I am not ideal.
Let me unpack that, because in its stark brevity it may be jarring, despite its truth.
The terms ‘extrovert’ and ‘introvert’ to describe the two ends of the personality spectrum are relatively new, having been popularised almost 100 years ago by Carl Jung. But the predisposition towards one or the other, or even to sit squarely between them, is not new at all. There’s significant scientific backing to the idea that this predisposition is coded into DNA. It is likely I can do as little about being introverted as I can about having blue eyes.
I probably can’t change the fact that I am quiet, and why would I want to? It’s because of my quietness that I charge through more than thirty books a year, that I’ve write about 300,000 words of prose in the last five years and that I’m deeply perceptive of others, spotting an upset child from thirty paces before a tear has been shed or absorbing the negative energy of those around me before they’ve spilled their troubles. My introversion has shaped my personality for the better and I don’t want to change it.
The world wants me to change it though.
In the nineteenth century, genteel character guides placed value on morality, humility, manners, modesty and integrity. Interesting for this discussion at least is that these ‘manners’ dictated vocally holding back to allow others to speak first. By the twentieth century, these more introverted qualities were scorned as personality flaws – personality manuals of this period demanded successful individuals be magnetic, dominant and forceful. It’s strange that the early qualities are those that could be worked on with rpescribed introspection, whereas the latter ones are ones I’d consider you to be born with or without. With the best will in the world, I think there are many people who will never be ‘dominant,’ myself included.
Society expects more of people than some are wired to give, which puts introverts at a distinct disadvantage. There’s an unfair tendency to equate extroversion to a level of personal goodness – if your first impression isn’t one of bubbly chattiness we learn quickly that we fall off the radar or ar not worth that visibility to begin with. But the truth is that introverts don’t sit on the same radar as extroverts nor do they generally desire to: the very crux of introversion is having a rich inner world to attend to and being more sensitive to external stimulation. Large parties and small talk are not my cup of tea, which usually paints me in a negative light, unfairly. Perhaps I do sit on the periphery of gatherings, but I listen intently before deciding whether to join in. Sometimes introverts are simply content to listen – we’re good at that – and if I am present physically you can usually be sure I am present mentally, perceiving more than just your verbal cues. I am engaged but unfortunately being a good listener and a not-so-good talker leads to me being preceived as standoffish or not trying hard enough.
I don’t think there’s a direct correlation between my introversion and my mental health/illness, but know this: I am never not trying to fit in. My anxiety makes me simultaneously desperate to be accepted and certain that I won’t be. Please do not accuse me of not trying to fit it – it really is all that I want but I don’t know how, or worse, my mouth feels sewn shut by worry.
The world is designed for extroverts, from the value placed on mass networking in many careers, to the disadvantage of the quiet in many selection processes, to the hidden agenda of education (yes, another one…)
A huge majority of teachers, when describing ‘the ideal pupil’ report them to be extroverted. Classrooms are increasingly organised, even in secondary settings, for team working and grades are increasingly given for participation as if this is a marker of engagement with material. I am not the only introvert with a first-class degree; I’m not sure it’s possible to argue that we were all disengaged with our course material by virtue of being quieter.
This teacher bias is something I’m very aware of, having entered the profession myself. I can attest to the existence of the Extrovert Ideal in education on a personal level though, having been subjected to one phrase on a stuck record throughout my life. She’s doing well but she’s too quiet. I really, really understand where they were coming from – I’ve caught myself feeling the ‘frustration’ of quiet pupils not participating in the traditional sense of raising a hand to contribute publically. I refuse to tell any child I teach, or their parents, that they are too quiet, because those words sting, and chip away at what may already be a fragile confidence (not in every case of course, as there are a great number of very confident, comfortable introverts.) There are other ways of making sure progress is happening than insisting on a raised hand. This is something I will blog about in the future, for sure.
Teaching introverts that they have to masquerade as extroverts in order to make strides in life is not fair. Up to 40% of the population is introverted, a number that can rise dependent on the society you study. We are a significant minority in many locations. This means that around 10-12 pupils in a class may tend to find it an intensely stimulating environment and crave time to reflect in peace to restore themselves during the day.
But it also means there are introverted teachers, TA’s and school staff in every setting in the country, and we’ve got to stop making them feel like they’re living life ‘wrong’ somehow by carving out a period of their lunch break to seek quiet, either in the company of others or alone. We should be allowed to survive and thrive as much as anyone else.
I was not a problem pupil for being quiet, and I am not a poorer teacher because of it. If all teachers were as extroverted as the profession sometimes demands, what would become of the introverted pupils? They deserve a champion, someone to appreciate their quietness from a personal point of view. If someone had told me at the age of ten or eleven that being quiet was not a bad thing, I might have felt a lot more comfortable heading on to secondary school.
As a student teacher, I learned that schools don’t want applications from candidates who are ordinary. As an introvert, I realised the common subtext: ‘ordinary’ also means ‘quiet’.
But Rosa Parks was introverted, a woman who kept to herself until and even after she refused to give up her seat on a segregated Montgomery bus. She has become an icon of peaceful protest in the civil rights movement, but she never surrended her personality.
Barack Obama would never have reached the heights he has, without his need to retire, reflect and work in peace in private ‘holes’ (the name bestowed by Mrs Obama upon the quiet corners her husband escapes to, to recharge his introvert batteries.)
The list of significant introverts goes on and on. Eleanor Roosevelt, Emma Watson, Bill Gates, Marissa Mayer, Frederic Chopin, Stevie Wozniak, Albert Einstein, Amy Schumer, Stephen Fry.
Introverts are not inferior, but the world tells us that we are.
I am softly spoken but I am fed up of the message that this means my words are not worth as much.
BBC Ideas – The Quiet Power of Introverts – https://www.bbc.co.uk/ideas/videos/the-quiet-power-of-introverts/p080fdnp
The Extrovert Ideal Isn’t the Only Way of Existing – introvertdear.com/news/extrovert-ideal-introverts/
Susan Cain: ‘Society has a cultural bias towards extroverts’ – https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2012/apr/01/susan-cain-extrovert-introvert-interview
How Intorverts Can Thrive in a World of Extroverts – https://www.convoconnection.com/blog/how-introverts-can-thrive-in-a-world-of-extroverts