The Stigma of Introversion And Why It's Wrong

Disciplines:

In our current society, it is common to hear teachers and parents prodding young children to “come out of their shells”. We tend to forget the fact that some animals carry shells with them wherever they go, permanent shelters of sorts. Some humans are naturally inclined to be the same way, though such humans are often treated as having a personality defect. Depending on the study we're referring to, approximately a third to half of all Americans are introverts. Seeing as America is actually one of the most extroverted countries in the world, that number is as at least as high for other nations. With this clear abundance of introverts, it is surprising that people almost universally view extroversion as the more desirable trait of the two. Extroversion is preferred in schools by teachers, in the workplace by employers, and even by introverts themselves. Extroversion is seen as the ideal, and just as it is often said we live in a “man's world”, it can similarly be said that we live in an extrovert's world. We strive to become louder, faster-talking, more confident and more gregarious, with larger-than-life personalities. In schools, desks are moving closer and closer together, forming pod shapes meant to encourage group activity. Workplaces value “team players”, and will seek any excuse to hold large group meetings. In the media, “rockstar”-type characters are almost ubiquitous. Gone are the quiet, bookish protagonists of decades past. Today, the spotlight rests firmly on extroverted archetypes like Hannah Montana and Carly Shay of iCarly, singers and dancers and podcast hosts with in-your-face personalities. We are taught that humans are meant to socialize, and distaste for constant socialization is viewed as sort of a pathology, a disorder.

One teacher, an introvert, joined his students in taking the Myers-Briggs personality test. He assumed some students would receive “I”s on the test for introversion, and planned assignments in which the students would discuss the differences in their results. But a problem arose: not one student, according to their results on the test, was an introvert. It seemed the teacher was the only introvert in the class, though his personal assessment of his students, some who had never spoken up in class, not even once, would suggest differently (Unpackers, 2012). The results are less surprising when we consider that introversion is clearly stigmatized in this country, and the students had obviously been reluctant to answer questions in a manner they knew society would deem “unhealthy”. For example, take the question “Would you rather go to a party or stay home reading a book?”. This question has a clear “right” (that is, socially acceptable) answer. The teacher in this scenario, William Pannapacker, puts it like this: “Given that introversion is frowned upon almost everywhere in U.S. culture, the test might as well have asked, "Would you prefer to be cool, popular, and successful or weird, isolated, and a failure?"”. Knacker writes that, in the discussion following the scoring of the tests, students generally agreed that “introversion was a kind of mental illness” or “a sign of spiritual brokenness”.

It seems introverts in today's society are unfairly discriminated against even though, as Susan Cain states in her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, “there’s zero correlation between the gift of gab and good ideas” (Cain, 2012). Although introverts face serious stigma, the quiet and the cerebral are often brilliant thinkers, and, without them, we would be devoid of some of the greatest works of literature, the most groundbreaking scientific theories, the most influential leaders, and the greatest technological advancements humanity has ever seen.

First, it is important we define what is meant by the terms “introvert” and “extrovert”. Introverts are more inclined to retreat into the inner world of thoughts and feelings, whereas extroverts prefer to live in the outside world of people and activities. Introverts reflect on and attempt to draw meaning from the events that they experience, whereas extroverts focus on experiencing the experiences themselves. If people were robots, introverts would recharge their batteries by sitting at home curled up with a good book, whereas extroverts would need to recharge with a jolt of human interaction. Introverts prefer lower levels of stimulation, such as having a quiet dinner with a close friend, completing a Sudoku puzzle in the morning with a cup of coffee, or immersing themselves in a good mystery novel. Extroverts love higher levels of stimulation: meeting dozens of new people at once at a party, riding dangerous roller-coasters, or driving down the highway with the windows down and the radio turned on at full volume. Introverts and extroverts also differ in how they handle work. Extroverts are quick workers and multi-task easily. They make fast decisions and are often motivated by money and success, often taking risks with these things in mind as rewards. Introverts, on the other hand, work slowly and carefully. They are not avid at multi-tasking, but they have extremely steady concentration. They are not as motivated by money and (external) success.In terms of socialization, extroverts love to talk and laugh. They say whatever comes to mind without thinking it over too deliberately, and they aren't comfortable with too much alone-time. Introverts may enjoy talking to one person at a time, if it is someone they feel they have a connection to. They have little patience for small talk, but enjoy deep one-on-one conversations. Their actions are often preceded by thorough thought processes and inner monologues.

It is necessary to note that introversion does not necessarily imply shyness. It is possible to be a shy extrovert, or a not-shy introvert. An extrovert in a social situation might be too afraid of what others will think of him/her to express an opinion, though they may have one that they badly wish to express. An introvert in a similar situation might not be uncomfortable expressing opinions, though it might take him/her a great deal of time to think of something they deem worthwhile to verbally express. It is also important to note that extroversion does not imply great leadership ability. Introverts can be quiet, but powerful and competent leaders, and extroverts, especially those who are shy, can find themselves inept at leading others. In his memoir, Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, President Barack Obama identifies as an introvert. Though many introverts feel they can better explain themselves in writing than in speech, with extensive rehearsal and thorough fleshing-out of their ideas, introverts can become comfortable speaking to large groups of people. With these definitions of extroversion and introversion in mind, we will next study some examples of discrimination that introverts face in today's society.

A high school English teacher, Natalie Munro, was recently made famous by blogging how she truly felt about some of the students. Some of the sentiments she wished she could include on her students' report cards are as follows: “A kid that has no personality.”, “She just sits there emotionless for an entire 90 minutes, staring into the abyss, never volunteering to speak or do anything.”, and “Shy isn't cute in 11th grade; it's annoying. Must learn to advocate for himself instead of having Mommy do it.” (Cain, 2011). Robert J. Coplan, a psychology professor at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, stated that “Whoever designed the context of the modern classroom was certainly not thinking of the shy or quiet kids”. As classes are often extremely crowded and children are highly stimulated, pushed to give oral performances in order to receive grades for class participation, it is not a stretch to say, as Coplan did, that “in many ways, the modern classroom is the quiet kid's worst nightmare." A 2011 study by Coplan observed that teachers of grades K-12 rated quiet children as having lower academic abilities and lower intelligence than their more talkative peers. However, teachers who identified themselves as being shy were more likely to say that, although quiet students did perform less well academically than more talkative students, they were no less intelligent (Coplan, 2011).

Introverts in the university setting also face significant hardship. in the late 1940s, the Provost of Harvard was quote saying that Harvard should reject those who are “sensitive and neurotic” and “intellectually over-stimulated.” In 1950, Yale's president followed up by affirming that a model Yale student should not be a “beetle-browed, highly specialized intellectual, but a well-rounded man.” (Markway, 2012). Introverted adults, too, face a certain degree of discrimination. Many employers administer personality tests to prospective employees to screen out introverts, preferring instead to hire people who work well in group settings and present ideas with conviction, even if they aren't fully convinced of these ideas. If they are hired, introverts can often expect to enter into a workplace that isn't created to allow them to reach their maximum work potential. A study done by the psychologist Russell Green gave math problems to a group of introverts and extroverts. The participants solved the problems with varying degrees of background noise. It was discovered that introverts performed better with less background noise, while extroverts performed better with higher levels of background noise (HBR, 2012). Most modern office settings are crowded, with little privacy and few means of escaping noise for those who perform better in solitude and quiet. Furthermore, as Carolyn Gregoire writes in a Huffington Post article, “Many workplace set ups undermine introverted employees by failing to accommodate their personalities and productivity styles -- over-stimulation and excessive meetings can easily stunt their full brain power.” (Gregoire, 2013). It is evident that, in every stage of their lives, introverts must learn to navigate a world focused on helping extroverts flourish and become successful. Introverts face subtle discrimination at every turn, obstacles that prevent them from thriving and achieving all that they have the potential to achieve.

However, there have been many examples in history of introverts overcoming such obstacles and becoming not only successful, but hugely influential. Cain opens her book with a passage about Rosa Parks. Cain admits that she herself had imagined Rosa Parks as a woman “with a bold temperament, someone who could easily stand up to a busload of glowering passengers” (Cain, 2012). However, at the time of her death in 2005, the dozens of obituaries written about her described her as soft-spoken and thoughtful. Although “timid and shy”, Rosa Parks also had, according to the obituaries, “the courage of a lion”, “radical humility”, and “quiet fortitude”. Parks herself chose to name her autobiography “Quiet Strength”. Martin Luther King Junior's grand, moving speeches were certainly influential, but so was Parks' refusal to give up her bus seat to a white passenger, a simple “No” coming from a woman who would obviously have preferred to remain quiet and inconspicuous. The fact that the situation had become so dire, the South so cruelly segregated that a woman with a normally-calm temperament was forced to speak up, was made clear to many as a result of Parks' small rebellion. It is often so that the few words of those who speak rarely are as powerful, or even more powerful, than the words of those who speak often.

Chopin was an introvert, as was W.B. Yeats, Proust and Orwell. J.K. Rowling is also an introvert. Without introverts, we would not have the theory of gravity or the theory of relativity. We would not have Google. Though we are quick to accept the extroversion as the ideal, some of humanity's greatest achievements have been accomplished by introverts, from Darwin's theory of evolution to Van Gogh's sunflowers. As Cain says, these things came from “quiet and cerebral people who knew how to tune in to their inner worlds” and discover “the treasures to be found there” (Cain, 2012).

As a society, it is important that we work further towards the goal of greater cultivation of introverts, from childhood into adulthood. Instead of viewing and treating introversion as unhealthy or as a pathology we must fight against, we should focus on establishing learning and working environments in which introverts can flourish, unlock their intellectual capacities, and reach their full potentials.