Monday, February 20, 2012

Jennifer's Solution

In this series of posts, we are talking about introverts and the problems they face in a society that idolizes extroversion.  In the last post, I began analyzing a hypothetical situation that a young scientist and introvert, Jennifer, is facing.  Her supervisor has called her into his office and accused her of "hiding in her shell" and not being a "team player".  I explained that his words were in fact a verbal attack, which requires a specific response to counter effectively.  I pointed out that the specific charges Jennifer's boss has leveled at her (hiding, not a team player) constituted the "bait".  Jennifer fell for the bait and responded by defending her "quietness" and desire to work things out on her own before sharing with others.  This was a mistake because it opened the door for further unfair characterizations (lone wolf).

In this post, I will reveal the "presupposition" contained in the supervisor's attack.  The presupposition is the real attack, but is one that usually remains unspoken by the attacker.  The victim of a verbal attack should address only the presupposition and ignore the bait.  In this case, the presupposition is that Jennifer's innate nature (introversion) is not compatible with the job she was hired to do (scientist).  This is a more complex presupposition than we've considered in previous examples and is perhaps a bit more challenging to counter.  But let's try.

How can we state a response that addresses the charge (Jennifer's apparent lack of essential skills) and also effectively counters a bias against introverted people?  Successful responses to a presupposition should be stated in the form of a question. Jennifer might say,

"When did you begin thinking that work involving individual contemplation and concentration was not good?"

Such a response ignores the bait and restates Jennifer's mode of working in positive terms (individual contemplation and concentration)--in direct contrast to the negative, inappropriate terms her supervisor used (hiding, not a team player).  Her supervisor will likely be caught off guard by her response (in fact, I would bet on it).  People who use verbal attacks to control other people are often completely thrown off their tracks by this because they are accustomed to defensive responses.  They usually either completely abandon the attack or they are forced to provide a more specific example, which is easier for the victim to counter.  Let's assume instead that Jennifer's supervisor is a bit faster on his feet and replies:

"Unnhh. I didn't mean that I think solitary work, concentration, and thought were not good. I just think you are too quiet."

Now the supervisor is on the defensive and may continue in this vein for a bit--protesting that he was only talking about her quietness.  He's brought up her quietness as a negative again, however.  Her response might be:

"I'm glad to hear that you appreciate the fact that many scientific tasks require quiet contemplation, without distractions, to most efficiently accomplish them.  Why then would someone who works well this way be criticized for it?"

Jennifer has now directly challenged the idea that "quietness" is a sign of failure and pointedly asked why she is being criticized for it.  Her supervisor might respond,

"Well, when you are so quiet at meetings, your coworkers will think you are hiding something from them or that you don't have any ideas at all."

Now the supervisor is being forced to be more specific and to justify his original charge with examples.  In reply, Jennifer might ask which coworkers think this?  Her supervisor will not likely name anyone (whom Jennifer can later easily ask).  By now, it should be clear that it's not really Jennifer's coworkers who have a problem with Jennifer's quietness; it's her supervisor. She should key in on this and continue to ask for reasons why someone who is quiet might be "hiding something" or might not have "any ideas at all".  Jennifer can continue guiding the conversation toward more specifics and ask for clear justifications for his criticism.  The key is that she should not apologize for her quietness or for her way of working and processing information.  If she responds in a quietly forceful, but professional, manner, she will get her point across.

Hopefully, over time, her supervisor will come to appreciate Jennifer's introspective nature.  If not, she may need to find another position that is more in line with her natural way of thinking and working.


mattiemarsh said...

Thank you for this series. I'm a quiet person who struggles to be heard above loud and more aggressive people in my field. Is there a way to make myself heard in meetings where people just talk over me or monopolize the conversation...I can't get a word in partly because of my quiet voice and also because I don't sound as confident as others?

River Mud said...

As I was just telling a student today, "science of the 1950s" - that is - the era when a scientist could be expected to bury him/herself in their work and not be exposed to tedious things like staff meetings, congressional hearings, meetings with donors,and meetings with foundations - that era is long gone. And you know that.

We have people in Congress, including women, doubting that the science produced by federal grants is worthwhile - or worth doing. Stating that entire agency research budgets don't suit the good of the taxpayer and should be eliminated.

Science needs supporters. It needs good communication. And your research budget, as you know, does not allow for a communications staff person to go out there and be your advocate. Which is a shame, because if your university is like many, they try to tack a 140% overhead rate onto your grant requests, prompting the public, donors, and politicians to ask, "What's all the money for?"

Bottom line: If you can't be your own #1 cheerleader (male or female), then who will be? Who will go to bat for your research? Your value as a scientist, a mentor, a colleague? In 2012, your professional work includes taking care of our professional reputation (and its impact on funding). None of us were trained how to do that in college or grad school.

I know I'm younger but I was told by my advisor 20 years ago that the era of "I don't have to talk to you ....I'm a scientist" has long ended.

She was right.

What's the way forward out of this mess? I don't know. But I'd love to write fewer self aggrandizing proposals for funding. That's for sure.

Gin Va said...

Your article summed up a lot of the feelings and situations I have faced as a quiet person. I was girl born in a strict Asian family who never talked about anything unless it was important. Dinner was silent for the most part. If I talked to much with my sisters, my mom would say, "do not talk too much, eat your food. Many starving people in this world that would eat in your place."

In high-school, I never understood how people can suddenly talk so much about things so trivial like the weather, the Superbowl, or the driver who kept cutting them off. I wasn't interested in what people did the other day, or how their friend back-stabbed them, but the kinds of topics that sparked my interest were people's goals, dreams, and the type of conversations that could be continued to next day, or years later.

In college talking was especially important, if you did not talk, you were "not contributing," or had no opinion. At some point, I began to feel as if there was something about me the needed to "be fixed." I felt like I somehow had to change myself to be more extroverted. After a job failed interview, I realized that being social is essential to first impressions. The charismatic extroverted vibe is what gets most people hired over someone who is quiet and only talks when something of interest strikes them. The ability to conjure up a conversation with just about anybody will draw people closer to you. The more quiet you are, the most isolated you are.

Over the years, I've grown the ability to fake an extroverted personality in order to keep up with group discussions, and social gatherings. I've also learned a lot through the challenges I've experienced as a quiet person. Though today, I would not exchange my innate quiet personality for a more extroverted one. I have grown to accept my dual nature, I love solitude at times, but I can enjoy some of the things extroverts as well.

However, in the past I saw my own personality as a flaw because of how much extroverts are valued over introverts. I wish that more introverts would read this, and see their quiet disposition is not a personality flaw. I see benefits of both an extroverted and introverted personality, and I don't see one as better than the other. However, I do believe the world values extroverts, and undermines the qualities of introverts.