This column is dedicated to the “quiet” people out there who find themselves urged to “loosen up”, “speak up” or “come out of (their) shell.”
It is for those who are called loners or wallflowers or are described as shy, withdrawn, reserved, anti-social or too serious.
In recent years, there has been a growing campaign to stop seeing introverts as second-class compared to their more gregarious, larger-than-life extroverted counterparts. Nor should introverts be made to feel that they ought to change in order to be more successful, more accepted, more loved.
In fact, they can be powerful, and because their substance is not of the in-your-face kind, all the more do they become credible and authoritative.
But what exactly is an introvert, anyway? In her 2012 book “Quiet: The power or introverts in a world that can’t stop talking,” Susan Cain, a Princeton- and Harvard-educated lawyer – a self-confessed introvert—presents this checklist. How many of these sentences do you agree with?
I prefer one-on-one conversations to group activities. I often prefer to express myself in writing. I enjoy solitude. I seem to care less than my peers about wealth, fame, and status. I dislike small talk, but I enjoy talking in depth about topics that matter to me. People tell me that I’m a good listener.
I’m not a big risk-taker. I enjoy work that allows me to “dive in” with few interruptions. I like to celebrate birthdays on a small scale, with only one or two close friends or family members. People describe me as “softspoken” or “mellow.” I prefer not to show or discuss my work with others until it’s finished. I dislike conflict. I do my best work on my own.
I tend to think before I speak. I feel drained after being out and about, even if I’ve enjoyed myself. I often let calls go through to voice mail. If I had to choose, I’d prefer a weekend with absolutely nothing to do to one with too many things scheduled. I don’t enjoy multitasking. I can concentrate easily. In classroom situations, I prefer lectures to seminars.
According to Cain, the more of the statements you agree with, the more introverted you probably are. She explains however that we move along a continuum and that there is no such thing as a pure introvert or a pure extrovert.
The book also talks about The Extrovert Ideal, the alpha male or female who is magnetic, fascinating, stunning, attractive, glowing, dominant, forceful, and energetic. These are the people often perceived as successful, those who are able to run, and change, the world.
Yes, we have a Culture of Personality instead of a Culture of Character.
The celebration of The Extrovert Ideal has led to the sidelining of introverts. This could be such a shame because they can be as gifted, intelligent and fascinating as their more outward-oriented peers.
While there are numerous stories about introverts being able to use their introversion to achieve great things— philosophers, writers, musicians, artists, scientists and leaders—we could rightfully imagine how many potentially powerful individuals did not have the heart to show or share what they have to offer because of the put-downs they received for being “too shy.”
How many children have been described, derisively at times, by their parents, teachers or classmates as being aloof or “living in one’s own world” when in fact they simply process their environment and their thoughts in different terms? How many of these disheartened, discouraged children thus decided to just withdraw instead of celebrating who they are? Imagine thus the potential that is lost.
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The idea is not to say introverts are better than extroverts or to say that extroverts are mindless showmen devoid of depth.
This is also not to support stereotypes similar to what the sayings “still waters run deep” or “empty vessels make the most noise.” Some people are really just silent and silence is no guarantee of depth, just as talkativeness does not always mean that the talker is shallow or superficial.
The point however is to embrace one’s introversion—not to reject, deny or be ashamed of it. Everybody has a place in the world and a role in the community. We cannot all be extroverts, just as we cannot all be inward-oriented. What is important is that we become aware of our nature, embrace and accept the possibilities and the limitations it bears, and celebrate who we are just as we celebrate the nature of the people in our circles.
We don’t need to change who we are; we just need to work towards being our own best version.