Introverts meeting, speaking out

Tannia Benefield, organizer of the Austin, Texas, Introverts Meetup Group, now has a following of about 200 people.

Want to join the hot new meet-up group?

You don’t have to be the life of the party. In fact, you’ll be more welcome if you’re not.

Seeking to socialize with others of their kind, introverts have organized fast-growing Internet meet-up groups in cities such as Austin, Texas, and Washington, D.C., where the “Introverted and Loving It” group claims 260 members.

“It’s nice to be around a group that’s a little quieter,” says Tannia Benefield, organizer of the Austin Introverts Meetup Group.

“We have games night — board games, cards, any kind of game — and it’s huge fun for me, ... it’s low-key and I leave feeling energized,” Benefield said.

In the past 10 years, America’s estimated 80 million to 160 million introverts have been getting together and celebrating their quiet gifts. They’ve penned popular books, including this year’s “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking” (Crown) by Susan Cain. They’ve formed meet-ups in Denver, Minneapolis and Silicon Valley. They’re even making headway at extrovert-happy Harvard Business School, where a professor co-authored a recent study that found when employees are proactive, introverts make the best leaders.

“It’s a great time,” says psychologist Laurie Helgoe, author of the 2008 book “Introvert Power: Why Your Inner Life is Your Hidden Strength” (Sourcebooks). “When you talk about introversion now, people are really hungry ... to share experiences. I think they find it very reassuring to realize ‘No, we’re not alone at all.’ ”

Introverts are often viewed as, essentially, failed extroverts. But experts say that introverts aren’t better or worse than extroverts; they just function differently.

“Everything a more introverted person does in the outside world — it drains energy from them. Everything a more extroverted person does in the outside world gives them energy,” says psychologist Marti Olsen Laney.

Extroverts, she says, need stimulation — not just people, but events and activities. Introverts need quiet downtime to recharge their batteries.

These differences are wide-ranging, affecting nearly every aspect of our lives, and they coincide with underlying differences in brain chemistry. The neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which triggers the ability to focus and concentrate, appears to play a stronger role in introvert brain functioning, Laney writes.

Introverts have many strengths: They typically have long attention spans, work well on their own, form deep friendships and listen and problem-solve well, experts say. They can have excellent one-on-one social skills, and can be very talkative when they’re comfortable. But they lack the extrovert’s social energy and verbal spontaneity, and they can easily get drowned out at meetings and parties.

Most introverts know they’re different from society’s smooth-talking, outgoing ideal from an early age, and many harbor some degree of shame for not measuring up, according to Laney.

That was Benefield’s experience when she was growing up.

“Once you got me alone, (people) were like, ‘Oh my goodness — she’s very talkative and chatty.’ And yes, I am. But if you got me in a group of four or five, I wasn’t the one who was going to be cracking jokes or keeping the conversation going, because it’s exhausting (for me). I just wanted to listen and watch.”

Benefield, 38, a special ed teacher, spent six years in the extrovert-oriented Air Force, where she rose to the rank of captain but became unhappy with the constant pressure to network and self-promote. She began getting stress-related headaches and back pains, and decided to leave the military.

Now she’s determined to work with her temperament, not against it, an approach that means taking time out of her busy day to be by herself and socializing at her own pace.

“People see introverts as antisocial and we’re not antisocial, it’s just a different kind of socializing,” she says.

“We find this core group that knows us and that we have these deep, meaningful conversations with and relationships with, instead of just being (social) butterflies.”