Quiet, shy and awkward. All too often, people have equated these traits to being an introvert. The misconception of introversion being an inferior personality trait has been heavily reinforced in our lives, not just in day-to-day interactions but by the masses as well. So prevalent is this notion that googling the word ‘introvert’ will yield a similar definition: a ‘shy and reticent person’. It may seem harmless on the surface, but this misconception is far more problematic than one would expect.
Introversion and extroversion are temperaments — they’re all about how you respond to stimulation in your environment. An introvert is someone who prefers calm and minimally stimulating environments (other people, of course, being the most stimulating). Introverts tend to feel drained after a lot of socialising and require solitude to regain their energy. Palpably, extroverts are polar opposites — they crave social stimulation and feel energized by spending time with others. In order to better understand this issue, we first need to clear some misconceptions you may have about introverts.
Part I: Debunking Common Myths
Firstly, introversion and extroversion occur on a spectrum. There is no one person who is purely an introvert or an extrovert. “Such a man would be in the lunatic asylum,” the famous psychotherapist Carl Jung once said. While everyone possesses qualities of both, people tend to lean more towards one type or the other. The term ‘ambivert’ has become more popular recently as a catch-all for those who fall in the middle of this spectrum, and possess a unique blend of both traits.
“Why is he so quiet?” Even if you don’t verbalise it, I’m sure most of you have and still question others about this occasionally. Though personality types are partially shaped by life experiences, whether you’re introverted or extroverted was already predetermined when you were born. Studies have found that one key difference between an introvert and an extrovert’s brain is that information travels a longer pathway through an introvert’s brain. This explains why introverts take longer to verbalise their thoughts and often lose the chance to express their views before extroverts do, ultimately appearing ‘quiet’ relative to their extroverted peers. But this also means that introverts process information more deeply than extroverts.
“A man of few words will rarely be thoughtless in his speech; he will measure every word.”
People often associate introversion with being shy, even when the two are wholly different traits. Shyness is about fear of social judgement, such as worrying about how people perceive you or being afraid of rejection by new people. Both introverts and extroverts can have this trait, though shyness may be more common among introverts. An introvert can be confident with new people but are easily tired out by socialising. Likewise, not all natural-born extroverts run around chatting with strangers!
Just like shyness, social awkwardness is a separate trait from introversion. Many introverts actually enjoy spending time with others, but with one key caveat — they prefer the company of close friends. As a result, introverts usually try to avoid small talk, often casuing them to sometimes appear awkward or unfriendly. Introverts would rather invest their time and energy in meaningful conversations with their small groups of close friends and family, instead of having a large circle of acquaintances. In other words, they value the few but long-lasting friendships they have.
Part II: Survival of the Fittest
Finally, let’s get to the meat of this article. In our culture, extroversion is considered the norm and more often, the superior personality type. Introverts are subject to this real and deep bias but people just don’t realise it. Even from an early age, we learn that to be popular, successful and attractive, you must be an extrovert. In kindergarten and primary school, we notice that smiley and talkative children are usually favoured. They seem to always get the role as class monitor and always receive the most gifts on their birthdays. As teens, we feel as if we are supposed to put on a more attention-grabbing personality so that others will think well of us and like us. House cheers, mass dances and JCO sure are a lot of fun and embody the Victorian spirit. But to some people, these things are not as much ‘fun’ as they are to others. These things have become so much ‘the norm’ that introverts feel obliged to be outgoing and to appear ‘normal’. In an Australian study, researchers had people indicate their ideal placement on the extraversion-introversion continuum. They found that 82.2% of the participants believed it was necessary to display extroverted characteristics in going about their daily life, out of which majority wanted to be more extroverted. This was especially so for those who were more introverted. Introverts face pressure to become someone they’re not, to do and say things they usually wouldn’t in order to ‘be normal’. And in the process, they make choices and unknowingly forgo some of their joys. Eventually, they lose track of their true self and feel drained from wearing the mask of extroversion. This is what many introverts do and it is their loss for sure.
Who can blame them? In a world that favours extroverts, introverts have learnt to adapt so they don’t get left behind. It doesn’t matter if it is overwhelming because you have to do it so people won’t judge you. If you don’t do it, then you will become an outlier and being different is to be condemned in today’s society. Maybe that’s why the population of introverts falls short of the extrovert population. Studies have found that only 1 in 3 people are introverts, demonstrating that extroverts form the majority of society today. Is the introvert population shrinking? Or perhaps introverts are getting so skilled at wearing the mask of extroversion that they are turning into extroverts.
Don’t get me wrong, I am very fond of mass dances and our ‘fired up’ spirit constitutes a huge part of my VJ pride. But I believe that one can express pride for their school in many other ways too. The thing is, introverts can’t turn into extroverts. As I’ve mentioned earlier, your genes decide where you fall on the temperament spectrum. It is possible for a quiet person to become more outgoing but this change in behaviour is usually a result of the person overcoming his or her shyness. So even if an introvert does become more outgoing, she cannot change the fact that she still gets overwhelmed by large amounts of social stimulation and needs some time alone to ‘recharge’. In that case, instead of forcing the act of extroversion upon yourself, it is so much more worthwhile to appreciate the strengths that come with being introverted. A published study by Rodney Lawn and his colleagues found that introverts who were comfortable with their introversion showed higher levels of authenticity than those who wanted to be more extroverted, and hence were able to achieve a higher level of well-being. Indeed, while you may not be able to change your environment, you can always change how you view yourself.
“It’s not about becoming a fake extrovert. It’s really about acknowledging the valuable traits that introverts bring.” — Beth Buelow
Part III: The Power of Introverts
Solitude is an introvert’s source of energy. However, people often overlook the value of solitude and even fear to be or to be seen alone. Many introverts feel a sense of insecurity about being alone because they don’t want others to think they are weird. However in truth, solitude allows you to reflect and appreciate your own thoughts and feelings. Jesus achieved his spiritual victory over evil after he wandered alone in the wilderness of the desert for forty days. Young Muhammad gave a few weeks of every year to quiet meditation in a cave, where he indulged in periods of reflection and received his first revelation. Millions of people subscribe to religions that stress solitude and reflection in search of contentment and spiritual growth. Hence, it is indubitable that solitude can provide us with peace of mind in the midst of our urban lives that are packed with overwhelming human interactions. On top of that, solitude is a crucial ingredient to creativity. If it wasn’t for the time Steve Wozniak spent alone in his house racking his brain to invent Apple’s first computer, the landscape of technology wouldn’t be what it is today. J.K. Rowling was traveling alone on a delayed train to London when she first created the idea of a scrawny, black-haired, bespectacled boy who didn’t know he was a wizard; also the Harry Potter that so many of us adore today. Evidently, it is when we are alone that we can churn out our most creative and meaningful thoughts. Just like Wozniak and Rowling, introverts should learn to embrace solitude instead of avoiding it and turn their introversion to their advantage. However, we must also keep in mind that when solitude is unwanted, it can do the reverse by causing loneliness, anxiety and fear.
When it comes to leadership, introverts are routinely passed over for leadership positions. Groups usually follow the opinion of the most dominant or charismatic person in the room, even though being the best talker in the room doesn’t mean having the best ideas. Since introverts process information more slowly and thoughtfully, introverts may have deeper insights to contribute and are especially skilled at observing their peers. According to psychologist Dr. Laurie Helgoe, an extroverted leader may be noticeable, but you may see the leader before you see the team. Introverts can use their natural strengths to create meaningful connections with their teammates and are hence more likely to highlight the strengths of their teams for more effective teamwork. Mahatma Gandhi, leader of the movement for India’s independence, was an introvert too; even shy and quiet. But instead of trying to ‘overcome’ his introversion, he learnt to recognize the benefit of his own reticence and stepped up to the plate so that India can be where it is today.
Lastly, introverts are amazing friends. While extroverts are great conversationalists, introverts are great listeners. They value listening and contemplating what is being said over being the first to respond to it. An introvert’s tendencies to listen and observe often lead them to be loyal and understanding people. Introverts also tend to choose their friends wisely and prefer to invest their time and energy in their few close, trusted friendships. Though it may be a little more difficult to get to know introverts at first, once they decide to open up to you, it means they deem you trustworthy and important enough to be a lifelong friend. You’d better value your introverted friends because you can always count on them!
To conclude, introversion is neither liability, nor is it something that needs to be ‘cured’. Introversion is a gift. Introverts have so much more to offer to the world and should not have to feel out of place. They should not have to feel obliged to be outgoing during JCO. They should not be labelled as weird if they choose not to join in on mass dances or house cheers. They should spend their time the way they like and not the way they are expected to. To all the introverts out there: You deserve to be confident about being who you are, to tap into your talents and to search for the purpose that makes your life fulfilling.
Just like salt and pepper, introverts and extroverts have the ability to complement each other. They should draw on their own strengths so that when they come together, they can fill in each other’s shortcomings. The ne plus ultra would be when people learn to look past these classifications of temperaments; when each and every person can learn to embrace their own individual unique qualities instead of defining themselves with trivial terms like ‘introvert’ or ‘extrovert’.
“In a gentle way, you can shake the world.” —Mahatma Gandhi
Caitlyn Szeto, 18S33
Photos (in order of appearance)