I now realise this was mainly because I was and am an introvert.
We have a problem because if the pervasive thought (even among introverts themselves) is that introverts don’t get on with people, and yet we work in a people-servicing industry (that happens to have animals as the medium of the service), then the greatest proportion of our profession is misunderstood and so can’t be receiving the support they need for them to give their best. No wonder that some feel that the job doesn’t meet their expectations, when we believed – and were taught – that we were there for the animals and then found out that the job is mostly about people. We are put in a busy, highly populated, client-facing, fast-paced working environment that is completely different to vet school learning, solitary study, and dealing mostly with animals. It is too easy to love the work but quickly come to hate the job; simply the change of pace from academia to the “real world” is draining enough, but for an introvert who values personal space and time to reflect, it’s a devastating body-blow. Perhaps this partially accounts for the increasing number of new grads who aspire to stay in academia or stay in long enough to become specialists.
This problem isn’t just restricted to the vet profession. Increasingly the (Western) world is set up for and celebrates extrovert personalities, leading to introverts feeling like impostors or being ashamed to be themselves. An introvert can easily end up feeling like they need to hide their introvert tendencies or are under pressure to behave in an extrovert way. Most of this is because introvert-extrovert personality traits are misunderstood. And yet us introverts are here – honest, you might not have noticed us but we are – and are often people you wouldn’t think of as being introverted; Brené Brown, Barak Obama, successful entrepreneurs like Bill Gates, actors like Harrison Ford and Tom Hanks. Many actors have talked about being introverted, and that they can get up on stage or in front of a camera because their stage persona is just a shell. Acting a different character is just donning a different shell, and they’re good at it because they’ve had to do it every day for most of their lives. And this is what some introverted vets learn to do too.
Other myths surrounding introverts that are not true
If you’re an introvert like me, you’ve probably dealt with frustrating myths and misunderstandings about introversion. Let’s take a look at some of these.
- Introverts don’t like people and have difficulty building relationships. This is just not true; introversion alone doesn’t mean difficulty with social interactions, it’s just how they happen and in what form. Introverts are selectively social and prefer one-on-one conversations with trusted friends rather than group socialising or meeting strangers. Introverts make great relationship partners as they tend to be good at listening, and actually understanding what they hear. The “in” and “ex” prefixes are referring to the tendency of thoughts. An introvert has internal conversations, is self-critical and self-validating and pulls in feelings and opinions from those around them. An extrovert is more about pushing their internal state out to the social group. While an introvert won’t go all touchy-feely and effusive over the least event, they’re more likely to be the ones who understand, care, and will provide the critical support at the point when it’s most needed.
- Introverts are quiet, shy and socially awkward. Again, the introversion trait alone doesn’t make someone quiet, shy or socially awkward. To someone used to being around extroverts this may be how an introvert appears. We may appear quiet as we don’t like small talk and tend not to initiate a conversation just to fill a silence. We may appear shy in a group, especially a group of strangers, because introverts often feel less of a need to be social as they have a deep inner world. Social things simply have a reduced importance and tend to be focussed on a smaller group of known people. Promiscuous social interaction is often avoided as they know instinctively that it’s a draining rather than a fulfilling experience. Social anxiety is more common in introverts as we can be overstimulated easily by the situations in which social interactions occur – it’s hard to interact with someone in a meaningful way if there are three other conversations going on and a load of people half-overhearing what you’re saying and butting in. How social interactions occur also makes a big difference; an introvert will often need a little time to get in the right frame of mind, and unplanned socially demanding situations will leave them on the back foot right at the start.
- You can tell an introvert by a few minutes’ interaction with them. Many introverts will have learned, sometimes through bitter experience, that the world expects them to be an extrovert and are often able to “fake it” at least for a short time. You could ask them outright, but in some cases they themselves might not know. Whether we know we’re an introvert or not, we can be good at faking extroversion, or just enough of it that we don’t stick out like a sore thumb.
- Introverts are more likely to suffer with anxiety, stress and depression. This is just not true, but the belief probably comes about because introverts withdraw in order to recharge. If you put anyone involuntarily into situations they can’t control then they will be unhappy whether introvert or extrovert. For an introvert, that applies to a busy, noisy, bustling work environment and the natural way to actively manage stress and recharge is to withdraw, focus inwards, mentally block out that environment for a short while. My husband – an extreme introvert – was once told by his boss that he was the only person the boss had ever met with a built-in, personal fuck-off field. As another example, think of how lockdown has affected extroverts vs introverts. Three days in and the extroverts were leaving claw-marks in the wallpaper. Who’s the anxious, stressed, depressed group here?
- Introverts lack confidence. Confidence is knowing what is best for you and how to spend your time and energy; introversion-extroversion has no impact on this. Introverts may well not pipe up often in meetings, but that’s not lack of confidence. They will want to consider their response or have a lot of internal processing to do before speaking and if they are not given the time to do this or are not invited to give their thoughts they are more likely to stay silent.
- Introverts don’t make good leaders. This comes down to unconscious biases and stereotypes that leaders should be charismatic, outgoing personalities and the enlightened now know that there is more than one way to be a leader. The most important requirement is to be true to your values and if your values lean towards listening, understanding and doing your best for a small group of like-minded believers in some ideal… well, sounds pretty like leadership to me. The trouble is that introverts are less likely to put themselves forward for a leadership role for many reasons.
- Introverts aren’t fun and are too serious. This myth abounds because the world is designed and driven by the majority extrovert personalities, so the typical ‘fun activities’ are parties, clubbing, bars and other busy, high energy atmospheres. An introvert would choose a night in with a book, a small dinner party of close friends or a visit to gallery, or would do the extroverted activity then need a day of recovery alone. In some cases the introvert may love to go along for the happy atmosphere, to be around people enjoying themselves, feeling the buzz from the extroverts around them, but dreads the inevitable point in the proceedings when they’re literally dragged into doing something they hate by half-drunk extroverts who have lost the tiny social boundaries they started with (yep, it has happened to me multiple times).
- There is something wrong with introverts and if they work at it they can be fixed and overcome their introversion. Happily, society has now largely learned that all manner of personalities are normal and that there’s room for everyone, so why should the introverted/extroverted scale be different? This is plain negativity and bias against introverts. Choosing not to hang out is not stand-offish, it’s an introvert protecting their energy and personal space. Introversion is not a choice, it is a deep personality trait.
- Introverts know animals are the best company. No, this one is true.
Introverts, extroverts and everything in between
What I am talking about are subtle nuances of personality trait/types and behaviours. Where you are on the introvert/extrovert scale is not based on how you act but on what situations you thrive in and get your energy from; the behaviours come as a consequence of this. Additionally, introversion-extroversion is not a binary concept; like many personality traits, it is a sliding scale with most people somewhere in the middle, though tending towards one type or the other and as I have shown above there is a tendency to introversion in the veterinary profession.
Being an introvert simply means we get our energy from being in situations with a great deal of personal space, and give or lose energy when around other people, whereas extroverts gain energy from their social interactions and have a lower tolerance of being alone which drains their energy. Because introverts gain energy from being alone and lose energy from socialising, we’ve learnt to be very purposeful about where our energy goes. We are more likely to be in our own inner world and appear quiet or withdrawn, and yet the wheels of our minds are always churning. There is also some evidence that introverts are more sensitive to external stimuli (this is different to ADHD) and are ‘high-reactive’, and having lots of concurrent, competing demands like interacting with multiple people in noisy social settings is even more draining.
Introverts are a powerful force in a team. We are good at solitary study and intense concentration; we don’t need to be around people to feel good and are especially good at creative and critical thinking which will lead to the solving of problems in this ever changing world. Introverts are also persistent – put us to a difficult task and we will battle through – and detail orientated so great for absorbing the huge amount of information needed to be a clinical vet and using it to do good standard work-ups or cases.
Care and feeding of a veterinary introvert
The best way of thinking about introverts and social interactions is thinking of tokens – introverts spend a token for each interaction and extroverts gain them – and so allowing time for them to recharge away from people if they choose is vital. Introverts do best when allowed time to think and respond and, at least for some, when they know what their schedule is going to be in advance.
- Break times are super important, where introverts can disengage from people. You may be thinking that our tendency to being in our own inner world and active avoidance of a crowded staff room means we don’t need breaks but this is not true! Time out is still incredibly important, and possibly even more so. Where extroverts need that frequent reassurance of social contact away from the loneliness of their consulting room, introverts need equal reassurance of five minutes of quiet personal space. A break period is primarily time to recharge; only extroverts see it as primarily time to socialise, because they is how they recharge. There needs to not be a stigma of not taking part in the chit chat in the staff room. Allow people to leave the building, wear noise cancelling headphones or at the very least have a quiet room. Wanting to spend some time alone is a very different thing to wanting to avoid people. As I said, a break is recharge time, and it’s extroverts that recharge by socialising.
- Limit the length of client-facing consulting sessions in the day and allow time to decompress between blocks. This is good for everyone – there’s a reason there are laws about breaks – but introverts especially will suffer if they don’t get a few minutes of down-time. If your staff member is suffering, your customer service and team cohesion is suffering. This doesn’t mean that introverts can’t be client-facing vets, they will have very quickly learned that this is the reality of the job and will be adept at wearing “work face” – what an actor would call a persona.
- Allow lengths of consultations that allow introverts to truly listen to clients. Allow time for them to go away and think and come back to the problem. All practices have work that needs done that isn’t client-facing (case research, insurance paperwork, report writing, etc), and these can allow the introverts to get some solo time, have their subconscious working on clinical conundrums and still be productive at the same time.
- Reduce background noise in working areas – reduce distractions while concentrating on tasks, lots of chatter, phones ringing, dogs barking, the radio. In many situations these are unavoidable, of course, but having a separate breakout room or quiet office, a workspace rather than a socialising space, will be a great help.
- Smaller meetings and one-on-ones are more important as introverts are less likely to speak up in larger groups. Written communication can be easier too as we can have time to process the message internally and prepare answers. This will depend on the individual; some may welcome the additional distance while others may feel that never getting to actually speak with someone is more of a rejection. If you are in doubt as to what method someone prefers, just ask what works for them. For some, they may be waiting their turn to speak while everyone else is trying to shout over each other. Others may wait to be noticed and “given the floor”, others may hate being put in a spotlight.
- Have agendas in advance of meetings so introverts can prepare and respond. Introverts often prefer planning so make sure schedules are available in advance and don’t spring meetings at short notice if you can avoid it.
- Consider collecting ideas digitally rather than ‘brain storming’ sessions where only extroverts get their ideas out, Groupthink takes over and we all follow the loudest. If you only listen to the loudest ideas then who knows what you are missing out on? Extroverts tend to “think out loud” and share what’s going on in their heads, while introverts tend to reflect on ideas, put them in order and dismiss the real howlers before speaking them out loud. In other words, less noise but higher quality. When a team is not mindful of this vast difference in communication style, the office extroverts can inadvertently run the show, while the introverts may feel shut down and closed out.
- Try to avoid grabbing someone’s attention if they don’t look ready. Introverts will be deep in a spider web of thought and if forced to shift attention elsewhere this whole process, a very productive process, can be lost. Looking a bit glazed over in a meeting may well mean they’re deep in thought about something you said – unless it’s three hours into a boss-monologue in which case they’re probably just glazed.
- Don’t put introverts on the spot and demand answers right now – allow them to go away to think, research and prepare answers. Even simply accepting “I need a bit of time to think about it, I’ll grab you in the next day or two” would usually be fine, provided you do give that person their 15 minutes alone to make their point. Don’t social shame them to giving something on the spot or spur of the moment, for example to the whole practice in a meeting.
- Learn how to communicate with introverts. They don’t like small talk, instead ask them about topics they are passionate about. Remember that being social just for the sake of it will often be a negative experience; a nod, a smile and making eye contact will be enough and will give them an opportunity to say “Hey, there was this thing I wanted to bring up, do you have five minutes?”. Don’t feel that you have to fill silences; introverts are good listeners but won’t interrupt even if they have something very important to say. Introverts don’t like drama or show-offs. Get to know them first, show them that you want to listen and won’t force them too far outside their social limits, and they will open up.
- Introverts need personal space – don’t go round hugging them!
- Don’t ask introverts why they aren’t smiling all the time. We are in our own inner world, lost in thought. You ever heard of the ‘resting bitch face’? The mind is probably busy but the social signalling device is on standby.
- Down-time needs to be planned and perhaps this is why many vets struggle with on-call. Many introverts draw firm lines around their time, for example, ‘work time’, ‘social time’ and ‘recharge time’ and so something that covers many of those at one time is uncomfortable. Try to pair those up; for an introvert, work time plus social time, or social time plus recharge time, are not good combinations. A spontaneous change to this such as having to stay for overtime or a surprise social event can throw off their whole week because they may have to expend more social energy tokens than they have got to give. Then they are not only tired but also annoyed because instead of recharging, they ended up even more drained because missed out on what they wanted or needed to do.
- An introvert is unlikely to feel rewarded with group-acceptance rewards such as an employee of the month badge or a shout-out at the practice meeting. Appreciation must be personal and verbal. A heartfelt “Thank You” will work wonders.
- Introverts can be highly sensitive and do lots of self-reflection which can easily turn into self-criticism, but they don’t show it externally. They may be crying and hurting on the inside but you won’t know it until they burst out, burn out or leave. If someone you know is an introvert is suddenly cheerfully bubbly, or even quieter and more withdrawn, they need some space in a hurry – and they won’t come and ask you for it.
For the introverted individual in the vet profession
What can we do to protect our energy while giving the best of ourselves working in the vet profession?
- Understand where you are on the introvert-extrovert scale you are. This is very important as it’s very common to fake it for social reasons and maybe even to have done so for so long that you might not be aware of your true type. Understand what your ‘sweet spot’ for social interactions is, what protective mechanisms you need to support you and therefore what boundaries you need to set.
- Make sure you understand how to look after yourself in regard to your introvert-extrovert tendencies. You may need to realise that staying in on a weekend to spend time with family or a book is your best recharge method. But even extroverts do sometimes need recharge time that is away from others.
- Before accepting a new job evaluate how it will suit you as an introvert. Questions such as whether there genuinely are reliable breaks; whether you are able to get away from other people or is the required social norm that you spend all your time with your colleagues; how long are consulting periods; is your work to be performed in a noisy prep room or will you get a side room in which to have quiet space; will the job allow you to set personal boundaries or will your boundaries be under constant pressure?
- Will the job play to your introvert traits and allow you to be ‘in flow’? Tasks such as writing, researching, and working up cases are more peaceful and solitary. For me, ultrasound also works well as it is performed in a dark, quiet room with minimal interactions!
- We tend more towards conflict avoidance which can mean we don’t speak up when we need to say something to protect ourselves, such as our boundaries, or our values are being compromised. Make sure you work on your sense of self-worth and confidence.
- Introverts tend towards perfectionism because of the trait which makes us pay more attention to detail. It’s very important to realise this and understand that, as with most things, while it may be very useful it can be taken to a damaging excess or in maladaptive ways.
- As an introvert you may well act more extroverted in situations that you are passionate about or simple because for some reason you need to. If you know you need to present in front of an audience then make sure you practice and prepare. Try ‘faking it until you make it’ and create an extrovert persona for when it is needed – put it on like a white coat and act the part for when it is needed, realising you then need the down-time afterwards.
- As introverts we spend a lot of time in our own heads, talking to ourselves. Make sure this doesn’t stray too much into negative rumination. Coupled with the tendency to perfectionism this can spiral down into continual self-criticism (leading to imposter syndrome and anxiety) without some external checks and balances. It’s good to have someone that can check in on your thoughts – a partner or coach is ideal for this but anyone you see as a trusted confidante will do.
So, is it true that introverts don’t like people? Well, just as history is written by the winners, social media myths are written by the extroverts. The introverts would love to disagree, but, well… you know. Perhaps we need to look at providing our introverted colleagues and ourselves with environments we can thrive in, not just survive. What other things can you think of? I recommend you read ‘Quiet’ by Susan Cain, if you haven’t already and for some fun, watch this.