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Introvert Body Language: Is That a Thing?
Can we reliably spot some introverts and extroverts quickly from their posture, the way they move and their nonverbal vibe? Some speculative musings.
While watching TV coverage of the US election last week, I was struck by a split screen showing two candidates in a race I hadn’t followed closely. These were soundless video clips shown while a commentator’s voiceover gave an update. The man on the left, speaking to a crowd with an earnest facial expression, had effortlessly straight posture and seemed to be letting his words do the work of communication. The man on the right, in contrast, was bobbing and weaving expressively while he spoke, his limbs loose, like a child playing class clown. After just seconds seeing this, an assessment flashed through my head: introvert on the left, extrovert on the right – obviously.
This got me thinking about times when I’d rapidly had very strong feelings that a person I’d just met was an introvert. Once it was the owner of our local car repair shop, whom I’d asked for an estimate. As we spoke outdoors, he appeared to me strikingly self-possessed, both relaxed and poised, with a dry, off-hand manner of speaking. He seemed like someone who might once have coolly led troops in combat, intent but never breaking a sweat. Perhaps he dimly reminded me of a movie hero: the strong, composed problem solver who knew how to be genial but always held something back. Indubitably an introvert.
A second instance is a neighbor whom I often see while walking and with whom I sometimes have brief conversations. He speaks in relatively short chunks, pausing between sentences to look at you meaningfully. Silence seems to be his baseline state of being and talking the exception. He gives the impression that even a comment of his about the weather matters, and that otherwise he wouldn’t say it. In this case, I know for sure that he’s an introvert, because he once mentioned that his daughter told him he should check out what I was writing about marketing for introverts. An artist, he said he found getting out the word on his work a challenge.
Third was my one and only face-to-face conversation with Jill Ker Conway, at the time president of Smith College. She was interviewing me for a teaching position while seated across from me at a conference table. With her back straight, her head up and long legs twined around each other below a primly long skirt, she asked careful, kind questions in a crisp accent I thought was British but later learned was Australian. She felt queenly to me – remote and intimidating, while trying not to be; gracious and extremely well-mannered, but with a marked reserve. No fill-in-the-spaces chitchat from her. In the first memoir she later wrote, The Road from Coorain, she described her childhood comfort with the parched, desolate Australian outback where she grew up. Again, definitely an introvert.
When I pulled back from these memories, I went online to see if I could find confirmation of my in-a-moment impressions of the two political candidates in their split-screen video clips. To my surprise, despite massive press coverage of this race, Google did not turn up a single reference for the man on the left with the word “introvert” or the man on the right with the word “extrovert” – or for either of them with the keyword “personality.” However, while poking around in the search engine I did find a number of articles about introversion and body language.
In Search of Introvert Body Language
Most of these articles referred to and offered advice for introverts’ supposed shrinking in the presence of other people: what facial expression to adopt to seem approachable, what to do with fidgety hands, why you should make eye contact every few seconds and expand yourself to take up more space. Interestingly, these advice givers were zeroing in on those least at ease with others while I was noticing those who were supremely at ease with themselves, people whose center of gravity is inside rather than in reference to other people.
From the articles I realized that I picked up on cues that had never been pointed out to me, that came from intuition and observation. For more than a decade I’d been intensely curious about connections between personality and behavior, interviewing colleagues and clients about their likes and dislikes and taking in all kinds of sensory details, including the nebulous impressions we refer to as “vibes.” So it’s no wonder that I’d developed a sensitivity analogous to “gaydar.” According to researchers, gay people are indeed able to discern more accurately than homophobes whether or not others they’re interacting with are also gay.
Of course many people are difficult to read, because they’ve adapted well to society’s preferences. But if you ask someone a direct question and they just look back at you silently for several beats, like Jane Eyre, that’s most likely an introvert. And a stranger who smiles at you before anyone says a word is probably an extrovert. Try guessing where those you’re interacting with fall on the introvert/extrovert spectrum, and over time you too may get better at it.