Quiet girl in a loud world

I don’t know if any of you know, but one third to one half of us all are introverts – it’s true. And this is a fact that should speak loudly on our behalf (I identify as one myself beyond all doubt). However until recently, it was a fact that I sought to hide from myself, and especially others. To strangers, the go-to first impression I am always eager to project is one of good cheer and gregariousness. This is not to say that these are completely unnatural figments of my personality – many of my friends would describe me as bubbly and friendly (I hope). But they are definitely extensions of the personality I comfortably live in on a day-to-day basis when with close friends and family.

Sometimes the strain of trying to appear louder-than-life and carefree is exhausting, which always seemed to me a worrying abnormality when we know from pop culture and entertainment how delightful and easy it is – and should be – to make new acquaintances. In the movies, the best buddies always seem to hit it off after a string of blithe, lively banter requiring hardly any effort – and isn’t that how it’s supposed to be? Of course, my friends all either fulfilled this Type A Extrovert personality or were busy projecting the same personalities as me (something I know now for certain), and so we got through most of high school without ever breaching this topic. Now, I wonder if these thoughts ran through their minds too – insecurities not of appearance or intelligence, but of personality: Am I being too quiet? Should I talk more? Am I boring her? – and the answer, at least on the part of most introverts – is yes, they did.

So, why is it so undeniably necessary to be, or at the very least, appear loud-spoken, enthusiastic, and ultra-sociable at first meeting – and subsequently at every meeting after that? It’s a standard that we hold ourselves to, our peers hold us to, and our employers hold us to. All that the behaviour I outlined above does is to show that us introverts are extremely skilled at pretending to be extroverts. So why is being an extrovert so important in our society today?

Firstly, let’s clear up any confusion in our definitions of ‘introvert’ and ‘extrovert’. Introvert, contrary to common opinion, does not refer to anti-social tendency or even shyness. An introvert displays a preference for solitude, and as a usual development will show distaste for small talk, favouring instead deep discussions over subjects of interest. S/he will have a small band of close friends, as opposed to the extrovert’s broadly extensive social network. S/he will likely communicate better through writing than speaking. And all that this comes down to, psychologists argue, is the body and mind’s reaction to external stimuli. Introverts feel comfortable at a low level of stimuli, for example feeling pleasantly buzzed over a quiet dinner date or a cozy night in curled up with a book (what I found interesting also was that introverts were more receptive and likely to be moved by a piece of classical music, or a beautifully turned out phrase. This might also explains why introverts have stereotypically been accorded interests like reading, or painting).

It is equally interesting to discover that introverts typically have higher levels of internal stimuli – which explains their lower capacity to deal with external stimuli. High internal stimuli may manifest itself in having a rich inner life, think: thoughts ideas poems imagination. Still, this matter of difference in stimuli tolerance has placed introverts at a striking disadvantage in the political economy; many, if they cannot change their ways to fit the extrovert model, are undervalued in the work force. How many job vacancies demand criteria such as ‘outgoing, fun, able to work in teams’, when these qualities, dare I say it, are no indicator whatsoever of the ability and productivity of the employee? So why do we so much want our friends, lovers and workers to be extroverts?

Of course, the search for an answer always begins with a book, and this time it came in the succint, beautiful white-matte bound title ‘Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking‘ by Susan Cain. After delving into the extensive psychological and sociological research done by Cain, I was armed with some extremely arguable points.

  1. Extroverts are more likeable. Their open demeanour and highly-charged power personalities make them instantly relatable, and able to strike up friendships no matter where. Note however that this has no actual bearing on qualities like honesty, authenticity and integrity. Of course, personality types like introvert/extrovert are entirely distinct from moral character and values – what makes up you, inside. After getting to know an introvert for a longer period of time, you might find that s/he is just as friendly, thoughtful and insightful on areas that extroverts may have missed.
  2. Extroverts speak up. This is, indeed, perhaps one of the extrovert’s greatest assets and the introvert’s greatest weaknesses. The desire to avoid conflict, or attract too much focused attention on oneself prevents the introvert from expressing many of her/his valuable ideas, while the extrovert will inevitably be credited for her/his, as s/he is heard for it.
  3. Extroverts speak well. Confidence is key. However, I would here like to point out a favourite quote of mine from Voltaire:

Uncertainty is an uncomfortable position. But certainty is an absurd one.

Life is inherently unpredictable, full of uncertainties and ambiguities. How can one proclaim to be full of conviction all the time, and how can others believe him? Good presentation skills do not necessarily equate to good ideas, and indeed it is potentially dangerous for someone to merit all the attention on the basis of her/his speaking skills, especially in situations where caution should be duly exercised (See: the GFC).

Intuitively, we should all know that introverts AND extroverts are equal in every sense of the word; they do, however, have different ways of expression and styles of action.

Let’s not overlook the shy violets and wallflowers of our classrooms and offices. Each of us has our own valuable contributions to bring to the table, whether we pound it with our fists or quietly take notes on it. So next time you notice someone who is conspicuously or inconspicuously introverted, don’t shine the spotlight on her. Observe her quietly, talk to her, and appreciate her mind.

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