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    Thinking Through The Introvert Advantage {Rhetoric and Introversion}

    March 16, 2010 by Brandy Vencel


    The Introvert Advantage:
    How to Thrive in an Extrovert World

    by Marti Olsen Laney, Psy.D.

    I just finished up reading chapters six and seven, and I appreciated the content, though I see what Mystie meant when she said that the author lost her focus on introversion more and more as the book went on. I really, really prefer to stick to the bare bones definitions from the beginning of the book which define introverts as people who are energized by solitude and/or ideas while extroverts are energized by people and/or activity. Even though each type of ‘vert may have some tendencies that are correlated with their ‘version {so to speak}, these may or may not be directly caused by it. These tendencies seem to entice the author into running away from her topic a bit as the book progresses.

    Chapter six is titled Socializing: Party Pooper or Pooped from the Party? and chapter seven is titled Working: Hazards from 9 to 5. I’m not going to go through everything in these chapters, but rather I want to focus on the connection between certain portions of these chapters and the liberal art called rhetoric.

    What is Rhetoric?

    The Circe Institute has a very organized set of definitions for the terms of classical education, so let’s start there. First, Circe says that the liberal arts are the arts of thinking. They include the Trivium {arts related to language–grammar, logic, and rhetoric} and the Quadrivium {arts related to shapes and numbers–arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy}. In the context of the Trivium, we find rhetoric, the art of fitting expression.

    The concept of rhetoric is spoken of in Scripture:

    A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver.

    Proverbs 25:11

    Saying the right thing…at the right time…in the right way…all of these components together make up the art of rhetoric. This art of rhetoric can be learned. Like all skills, some of us may be more disposed to it, more naturally talented, but I think Charlotte Mason said it best when she wrote that genius and talent, without being trained in, for instance, the skill of paying attention, are practically worthless.

    Likewise, an inclination to excel does not make up for lack of training in the liberal arts.

    Introversion and Rhetoric

    Dr. Laney presents introverts as bumbling when it comes to conversation and other verbal interactions. We are not, she implies, as capable as extroverts when it comes to “small talk” {in actuality, it is probably more accurate to say that, because we are energized by ideas we tend to disdain it, sometimes to our detriment}. She takes pains early in the book to say that shyness and introversion are separate ideas, but then describes her “introverted” reaction to socializing in a way that sounds much more akin to shyness than introversion. I’ll say it again: introversion {being drained by, in this case, a party} is not the same as shyness {the sweaty palms and nervousness described in anticipation of a party}.

    To clarify, I think that most of the advice given in the chapter would greatly help introverts who are shy, but this still doesn’t absolve Dr. Laney of confusing two issues she spent much time convincing us were separate.

    In any event, I think we can say that extroverts naturally outpace introverts in regard to conversational skills, as a general rule. Some of us are completely untrained in the skill of rhetoric. Others of us, and I include myself in this category, are partially trained, but spent a number of years living {happily!} as hermits and are subsequently out of practice.

    Rhetoric is a Gift

    Rhetoric is nothing less than a gift which we can give to our children, perhaps especially our more introverted children. Not only is it beautiful in the sight of God when a word is fitly spoken, but it is also a great way to combat shyness, which sometimes results from, or at least is aggravated by, awareness that one lacks the skills to handle the social situation at hand.

    We introverts tend to spurn small talk. I myself have made less than savory remarks about the tendency for such a great multitude of “shallow” talk to dominate the cultural landscape. We like ideas, right? That’s what we want to talk about.

    However, comma.

    I see this as a personal failing when I look at myself. Small talk tends to be the doorway to friendship. There is a certain depth to “idea talk” that may not be appropriate for a budding acquaintanceship. The only way to build a friendship is to grow in depth over time.

    In regard to training our children in the art of rhetoric, when we use the broad definition of the art {“a word fitly spoken…”}, we see that this is more than learning to give a formal speech. This is the art of living with other people, of conversing with them in different types of situations. Just as we coach our children that they can be loud at a ballgame and quiet in church, there are a million ways in which to coach them so that their introversion does not “trap” them into growing up into a bad conversationalist.

    I am reminded that my husband, from our children’s youngest days, tends to require them to look adults in the eye, return greetings cheerfully, answer basic questions in a strong voice, and so on. It didn’t dawn on my until today that he was giving them a beginning course in rhetoric.

    My Training

    When I was 16 years old, I was given intense interview training. I was in a pageant {not a beauty pageant, and let’s keep this a secret between me, you, and the Internet, okay?}, and there was an interview portion. Coaching for this changed my life. We were told how to dress, how to sit, how to walk, {all of that is body language} and most importantly how to answer a question. We were drilled with a hundred different questions during our coaching. By the time the actual competition rolled around, even our shyest contestants were excelling in business-type interviews when compared with the average 16-year-old. The girl who won the interview portion did one thing the rest of us didn’t: she went in for extra instruction, extra practice, and accordingly brought her rhetoric abilities up to a higher level than the rest of us.

    In addition to this, I did a short stint on a forensics team. Training a youth in, for instance, debate can have a huge impact on the skills connected to quick wit and “small talk.” In both Lincoln-Douglas as well as team debate {also called Policy Debate}, students have to learn to listen well and think on their feet, having only a short time to compose themselves and present their ideas well and concisely. A cross-examination time can train debaters in the art of asking piercing questions.

    I was no champion debater, but if I learned anything in the experience it is that speaking well is a skill which can be taught and mastered, often by the most unlikely people.

    I am not saying that rhetoric training can or should transform an introverted child into some sort of extroverted social butterfly. I am saying that the neglect of these skills in education has created a culture of introverts who have trouble competing with their more naturally talented extroverted counterparts. When you couple this with the fact that many young extroverts cannot put a decent sentence or thought together, either, we see that we have a cultural crisis in language, not just some sort of introverted disadvantage.

    Rhetoric in Social and Work Situations

    The advice that Dr. Laney doles out is mostly not rhetorical skill, but rather a set of tactics to “make meeting people easier.” However, I think her list is helpful and definitely worth reading and remembering, especially for those of us whose greatest obstacle is “breaking the ice” in the first place.

    With that said, I don’t think the advice addresses some of the real underlying issues associated with the lack of a grounding in an important liberal art. For instance, Dr. Laney writes:

    In one-on-one talks they are more likely to be drawn out, and if an introvert starts a comment without a preface, the other person will often ask for a connecting thought. If the dreaded brainlock occurs, it’s not a problem to say, “Boy, what I was about to say flew right out of my head.”

    {p. 162}

    Dr. Laney sometimes takes an approach which seems to say, “I am an introvert, therefore I am just this way,” but starting a comment without a preface is a rhetorical issue, not an energy issue. In other words, the “comment without a preface” is not a “word fitly spoken”–the right thing said in the right way at the right time.

    I cannot emphasize this enough: rhetoric is a skill which can be learned and mastered. This is an art of living, which must be practiced. I know that, for me, my skills have atrophied during my years of nauseous pregnancies and hibernating with newborns. I have to remind myself often that practice, though uncomfortable, will make me stronger in this area.

    Thinking Before Speaking

    I appreciated Dr. Laney’s suggestion that an introvert not be afraid to tell a coworker that they need to think a question over for a moment. The desire for instantaneous gratification takes many forms, and sometimes it is embodied in the demand for immediate feedback {depending on the context, of course}. But the first thoughts are often not the best thoughts, and I would say Laney’s advice is good for all people, not just introverts. After all, Scripture says that he who restrains his lips is wise.

    The subtitle of the book seems to imply that introverts can have an edge by capitalizing on certain strengths. Thinking something over in private before speaking comes more naturally to a lot of introverts, the book says, and their response will be worth waiting for. If I were teaching this principle to my children, I would approach this as a discipline of the wise rather than some sort of trick to help a career along.

    Small Talk and Loving Your Neighbor

    Dr. Laney gives a few pointers on handling the obligatory small talk at parties and other social gatherings. They are decent, but for some reason this cause me to recall a friend from college whose conversational skills were revolutionized by the first self-help book every written, Dale Carnegie’s How To Win Friends and Influence People. I haven’t ever read the entire book, but what I observed about this friend boiled down to an increase in love for his fellow man.

    In other words, the person in front of us, the people around us, are living souls. They are worth knowing. They are worth talking with and ministering to. For me personally, my talking abilities on every level are flustered by thinking about myself, and set free by thinking about the welfare of others. This mindset won’t make up for rhetoric training, of course, but surrendering our words and conversations to the Lord can greatly assist those of us who falter in our speech.

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    5 Comments

  • Reply Mystie March 28, 2010 at 4:06 am

    I have never heard of PigFest or anything like it before — what a great concept! Wouldn’t that be the perfect format for classically educated middle & high school kids, too?! I’m bookmarking that one. πŸ™‚

    Ah! Lost Tools of Writing. You may have hit upon what may help me. Hm, I still haven’t figured out what year I’ll make the plunge and purchase it. Have you?

    I have gotten much better at small talk the last couple years. Babies and small children at least help give one something to talk about easily. πŸ™‚ Also, I did realize that small talk isn’t necessarily empty, but as you said, part of getting to know one another not so much by what we’re saying as by being together and sharing even the mundane in our lives. So even the grocery-store commenters (“When are you due?” “What little helpers you have!” “You sure have your hands full!”) are just trying to connect and touch lightly on the human(e?) level. How terrible of a place would even the grocery store be if it was full of people and yet no one made eye contact or conversed at all? If you weren’t acknowledged? So if I view small talk as merely that, I feel less pressure on what to say (the cliched or a practiced response is sufficient) and know the smile and the acknowledgement of another person is the point.

    No, it’s the thinking on the fly and keeping my thoughts in order while speaking that I struggle with, and it’s been getting worse; I am hopeful that it was partially hormones and will start to get better, but I doubt it will without effort.

  • Reply Brandy Afterthoughts March 24, 2010 at 6:42 pm

    I really don’t know how an adult would go about rhetoric training. For teens, tying the training to some sort of competition, where they really are going to need the skill they are trying to master (I am thinking here, in addition to my previous example, something like Mock Trial, perhaps) is really key to the motivation. I would not have been motivated to learn any of this had I not needed to use what I was learning.

    Knowing that this is the case, I also see clearly why I lost so many of my skills during early motherhood. I feel like I’m just now beginning to come up for air after being underwater for years, and I am so rusty, and there is very little opportunity for me to practice and use what I remember.

    But perhaps we can just be internally motivated because we are more mature? And we do have small opportunities when we are out…at a park, at the store, at church, or even at a birthday party where we don’t know everyone.

    I know that there have been a couple times where I dusted up my skills by searching Google Books for manners/etiquette training, but from long ago before everything became a form of manipulation, and also being less gregarious was more acceptable. I think of how well-spoken people seemed to be in Jane Austen’s time (even though some of the repartee, I am sure, was written better than that sort of thing was actually spoken in real life) and how it was definitely an art. They appreciated speaking to each other in beautiful ways, and did so often. Capturing that (instead of a more extroverted view of it) has also helped me.

    Has anyone (if anyone is still reading this) any ideas about rhetoric training for adults? I figure I will learn more when we start Lost Tools of Writing when the children are older.

    As far as college regrets…I have my share, too! Like when I took classes which didn’t require much effort, a philosophy class which didn’t require thinking, a major which didn’t require as many units. Talk about a slacker! I could have learned so much more if I had had the correct perspective on learning. I woke up a bit my senior year, but still I think I squandered at least two years.

    Toastmasters! I had completely forgotten about it. I just don’t know if I could bring myself to that. Really. We did, at one point, think of hosting a Pig Fest in our home. We would have done it, but we had…zero interest from others. This was inspired by Ben Franklin’s Junto gatherings (though I think it was inspired by similar practices elsewhere) and we had thought it would open unique evangelistic doors. However, it was simply not the right time for ourselves nor those we invited, though we may consider it in the future. The nice part about it is that I think, as the hostess, I probably could have hidden myself behind the tasks of hosting until I was comfortable enough to actually speak.

  • Reply Mystie March 19, 2010 at 8:42 pm

    I love how you tie this to rhetoric. I am planning circle time lessons on manners for next year for the reasons you mention here; now I can call it “rhetoric.” πŸ™‚ My second son is shy, but often my oldest also appears to be shy. He’s not, and what I finally realized is he won’t do or say anything unless he’s sure of what he should say or do, and he’s inherited the Winckler skepticism of and aloofness from strangers. πŸ™‚ When he knows what is expected of him, he’ll do it; when he’s not sure what to do, he’ll stare at the floor and ignore whoever is speaking to him. So we’re tackling manners to give them people skills. πŸ™‚

    It’s true that the author seems to allow for introvert-related character flaws: “This is how I am, you deal with it.” I, too often, make that allowance for myself, too. I am not good at small talk and I am *terrible* at keeping my thoughts in order and speaking coherently even in regular conversation. What I was going to say does just “fly away” from me halfway through. It’s awful. Now, I’m not going to be participating in any pageant any time soon, so do you have any ideas for other ways to learn basic rhetoric/conversation skills?

    I am the one who has bragged for years that I found a speech class in college that didn’t require any speaking, so I got away without having to do speeches in college. And finally this past year I’ve had to admit that I cheated myself and a speech class is exactly what I should have pursued rather than avoided! My husband told me so from the time I enrolled in the non-speech speech class (he wasn’t my husband then); it’s taken me a little while to admit he was right. πŸ™‚ My best friend at the time even made me come with her to Toastmasters once, and I was mortified to be picked to give an impromptu speech! I said one sentence and then started crying. It was awful.

  • Reply Rahime March 17, 2010 at 8:31 am

    Oh my, I admire you for getting this far through the book. I couldn’t for some reason. Your pageant coaching sounds like a course all teens/children could benefit from…probably much more so than some of the junk that clutters up the school day in the average school.

    I love this: “They are worth knowing.” So true. That about sums it up.

    Oh, and I’ve always loved that your children look adults in the eye when speaking to them and don’t mumble and whisper. So rare these days for anyone to be so well-mannered, particularly young children. πŸ˜‰

  • Reply GretchenJoanna March 17, 2010 at 2:16 am

    Your last paragraph is really the bottom line! πŸ™‚

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