I sat down recently in my spare time with my laptop wide open, watching one of the most viewed TED talks of all time, Susan Cain’s ‘The Power of Introverts‘, a talk delivered, rather ironically, in front of a large audience in 2012. Almost five years and 16 million views later, I can still resonate strongly with the message that Susan was trying to convey.
I have always been a quiet, introverted person and this has carried on throughout my childhood and is still a dominant personal character trait today. While it has taken years for me to accept that there is nothing wrong with being quiet and introverted, it’s still undeniable that society continues to pressure people like myself to conform with the societal ‘norm’ of being extroverted, outgoing and comfortable in the spotlight. For this reason, probably, I was able to relate to Cain’s experiences of being singled out in ‘ROWDIE’ camp. Looking back, even my earliest memories have been coloured in some way from my experiences as an introvert.
Report cards, teacher-parent interviews and feedback from my early school days all more or less came along the lines of, “she needs to speak more in class”or “she is not making enough effort to participate and integrate herself into class activities”. “Boring”, “too nice”, “unassertive”, “meek” and “too quiet” were frequent labels thrown around to describe me when I was growing up. So I grew sick of it. And I changed.
I sucked it up because there didn’t seem to be any way around it – my preference for low stimulation activities and environments, my crippling shyness and lack of social skills didn’t seem to be getting me anywhere. There was no place for someone like me in an extrovert’s world. I felt ashamed to be who I really was. I forced myself to be out there on the spotlight, jumping into clubs and committees and joining more social events, lying about my personality to get where I wanted to be. Even today, if I were in an interview, I would probably still lie about being “outgoing”, “team-oriented” or “enthusiastic about customer service”, not because it is actually an accurate reflection of who I am, but simply because I feel it’s what they want to hear.
Over the years, I have learned to act more like an extrovert, because it was expected of me. It often made things easier, such as when looking for work, or making new friends, but over time, putting up a facade does tend to get tiring.
Recently, I took it to Twitter to ask the same question to my followers, and surprisingly, an overwhelming majority seemed to share the same sentiment as myself.
An overwhelming 89% of respondents agreed that society favoured extroverted individuals over those who were introverted. While the poll only represents a small cross section of the community, it does seem to hint at an alarming trend with regards to the way that different personality types are treated in society.
I then did some quick internet research and identified a few key areas where it seems that a cultural bias against introverts is typical:
1. In the classroom
Classrooms place a large focus on participation and group work. Group presentations, classroom debating, play structures for children, speed dating and games so often found in classrooms are all tailored towards individuals who learn best under high stimulation environments.
Many of the units that I study at university have a ‘class participation’ component where students are assessed on the amount that they participate in class discussion and activities. While its good to get discussion going, it doesn’t work for everyone to be placed under the spotlight. Educators, scholars and professors need to be more open minded about the way that their different students learn – while having participation account for some of a subject’s grades is a great way to encourage collaboration and shared ideas, we need to recognise that it isn’t necessarily the best way to judge a student’s performance. Some teamwork is good, but schools also need to support the needs of introverted students who like to learn through introspection, reflection and quiet time.
2. Social contexts
It is harder for introverts to make friends, because we typically don’t initiate conversations and don’t put ourselves out there in situations that get us noticed or that allow us to meet a lot of people. If I’m at a social gathering with extroverted people, I will hardly be able to get a word in the conversation – I tend to avoid trying to cut in over other’s speaking, meaning that the more outgoing people dominate the conversation. Sometimes this leads to people thinking I’m rude or non-participatory, unintelligent or apathetic/opinion-less on issues.
We constantly hear about the changing nature of work, and how in this day and age, employment in the 21st century isn’t about ‘what you know, but who you know’. Networking is such a critical tool to achieving success today – there is a whole body of literature on the entire topic – in fact, I have just finished reading an entire business book on the topic quite recently, and I know for a fact how much pressure there is to start building important connections.
I remember being rejected in an interview once, with the interviewer calling me to inform me of the outcome of my application, telling me that although they thought I had demonstrated myself to be a quite “capable, logical person” and they were close to “taking me in”, they did not extend me an offer because I seemed to “be holding back” and “not saying what I thought”. I get this problem a lot in interviews – when we are allocated into teams for a group task, I tend to get overshadowed by more dominating speakers and end up looking like I’m not participating enough.
The entire hiring process including assessment centres is skewed in favour of the extroverted individual – extroverts are great at expressing their views and speaking out, while introverts are good at listening and processing information. We internalise our thoughts before speaking out, and sometimes this is misinterpreted as lacking participation in discussions, simply because the thought process cannot be seen.
‘Team-work’, ‘customer service’ and ‘people skills’ are highly coveted, mostly non-negotiable skills in any work place. Modern office designs favour extroverts, with open plan, shared communal offices and trends such as desk-sharing and hot-desking on the rise. Meetings, workshops and work teams centre around the bouncing of ideas and collaboration, a trait that typically corresponds better with extroverts, giving them the spotlight.
The solution: Introversion should be accommodated, not overcome
We focus far too often on the negative personality aspects of being an introvert, and neglect to recognise the valuable strengths and skills that introverts contribute to society.
We need to stop putting labels and stigma upon introverts, and start realising that the talents and gifts of introversion are just as relevant and important as those of extraversion.
Where would we be without the talents and wisdom of Gandhi, JK Rowling and Einstein and other well known introverts?
Introversion is not a personality flaw or weakness that needs to be overcome. We need to recognise the needs of the introverted individual and accomodating these into our schools, institutions, workplaces and lives.
I want to finish with a quote by Susan Cain:
Everyone shines, given the right lighting. For some it’s a Broadway stage, for others a lamplit desk.