Japanese gardens, Portland, Oregon, November 2011
A few years ago, I got into an argument with my now mother-in-law over my supposedly “backwards” ways. My transgression? I did not attend a party of my now husband’s (then merely boyfriend’s) distant relatives, none of whom I knew, while he was out of town. Why didn’t I want to crash this crazy fun shindig as the third wheel companion of my boyfriend’s parents? Gosh, I don’t know. I probably had a book to read. Or laundry that wasn’t about to wash itself. Or any number of more appealing somethings.
And, oh yeah, I’m a tragically flawed introvert.
The Ongoing Misconceptions of Introversion
While I may be tragically flawed (aren't we all?), it has next to nothing to do with my introverted tendencies. Introversion is not synonymous with painfully shy (though I was also shy in my younger days), nor is it the same as antisocial or misanthropic. Indeed, such traits might and often do overlap, however, they are each separate aspects of one’s personality - one does not necessary include or preclude another. Haven’t you met a misanthrope that wouldn't take a breath?
Jonathan Rauch may have defined it best in his article in the Atlantic a decade ago: “introverts are people who find other people tiring.” Not in the tiresome sense, but in the exhausting sense. He also points out:
With their endless appetite for talk and attention, extroverts also dominate social life, so they tend to set expectations. In our extrovertist society, being outgoing is considered normal and therefore desirable, a mark of happiness, confidence, leadership. Extroverts are seen as bighearted, vibrant, warm, empathic. "People person" is a compliment. Introverts are described with words like "guarded," "loner," "reserved," "taciturn," "self-contained," "private"—narrow, ungenerous words, words that suggest emotional parsimony and smallness of personality.
Introversion is Still Considered a Personality Flaw
Despite the recent (but Quiet) introversion awareness campaign, we introverts are still perceived as lacking in some way, or as using our introversion as an excuse to disengage from the world - as if disengaging for brief (or not so brief) periods of time is de facto unhealthy. Introversion is still considered something to be overcome when it should be not only tolerated but accepted and embraced.
Introverts make up a solid third of the population (according to Susan Cain’sQuiet), or, as education experts Jill D. Burruss and Lisa Kaenzig have put it (I’m stealing this from Mr. Rauch), "a minority in the regular population but a majority in the gifted population,"and yet American culture still considers us introverts to be weird loners who need to get with their extroverted program.
In a more recent article, an extroverted teacher claims she’s read some literature on introversion, including Quiet, and has implemented new strategies to help her introverted students. What these strategies are, she does not say. But:
In the end, I have decided to retain my class participation requirement. As a teacher, it is my job to teach grammar, vocabulary, and literature, but I must also teach my students how to succeed in the world we live in -- a world where most people won't stop talking. If anything, I feel even more strongly that my introverted students must learn how to self-advocate by communicating with parents, educators, and the world at large.
It’s your job to teach your introverts that the world is loud and unforgiving? You don’t think we've figured that out by the time we get to your class? Give us a little credit. Extra credit, apparently, since we’ll need to make up for missing some participation points.
Another case of mistaken definition: introversion is not shyness, is not social anxiety - just like a language teacher is not a psychologist.
Penalizing students - and with lower grades, no less - who don’t excel at class participation is just another way of teaching introverts that something is seriously wrong with them. Nothing is wrong with these introverted students; they live and survive in this loud, gregarious culture every day whether or not they participate in a particular class. Classroom dynamics also bear little resemblance to “real world” situations, and classroom participation is not exactly a life skill.
Combating the Criticism
During that conversation years ago, my boyfriend’s mother insisted (as if I hadn't heard it before) that I needed to “break out of my shell” because I’d regret all my alone time when friends and family died. (And apparently strangers, too, because I didn’t go to that party, so I never got the chance to engage in all that really fun awkward small talk about the weather. And now they’re dead. With whom will I discuss traffic patterns now? — Not to be callous. They are lovely people, as I now know, years and many parties with me in attendance later.)
Break out of my shell? I’m not exactly shy these days, nor was I then; I just don’t have much to say on demand. Without commonality of subject, I’m completely lost. I understand such rapport must be established… by talking. Which is fine - I can talk about the intricacies of the funky Midwest weather patterns as well as an extrovert. But, dear extroverts, such rapport cannot always be garnered through small talk alone, nor can it be forced by volume, neither of sound nor of words. Talking for talking’s sake is just so boring.
I also prefer not to talk about subjects about which I know little to nothing - I can listen somewhat convincingly, but converse about the complexities of determining which players to pick for your fantasy football team? Not as much. Politely nod with appropriate questions and interjections, yes, but please don’t drain the life out of me for too long.
She and I eventually came to terms - perhaps she was surprised that I wasn't about to back down, but hopefully she finally realized that we just process the world differently. She talks first and thinks later - and doesn’t care what others think, she says. That’s fine - I don’t, nor do I have any desire to do so, and I don’t care what others think about that. She agreed to not take it personally if I didn't accept every single socializing invitation, and I agreed to pay more attention to my phone (which I had a tendency to ignore for long periods of time - I’ve gotten much better, I swear!) and to try to respond to voicemails and emails more quickly.
Introversion is Not a Personality Fail
Believe it or not, I (and most introverts) actually enjoy the more than occasional party or social gathering - of moderate size and for a reasonable length of time. We even might like engaging in witty banter - just not all the time. We like dinners with friends and visits with families - just in smaller doses than extroverts.
In the end, introvert or extrovert, we need to understand and play to our strengths. That’s not to say an introvert should never have to deal with uncomfortably social or crowded situations (they are, after all, part of life), or that an extrovert should never have to deal with some alone time with his or her own thoughts.
But it’s perfectly acceptable for an introvert (or even an extrovert) to insist upon taking time for themselves, and to decline the occasional invitation, and to admit we’d rather not self-promote, or give a presentation, or attend a networking event or party full of strangers, even though we know we need to for our careers or families or friends or even ourselves. It’s not making an excuse or an admission of a flaw, but a simple statement of preference. We’re still going to do many of those things, we just aren’t going to enjoy them as much as an extrovert might. And that’s fine.
As personality traits and tendencies go, introversion is just as big a win as extroversion. Introverts don’t go around demanding (at least out loud) that chatty extroverts retreat into their respective shells or go sit quietly and think about what they’ve done. We merely ask for the same respect in return. We’ve built these shells for a reason. If you extroverts out there paused your constant stream of self-expression for a moment, maybe you’d notice their restorative usefulness.