An Introvert in an Extroverted World

It’s subtly instilled in us from a young age – that to be liked is to be social, out-going, enthusiastic and confident. By default then, quiet thinkers, people who are introspective in nature and intuitively more reserved tend to be labelled the latter – less popular, less social, outliers, weird or worse. We see this bias faintly impressed in aspects of everyday life. Classrooms are organised as such that they oblige children to collaborate willingly with their peers as an attempt to bring students “out of their shell.” Even now, six months from graduating a dual degree, the fate of my employability depends on how well I can sell a fulsome, charismatic version of myself in the job market. Very real is this notion that success is designed for those who choose to be bold.

Of course there is a term for this spectrum, one that was popularised in 1921 by Carl Jung in his book Psychological Types and that is, introversion and extraversion. Look full disclosure, the first time I came across these terms wasn’t really from Carl Jung (sorry Carl), it was from 18-year-old X Factor contestant Luke O’Dell. Turns out the lyric “introvert, extrovert, doesn’t matter” wasn’t far from the truth after all.

Here’s a momentary recap of the audio, paired with 2011 promo for Channel Nine’s Beauty and the Geek. Actually, pairing this music with the stereotypical archetypes of introversion and extroversion shows just how misunderstood these terms truly are.

The Misconceptions of Introversion
According to Jung, introversion and extroversion are classically considered a single continuum and are terms used to describe the way in which people are both energised and respond to stimulation. Introverts, draw energy from within, doing their best work through inward reflection. Whereas, people who are extroverted are both stimulated and energised by external sources such as other people and activities and tend to exert their energy outward as well. This is not to say, introversion is synonymous with shyness, nor extroversion with arrogance. Though as Susan Cain, author of New York Times bestselling book Quiet notes, a shy person and an introverted person can often be perceived the same. While the two may remain quiet in a business meeting, these are typically for different reasons – the shy, fear of social disapproval and the introverted, simply over-stimulated. And hey, introverts are social too! How would I know? Well, I am one. Yet, as a kid, I was particularly hyperactive (put lightly).

Me at age five
Me at age five

I grew up the child of an expat in a third-world country. My parents were dancers so I spent much of my childhood, centre-stage, chasing a spotlight (literally) of which when I had, I very much milked to the fullest extent. At school, oral presentations were my thing. Once, in primary during a presentation I re-enacted Dawn Fraser winning a gold medal on a swivel chair. Okay, not doing much to prove wrong the “introverts aren’t weird” stigma, but the point is, I’ve never been a recluse nor would I consider myself shy. Though it occurred to me very early on in my adult life that I responded better to a quiet environment, and I enjoyed my own solitude. Perhaps Susan Cain goes on to summarise it better here.

“Introverts, in contrast, may have strong social skills and enjoy parties and business meetings, but after a while, they wish they were home in their pyjamas. They prefer to devote their social energies to close friends, colleagues and family. They listen more than they talk, think before they speak, and often feel as if they express themselves better in writing than in conversation. They tend to dislike conflict. Many have a horror of small talk but enjoy deep discussions.”

The Extroverted Ideal
Central to theories in her book (of which this article is very much inspired by) Susan notes the overriding extroverted ideal in today’s world. Likewise, Eva Wisnik, president of the legal training and placement firm Wisnik Career Enterprises in New York Enterprises also says society at large is partial to extroverts.

“Most people have learnt to operate in an extroverted world. If your natural preference is introversion or you’re on the border, you learn to be extroverted because that’s what’s expected. There’s pressure towards that.”

Perhaps this is why so many people pretend to be extroverted. Some studies even hypothesise, people exerting extroverted qualities tend to be happier, though this was proven false. Particularly when considering philosophers like Aristotle and Epicurus prescriptions of human happiness evolved from quiet peaceful lives, in relative solitude. The same two men who without their introversion, much of what is written about science, metaphysics and logic would be not be known. On a similar note, what would we have done without the introversion of J.K Rowling?

It’s important then to recognise and appreciate the silent strength in quiet thinkers and introverted nature if not within us, then surely within some of our peers, our family and our children. Sometimes a quiet stillness is also quiet strength.

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