Introversion: a salve for today’s social world

By: Michael Petrany

There is a curious disease that seems to afflict Western civilization, at least in recent times. It has infected almost every stratum of society, from the corporate boardroom to the kindergarten class. Far more educated people than myself have referred to it as the “extrovert ideal” — that is, a societal expectation that extroversion is the norm and that properly functioning human beings should be outspoken, assertive and the life of the party.

More introverted persons can be labeled as antisocial, lacking confidence or held back by their “inhibitions.” And this ideal is, I contend, a big problem. It leads us to neglect the essential contributions of the less boisterous among us.

Some cursory definitions would be helpful here, although bear in mind that such statements can only be gross generalizations. Extroverts tend to prefer external stimulation and thrive in high-energy environments. They are outgoing and tend to speak up and make their voices heard in discussions and conversation. Introverts, in contrast, might prefer to skip a party altogether and stay at home reading or talking with a few close friends. They tend to be great listeners and reflect carefully before taking action.

For myself, I think it would be fair to say I have always sort of slid around on the introversion-extroversion spectrum. I am often perfectly content with nothing but my books, my music and my own thoughts for days on end, while at other times I crave the energy of a large social gathering and slip into a quite gregarious version of myself. If pressed, I would probably identify myself as an introvert, but the point is, I have had my fill from both cups and can savor either taste. I can judge the particular strengths of both personality types and recognize that both have something to give.

Sadly, this fact is seldom recognized in contemporary Western culture. And worse still, from what I can tell, Xavier is not ex-empt from the extrovert ideal that plagues us in the world at large.

Student leader roles are almost exclusively entrusted to louder, more outgoing types. When it comes to club officer roles, student government positions and even certain campus jobs, I see it time and time again: quieter, more reserved individuals are passed over.

These are students who simply need a show of trust in their abilities, a chance to prove themselves and grow in new ways. Whether we realize it or not, we are subscribing to the popular myth that outspokenness correlates with effective leadership. It doesn’t. If this were an academic paper, I would cite about forty studies showing exactly the opposite: that introverts bring a host of unique strengths to leadership roles. They are thoughtful. They delegate well. They plan ahead. And perhaps most importantly, they listen to others’ perspectives before charging ahead. By neglecting the value of these qualities, we endorse only a caricature of leadership. The reality is that while an expansive personality may be an indicator of leadership potential, this is not a necessary correlation, nor is that the only sign of a good leader.

The classroom, too, is frequently affected. I understand that class participation is crucial to the success of many courses, and that every student is beholden to do his or her part. From the student’s perspective, however, I only rarely see a modicum of sensitivity towards those who may have insightful points but who may be quite introverted — that is, psychologically “hardwired” in such a way that speaking up is a scary, even paralyzing prospect. It may have little or nothing to do with actual confidence, and certainly has nothing to do with intelligence. Sometimes it’s just the way the mind works.

Now to be fair, I must at this point make two disclaimers. First of all, I speak of introverts and extroverts as monolithic groups, which is of course not the case. Every person is unique, and almost nobody fits neatly into any one psychological “category.” Fundamentally, it is the trait of introversion that is undervalued, a trait that can express itself at different times in different people.

Second, I can recognize the value of gently “pushing” more reserved individuals to come out of their shells at times. For example, a professor might encourage a student to share his or her thoughts in class or coach them on effective presentation and public speaking techniques. But just as it can be important for introverts to embrace outspokenness, so too can extroverts learn from introverts. There is a time to speak and a time to listen.

There is a time for noise and a time for quiet. These are lessons we could all learn from one another — if only we take the time to listen.

Michael Petrany is a senior majoring in biology and philosophy. He is from Huntington, WV.