On discovering that I’m an introvert (only at the workplace) and other (maybe related) musings
When I read Susan Cain’s Quiet: the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking, I did so as a sort of ethnography of the other. I am an extrovert of the highest degree. You need to see me at a party, carrying conversation with enviable facility, laughing boisterously, easily the centre of attention. I am in my element at a dinner table, no wine drank yet, whipping eruditely between high and low brow conversation. I will tell you what highlight Rihanna uses for her contour right after we discuss Nozick’s ethical egoism. I am a force!
I have to say these things, plump myself up as I have done, as an overcompensation for what will follow. My extroversion has recently found its bounds. It stops the moment I enter a boardroom, a classroom, and sometimes even one of those networking sessions at a conference, especially when there is no port to be had. Not too long ago, in a board meeting, the discussion got heated as they usually do. It was one of those meetings where you have to elbow in to the conversation; where stern loud voices are required lest someone obliterate your contribution simply by sighing with more volume and resolve than that of your own speech. The only way to describe the feeling of being in that room is that scene in the Lion King, where the wildebeest stampede threatens to squash Simba into powder. I was listening to the ideas and arguments go back and forth, trying to find the right moment to launch in, all the while holding my hand half-heartedly up (remembering the order of primary school question-and-answer sessions, so ill-suited for adult work places). I was Simba with the wildebeests. Nervous, subsumed, without Mufasa — a mere shell of my extroverted avatar at dinner parties.
In these situations, I find myself looking to my co-workers. Perhaps there is some secret method to surviving these meetings, a sleight of hand that they have learned that I ought to figure out mayhap? But there is no grand mystery. Just comfort. Comfort in stepping in before another person’s thought is expressed to conclusion. Comfort in generously offering your opinion the very minute a question is asked, often with little to no consideration (or maybe it is consideration in fast forward, so rapid that I barely perceive it). I have seen it before, this comfort, in classes at Stanford when hands would flutter in the air before the professor could conclude their thoughts. It was the same comfort I saw in a lecture theatre at Oxford, when classmates spoke so confidently about the Rwandan genocide as my friend Jessica, herself Rwandese, sat at the back, astounded by the gall of judgments passed wantonly without the minimum due diligence of reading a Wikipedia article even.
How is this sort of confidence borne?
I have lived in the UK long enough to not racialise the conversation too early. The English have perfectly obscured race, insisting instead a wider class solidarity. This elevation of the collective class struggle mirages the particularities of existing at the intersection of race and class, but I digress. In a purely race agnostic analysis, it would appear that I have some version of professional introversion. This seems plausible. I am much better at giving comments via email and on targeted one-on-one conversations than I am in a meeting with a melange of personalities. I am depleted after large team meetings, often requiring silence, or a long lunch — some reprieve from what feels like overstimulation. Given these facts, I should rightly slap the label introvert on, join the queue at the self-help section of the bookstore, and book an appointment with the life coach. Problem solved!
This is where the insistence on a non-racialized, non-gendered analysis falls short. In the meetings where I become inexplicably mute, there are usually other black people, also at entry level, who themselves cannot speak up, never mind that we have advanced degrees and went to all the top schools. It is also never lost on me that people who generously share their opinion — however half-baked — are often men, and to be more specific, in diverse team settings, white men. So the life coach, the self-help books (of which Susan Cain’s is an exception), all of these remedies suggest that people converge to the same modus operandi, some philosophical ideal of the professional person. The insights that all this coaching present often amount to the same pernicious recommendation. Be more masculine! or more specifically, Be a man (the median white man if you can)!
The problem with this call for transfiguration is twofold. First, it assumes that changing into the stereotypical masculine ideal, with its penchant for certainty, argumentation, competitiveness and aggression, will translate to success for all groups. This is simply not the case. When women act that way, and insist on diffusing themselves to fill every room, they are punished for it. Black women specifically get labelled angry (or if you are covert about it, passionate) when they decide not to shrink in meetings, debates, classrooms. It would seem that at the end, only men are allowed to be men[*]. Everyone else — queer people, women, femme identifying people — can want to be like men, but they will be criticised if they actually take on masculinity. Read the criticisms levied against women like Hillary Clinton, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Dambisa Moyo if you don’t believe me. They have very little to do merit, and more to do with likability.
The second problem I see with this insistence that if I am not aggressive (often repackaged as assertiveness, even though we don’t know the tipping point where assertiveness stops and the aggressiveness begins) I have to evolve is that it consents to the toxic masculinity and white supremacy that reproduce the repugnant cultures in most banks, frat houses, and recently widely discussed, the film industry. Passing out leaflets about power poses, speech exercises, and even telling women to lean in, that is easy. But asking society to unravel a culture, a way of being and knowing, that is the hard work that is needed to move closer to equity.
Of course what I have written so far is largely psychobabble, and it could all be swept under the rug as a strain of race and gender mongering. While in graduate school, I sat in on a panel discussion on identity politics where a formidable woman[†] quoted a study that demonstrated that if women are told they are women before a test, they do worse than if they aren’t told they are women. In her view, the insistence on gender, and by the same line of argumentation, race, was hurting representation and performance. I laughed a bit when she said this, because she is also the sort of woman who could be called a ball-buster, the sort of person (woman or man) I’d not trust as far as I can throw them. Her success, a seeming manifestation of rising above her gender, seems to me to be rooted in masculinity. Do I celebrate her success? Of course, but it is a tepid celebration because my interest is not in representation for representation’s sake. I do not celebrate having gender parity in leadership in companies if these corporations continue to thrive on a predatory winner takes all mentality, underpay their staff and operate solely on profit maximisation. Masculine hegemonies can still exist in gender parity, the same way that diversified work teams can still sprout the most insidious forms of white supremacy. For this reason, I do not celebrate Margaret Thatcher (although I will laud her gravitas and the obdurate resolve it took to become the first female Prime Minister of this United Kingdom). I yearn for a greater reckoning with masculine hegemonies and with white supremacy instead.
Perhaps my meetings at work are not the perfect launching point from which to explore these large issues to which I have provided very little in terms of novel insights. But they seem to be linked somehow — me in that meeting room, and the rife debate on identities and power outside of that meeting room. It is in the little things — the discomfort I have in meetings that I can never quite explain — where hegemony reinforces itself, and snowballs, like these reflections, into something bigger, and seemingly tangentially linked to that experience in an hour-long boardroom meeting in tiny Oxford.
[*] I use these binary visions of gender consciously, because I find that an attempt to jam gender politics into these pieces that I often hope are read by people from home makes them feel more distant. I am however willing to be challenged on this since I know that nuanced conversations about gender ought to happen everywhere.
[†]whom I know and used to respect until realised that beyond the veneer of purpose lay a constitutional self-interestedness and interest in a power as an end not a means to an end