Monday, March 26, 2012

Why the World Needs More Introverts

Ponder these questions:
1. Do you prefer one-on-one conversations over group activities?
2. Do you like to express yourself in writing?
3. Do you tend to think before you speak?

If you answered yes to all of these questions, you just might be an introvert.  Maybe you already suspected this.  Maybe you know it but have spent a lifetime trying to pretend you're more extroverted than you actually feel.

Why would you do that?  Maybe it's because North American society dramatically undervalues introverts and as you traversed from elementary school to college to your first job, you might have learned that your introverted tendencies were something you needed to hide, fix or deny.

I've always known I'm an introvert but thanks to Quiet: The Power of Introverts in A World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain, a New York Times bestseller, I now have a better understanding of what that actually means.  Many people assume that introverts are shy, withdrawn and even antisocial while extroverts are loud, friendly and gregarious.  While these things may be true of some people, the truth is more complex.

For example, one of the main differences between introverts and extroverts is simply that extroverts can handle more sensory stimulation.  Loud music, roller-coasters, crowded streets or an animated group discussion don't bother the extrovert and in fact, they energize him.  If an introvert is exposed to these same things, she is thrown off-balance and, after a period of time, she feels over-stimulated, begins to shut down and is desperate to escape to quiet surroundings.

Consider public speaking.  Most introverts are terrified of speaking in public and experience a variety of mental and physical reactions to it.  These include sleepless nights, elevated heart rate, excessive sweating, shaking, vomiting and even fainting on the way to the podium.  But, because so many careers require public speaking, many have trained themselves to do it by only accepting engagements on topics where they have expertise, spending weeks planning, and practicing breathing exercises, etc. beforehand.  When it's over, even if it was a huge success, the introvert is completely depleted and needs to immediately retreat to solitude to recover.  While extroverts may also get butterflies before giving a speech, they don't put so much pressure on themselves to succeed, spend less time planning, wing it more.  If the speech is a success and the audience is pleased, the extrovert feeds off that and sticks around for the backslapping.

One of Cain's most interesting claims is the notion that extroverts react while introverts inspect. If an introvert and an extrovert both go to the same sales pitch, the extrovert is more likely to react instantly to what is being shared, to be wowed by high-pressure tactics and to be excited about the possibilities.  Inherently suspicious, the introvert will probably experience none of these things.  He'll need to go back to the office, think about what he heard, digest it, maybe do his own research and then come back with a host of questions.

When the extroverted tendency to jump in and see what happens is combined with the introverted need to inquire and make informed decisions, great things can happen.  Business partnerships, boards and senior management teams which value and include an equal distribution of both dispositions, have the perfect combination of fearlessness and risk aversion.

But this rarely happens.  Because our society values speaking up, sharing your opinion and excelling at teamwork, introverts rarely make it to the top and when they do, their cautious approach to change is often viewed as a hindrance.  Introverts dislike teamwork even though, fastidious about details, they often do the bulk of the work and demand little of the glory.  They are also less interested in wealth, fame and status than extroverts, which knocks many of them off the corporate ladder early on.

Cain believes that we live in a culture which admires risk-takers but a time which needs more heed-takers.  Some people have gone so far as to blame the 2008 economic meltdown on a lack of introverts in high finance, positing that, if only there had been more cautious, quiet, inquisitive people at the top, it never would have happened.  I'm not sure if that's true.  Perhaps they were there and no one listened.  Perhaps they don't have the chutzpah to make it in such a high-octane business and so there's a dearth of them at the top.

Reading the book has been therapeutic for me in the sense that I feel more comfortable with my introversion and realize that there's nothing wrong with my preference for working in solitude and my desire to always leave parties early, if I go at all. As the parent of a classic introvert, I'm also determined to let him be who he is and resist the temptation to "bring him out of his shell".

If you think you might be an introvert, you can take Susan Cain's quiz here   You might just be surprised.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Why our elected officials should apologize more

A couple of years ago, I wrote a blog post on the importance of saying "sorry" when you're in the wrong.  The need to apologize exists whether you are totally responsible for a debacle, or if you own only a small part of it.  Some jurisdictions have even instituted apology legislation, which means saying sorry cannot be used as a confession in legal situations.  This accommodates the human need to see an appropriate level of atonement and accountability in order to start the healing process, rebuild trust and move forward after a disaster.

I realize that finding politicians who don't take responsibility for their actions is like shooting fish in a barrel but there's a situation unfolding in Ontario right now which has truly taken blame-slinging to a disgusting new low.  In short, the Toronto Star recently revealed outrageous spending irregularities at ORNGE, the province's publicly-funded air ambulance service and the ensuing investigation has unearthed a laundry list of questionable practices including the use of taxpayer dollars to renovate a high-end office building, establish a complex web of shell companies to shield itself from government scrutiny, send executives to foreign schools for expensive MBAs, loan the CEO $1.2 million for a house purchase and much more.  After a forensic audit, $25 million of taxpayer funds is still unaccounted for so the Ontario Provincial Police has been called in to investigate.

It's painfully clear that the Ministry of Health, which oversees ORNGE, was asleep at the switch and even when warned about potential problems, chose to ignore the evidence.  Now that the truth is out and the police are involved, many are calling for the Minister of Health, Deb Matthews, to resign.  She has refused which is typical, but more astoundingly, has yet to take even a shred of accountability for letting this happen on her watch.  Consider her statements:

"There's lots of blame to go around"
"People who chose to take money out of the pockets of taxpayers"
"You can't legislate trust"
"We were misled"
"I am sickened when I see people who were in a position of trust, abuse that trust"

If she was using these statements to talk about her role, however detached, in the debacle, the words would be appropriate but sadly, she is not.  She has used them, and countless others, to deflect blame away from herself and her team. In a rare turn for a politician, she has also claimed that she inherited the mess from her predecessor, a fellow Liberal who actually set up the controversial air ambulance service.  When confronted with this, his refusal to take accountability was even more profound.  Among his quotations:

"I feel like I have been scapegoated"
"It's just too convenient to lay the blame at the feet of politicians"
"the system is always set up to throw politicians under the bus"

While it's true that the Ministry of Health is huge, has thousands of employees and myriad sub-committees and spin-offs, the reality is, the buck stops with the person in charge. I ran a business for ten years and even though it was much smaller than our Ministry of Health with its thousands of employees and myriad spin-offs, I was not always able to oversee every decision.  As a result, sometimes mistakes were made and clients were disappointed.  But, as an owner of the company, I understood that ultimately I was in charge and it was my role to apologize, even if the entire transgression had gone on without my knowledge.  While you can choose to privately reprimand employees who breach organizational ethics or just plain screw up, it's unacceptable to publicly blame someone else when a program you are responsible for, goes awry.

No one expects perfection from elected officials but everyone expects at least a show of contrition.  That provides a starting point for moving forward and rebuilding trust.

If Deb Matthews hopes to emerge from this relatively unscathed (and it may be too late), she needs to make a simple statement along the lines of, "While I cannot oversee every single thing that happens in my portfolio, I'm sorry for the role I played in this and I hope you'll have faith in me as we work to clean up this mess."  Is that so impossible to consider?

I have never been involved in politics, I'm not affiliated with any of our political parties and this blog post is not an attack on the Liberal party.  So, I'm not aware of the popular theory on how these scandals should be handled but I'm wondering if there's a "never apologize under any conditions" ethos that exists among political advisers and if so, it needs to go.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Six common etiquette mistakes you probably don't know you're making

"Say, isn't that the new MAC Viva Glam shade?"

Those of us who believe in preserving etiquette are faced with a Catch-22 of sorts. Rude behaviour is all around us providing ample opportunity to educate people by showing them the error of their ways.  And yet, pointing out someone's ignorance is itself considered poor etiquette so we stand by mutely and let people carry on with their faux pas.  Enter the etiquette blog - a way to helpfully share the rules of etiquette without the risk of embarrassing the offenders.  That is of course, presuming that they are capable of embarrassment, a phenomenon I wrote about in a recent post on the disappearance of shame in modern society.  So, in the spirit of gentle reminders, here are six etiquette mistakes you probably didn't even know you were making:

1. Not excusing yourself to take a phone call - Despite what you may believe, there really is no public circumstance in which it's okay for you to interrupt an in-person conversation in order to talk on your cell phone.  This is especially true in situations where you're not only ignoring your companion, but also annoying strangers (e.g. inside an elevator or in a restaurant).  While it's better to turn off your ringer when you are in company, if you are expecting a call of an urgent nature that absolutely cannot be ignored, let your companion know at the start of your discussion and when the call comes, find a quiet place to take it.  The rule of thumb is that you should be at least 10 feet from other humans when you're conducting a cell phone call.  If you're an exceptionally loud person, make it 20.

2. Assuming you have a year to send a wedding gift - I believed this for many years but it's actually a myth and rightfully so.  According to Peggy Post at, if you wait a year, you're actually sending someone an anniversary gift, not a wedding gift.  While it can be cumbersome to tote a gift to a ceremony, and you may want to see someone's taste in home decor before choosing something, three months is considered the maximum time you can wait. 

3. Wearing your name tag on the wrong side - Many people believe that name tags should be worn on the left side because "that's where the heart is".  It's a lovely sentiment but unfortunately, it's wrong.  While it's easier for right-handed people to slap a name tag on their left side, it belongs on the right side.  Since we shake hands with our right hand, we have better eye contact with the other person's right side and therefore, don't have to strain to see their name and where they work. 

4. Having a sip when someone toasts you - At least once in your life, you will find yourself in a situation where someone makes a toast in your honour.  If you're a fabulous socialite, a major philanthropist or a politician who people actually like, this might happen often.  For most of us, it happens at weddings and the odd business dinner which we have organized.  While it seems only natural to raise our own glass when someone is complimenting us, etiquette experts remind us that "one never drinks a toast to oneself".

5. Leaving your napkin on the table when you visit the restroom - So you've had a couple of glasses of wine and you need to visit the ladies' room in the middle of dinner.  Perhaps you're leaving to take a phone call (see #1).  What do you do with your napkin?  Leave it on your chair, not beside your plate.  This spares your dining companions from having to stare at your lipstick marks or grease spots while you're gone.  When you no longer need it, it can go on the table as a signal to your waiter that you're finished. 

6. Sharing someone's email address without permission - Even if it's for a good reason (e.g. to refer some business to them), it is not appropriate to share anyone's email address without asking their permission or at least giving them a heads-up.  If you want to introduce two people via e-mail, let them know separately ahead of time before putting them together electronically.  And never, under any circumstances, share someone's email address with a person who is trying to sell something.

7. Neglecting to send thank-you cards after a funeral - A friend who recently lost her father suggested to me that people who sent flowers to the funeral home would understand that she was too sad to formally acknowledge their gesture.  I replied that, while another task is the last thing most people need during a bereavement period, thank-you cards are still required, and then I offered to help her write them out.  While everyone will completely understand if you take months to thank them, if someone has taken the time to purchase and send a flower arrangement, they deserve, and need, to be acknowledged.  But don't be afraid to ask for help with this.  You will certainly receive it. 

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Should parents make their adult children send thank you cards?

I'm still waiting...

If you read this blog or follow my tweets, you'll know I'm a big believer in thank you cards, the old-fashioned handwritten ones, not the e-mail versions that are so popular nowadays.  But, as I'm not a complete Luddite, I realize that many people don't write cards any more and I'll take an electronic thank you over nothing at all, which is also sadly becoming commonplace.

A while ago I wrote a blog post about five occasions that require a thank-you card so I won't list them here but suffice to say, a proper thank you is required anytime someone gives you a gift.  As a mother of young children, I consider it my responsibility to ensure that my sons write cards of gratitude for most gifts they receive.  If five friends come to their birthday party and leave with loot bags, the thank-yous are said when the gift is received and I don't feel a more formal follow-up is required.  However, if grandma or another friend or relative takes the time to give them something special, and especially if the gift is sent through the mail, thank-you cards are mandatory.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Why I'm Teaching My Kids Cursive Writing

I miss you...

We recently added a new activity to our family's weekend routine.  On Sunday afternoons, I sit my sons at the dining room table with a pencil and some sheets of lined paper. I plop a bowl of candy in front of them for "motivation" and begin our weekly lesson in cursive writing.  For 30 minutes, they loop and slant their way through the alphabet, their names and a few other words.  This is not always a joyful family experience and it is often characterized by resistance and frustration about why they're the "only kids in their class who have to learn cursive". 

I became concerned when another mom told me that the Toronto District School Board had dropped handwriting from the curriculum. While that is not actually true, whether it is actually taught is up to individual teachers (like so much else) and it's definitely not a priority.  Even if it is squeezed in here and there, it's unlikely the kids will practice it enough to become proficient. 

While I wasn't labouring under the misconception that my kids were spending hours perfecting a scripted "d" while their teacher rapped the hands of those who went outside the lines, I was shocked and saddened to hear that it wouldn't play a vital role in their education.  I understand it's a dying art and it's not like I also expect them to master the abacus or slide rule, but I just hadn't prepared my mind (and my emotions) for the reality that they might never learn how to write properly.  

According to the experts, font is the future, and I can't say I disagree. My kids will graduate into an extremely competitive global environment and need to be adequately prepared with true 21st century skills.  There's no time to focus on things they won't use and in fact, many adults who grew up learning cursive don't even use it anymore.  Thanks to chip and pin technology, we don't need to sign our name when we use our credit cards and people take notes on their tablets or smartphones. Brides send thank you notes by email (when they send them at all), long distance correspondence takes place electronically and I can't remember the last time I received a postcard from a vacationing acquaintance.

I don't think of myself as a Luddite, and yet, putting pen to paper is such a fundamental part of my life that I just wasn't prepared to let it go. To say I love cursive writing is an understatement.  At conferences, I'm often the only person at my table taking notes the "old-fashioned way".  I write elaborate to-do lists and get a thrill every time I stroke my pen through a task that's completed.  I send handwritten thank-you cards all the time and write out almost 50 Christmas cards each year.  To be fair, I am gifted with the ability to write very neatly.  It has always come easy for me and I realize that for many people, no amount of practice can improve their messy scrawl.

But, while I have a tendency towards nostalgia, my desire to teach my kids cursive is not fueled purely by emotion.  According to researchers, writing by hand is more than just a way to communicate.  Cursive calls upon many different parts of the brain while printing and typing only use the left hemisphere of the brain, the side associated with linear, logical and sequential functions.  As well, handwriting reinforces reading and spelling, develops motor memory, teaches students to focus and may help them remember what they learn.  This last part rings true for me.  Despite their claims that the medium isn't important, I find it hard to believe that people who take notes on a laptop, while simultaneously checking emails and Facebook, are taking in as much relevant information as someone who is writing what they hear.

One could also make a case for the discipline developed when kids practice anything over and over, whether it's piano scales or soccer kicks. By allowing them to go directly from printing to the keyboard, are we denying today's children the confidence that comes from mastering a skill they have struggled with? 

And, as handwriting analysts (themselves a dying breed) will attest, the unique way in which our writing flows says so much about our personality, character and intentions, in a way that Helvetica never will.  A person's handwriting is an extension of who they are and   it's recognizable.  I feel an emotional tug when I receive mail addressed with my mom's patient, consistent script.

And so I plod along with my insistence that my kids learn to write properly.  I realize that short of an apocalypse in which all the technology disappears, it's a skill they won't use but all parents seem to have a couple of things they're "irrational" about.  Some parents think I'm crazy for doing this and I think they're crazy for giving an 8-year-old a Facebook account.  As parents, we make many decisions based on pure gut instinct and hope that they will turn out to be wise. 

What are your thoughts on teaching kids cursive?  Colossal waste of time or valuable learning opportunity? 

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Do You Hide Behind A Social Media Alter Ego?

A few weeks ago, I was captivated by the news of Caterpillar closing its plant in London, Ontario.  Although it wasn't confirmed, it was widely suggested that the company was moving the jobs to a plant in Muncie, Indiana, a town that has been decimated by the American economic recession.  After reading a news story in the Muncie Star Press, I decided to add a comment from a Canadian point of view.  After I typed my comment, I hit submit and received a message stating that, in order to preserve the integrity of the comments section and keep it clean, all commenters are required to log in through their Facebook page so that their photo and real name will accompany their comment.

With my finger hovering over the keyboard, I thought about this for a couple of minutes before deciding not to submit my comment.  What scared me away?  I am not a troll who posts derogatory, inflammatory or offensive comments in response to news stories. I don't use profanity, never berate other posters and make every attempt to keep my comments on-topic and not go off on ridiculous tangents.  That said, I guess I'm not quite ready to be completely transparent with my personal opinions when it comes to highly-charged stories.  The few times I shared my honest opinion on the Caterpillar story - that the union had to accept at least some responsibility for the outcome - most people became enraged and spouted sentences that started with, "It's people like you..."

As an educated person working in a (mostly) creative profession, living in a (mostly) progressive city in a (mostly) democratic country, I feel like I exist in a network where certain opinions, attitudes and outlooks are considered normal and appropriate.  Our profession seems to be dominated by people who are slightly left of centre when it comes to issues of a political or social nature and sometimes it feels like there is no room for someone to diverge from popular opinion. It's almost like there are a set of opinions that are considered the "right" opinions on topics like religion, unions, politicians, climate change, poverty, etc. and when someone tries to share a different thought, even if it's only a slight variation on the commonly accepted viewpoint, it is not always accepted in the spirit of debate.

For example, while I can see how someone like Toronto mayor, Rob Ford turns many people off, I am not in complete disagreement with all of his ideas. I feel like I'm intelligent enough to make this assertion and I generally do my own research before forming opinions.  However, judging from the end-of-the-world tone of the local Twittersphere when he was elected, I don't know if I'd be comfortable sharing this on Twitter.

Some people have gone so far as to set up Twitter alter egos so that they might have their professional, politically-correct Twitter handles with their own photo, as well as another, anonymous one that they use when they need to put someone in their place or share an opinion that could be unpopular.  I know some of these people personally. They are not crazy right-wing nutcases with wild opinions but they are savvy enough to know that holding certain opinions is tantamount to professional and/or social media suicide.   The alter ego idea appeals to me but I don't trust my ability to keep my two accounts separate so it's a recipe for disaster.

As I write this, it occurs to me that I might be too sensitive.  A friend said to me once that if you're afraid to annoy people on social media you're not doing it right.  It's food for thought and I'm seriously considering it. But will you still like me?