Don’t shy away from introverts

Will Miller | Staff Photographer

When I was a child, there was something very wrong with me — I was shy.

Many teachers and other adults in my life considered this a severe social disorder. They constantly told me to speak up, say more and stand out.

When I entered the gifted program in elementary school, my individualized education program’s main objective was overcoming my shyness. Now in college, I find I still have many of the same shy traits I had as a child.

But I’m not actually shy. I’m just an introvert, and we need to stop tying extroversion to educational and professional success.

Shyness can sometimes be a facet of introversion, but not all introverts are shy. And extroverts can be just as shy as introverts. Introversion is born out of personality, whereas shyness is typically born out of fear. Yet introversion comes with just as many complications and social stigma as shyness.

One-third to one-half of Americans are introverts. But we live in a world in which we think to be bold is to be happy, to move quickly is to be efficient and to say more is to be more intelligible. We value words like “go-getter” and “self-starter.” If we want to get anywhere in life, we must constantly network — reach out, brand ourselves, make connections.

According to personality expert Susan Cain, Americans are infatuated with an “Extrovert Ideal,” which alienates introverts and inhibits their success based on their personality type. This ideal often inadvertently sends the message that introversion is wrong and is something to “fix.”

And while the Internet has increased our expectations for being social, excessive promotion of extroversion isn’t a new problem.

Psychologist Carl Jung distinguished the difference between introverts and extroverts in the 1920s. Jung wrote that introverts are drawn to the inner world of thought and feeling, while extroverts are drawn to the external life of people and activities.

Cain elaborates on Jung’s theory in her best-selling book “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking,” noting that introverts get criticized for their weaknesses more often than they are praised for their strengths.

Introverts are less likely to speak up in classrooms or business meetings, and are more likely to skip out on social events. They struggle to be productive in noisy or stimulating environments, and often have a fear of public speaking.

But their strengths can outweigh their weaknesses, keeping them competitive with extroverted peers.

Introverts tend to tackle issues more deeply than extroverts, and can be skilled problem solvers. They’re great listeners. They think about what they say before they say it and can be adept debaters, as well as talented writers, musicians and artists.

None of that is to say that extroverts cannot or do not possess some of those qualities, or that introverts don’t possess some extroverted qualities. Most people fall somewhere in between, leaning slightly one way or the other.

For those that fall nearer the introverted side, otherwise normal aspects of life can be incredibly demanding.

If introversion is a preference for less stimulating environments, a college campus is the wrong place to be. Students are bombarded daily with flyers and emails promoting new programs, internship opportunities, clubs, academic societies and more.

The message is clear: Get involved, get out there.

Before classes ever start, orientation week is more or less an introvert’s worst nightmare during an already stressful chapter in life. It’s safe to say it was the most exhausting five days of my life.

Because an introvert’s energy is drained when they are exposed to overly stimulating environments, Cain notes that they require alone time to decompress. Orientation week operates under the idea that alone time is unnecessary — students should be meeting new people and trying new things whenever possible in a nonstop series of activities, social events and meetings.

After introverts soldier through the week, normal classes present their own hurdles. While getting through classes is as simple as showing up for many students, introverts like myself can struggle to find their place in the dynamic.

Large lectures can make it difficult to forge strong relationships with professors. Most introverts prefer one-on-one conversation, which can be hard to come by when professors have hundreds of students, even if a student frequently attends office hours.

Many introverts also struggle with participation’s effect on their grades, which hinders otherwise excellent students.

Typically, if an introvert is not a major participant in a class discussion, it is not because they have nothing to say, but rather because they tend to think their point through more critically. By the time they resolve to speak their mind, the conversation has moved on or their point has already been said.

Just because a student is not speaking out does not mean they aren’t engaged with the discussion, and none of this is to say that an introverted student is lesser than an extroverted one.

Professors should expand their criteria for participation grades to allow introverted and extroverted students equal oppurtunity for success. The grade should not necessarily be about how often one speaks, but how aptly they pay attention as well.

I’ve had classes in which the professor allowed students to submit their class notes for participation credit. Many professors also create blogs as an added forum for people to submit ideas and continue the discussion — this is especially beneficial for introverts, who often prefer writing to speaking.

Steps like these even out the playing field, and assure that no student is at a disadvantage simply because of their personality type. No matter where you fall on the spectrum, orientation week and classtime shouldn’t be causes for shame.

All of that being said, introversion is not an excuse to be anti-social or avoid risks — the Extrovert Ideal isn’t going anywhere. Sometimes, introverts have to buck up and accept that to get ahead, they might need to adopt the motto, “Fake it till you make it.”

The key is self-awareness and balance — learning to be an introvert in an extrovert’s world, but not apologizing for your personality along the way.

The world needs both introverts and extroverts for balance — the life of the party and the people in the corner immersed in deeper conversation. There’s a reason introverts are attracted to extroverts, and vice versa.

Rosa Parks, Meryl Streep, Albert Einstein, Steven Spielberg and Mark Zuckerberg are all introverts who found wild success in an extroverted world, often as a result of their introversion.

Understanding your personality allows you to recognize your strengths and weaknesses and utilize them accordingly. If you know you need time to decompress, give yourself time to decompress and don’t apologize for it — you will perform better and be more productive for doing so.

I like to consider myself a generally high-functioning introvert. Unlike my younger self, I have no trouble speaking to strangers and I enjoy pushing myself outside of my comfort zone.

But I still prefer to ask a friend to call and order our takeout.

Emily primarily writes on culture and education for The Pitt News.

Write to her at eks50@pitt.edu.

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