Dear extroverts, I do love you, let’s get that straight at the top. (That means you, Judy Weaver.) I’ve always assumed there was a 50-50 divide between us and have just learned there are more of you than there are of us. More accurately, on the sliding scale from pure introvert to pure extrovert, the balance tips slightly (or more than slightly, depending on what you read) toward the extrovert end. I need not speak of ambiverts—those balanced creatures are poised to take care of themselves.
Our lesser share of the divide explains a lot, but is not the problem. The problem is what we value in today’s world. There might as well be signs on classroom and office doors: extroversion preferred. Gregarious and out-going equals success. Those TV ads meant to make you drink show handsome young people laughing, surrounded by crowds and loud music. Loud music makes me wince. Crowds make me shudder. I don’t do parties.
Everywhere I’ve worked, co-workers went for drinks on Friday. After dealing with people all day, all I wanted was quiet. I made lame excuses like, “I already have plans.” You knew I was lying, suspected me of not liking you and got your feelings hurt. To avoid that—because I do like you—I’d go anyway and come home exhausted with a headache. Telling the truth was never an option. How to explain that not wanting to be with you doesn’t mean I don’t like you? It’s a conundrum extroverts cannot comprehend.
The division has to do with where you get your energy. Are you stimulated and recharged by being social? Extrovert. Do you need to be alone and quiet to recharge? Introvert. No one is completely one or the other. There were times in my salad days when I threw my own parties. As a teacher, I liked being in front the class. Introverts can and do enjoy gregarious activities. Conversely, even the most extroverted extroverts like a little quiet once in a while.
It seems you must have some silence, if you’re going to learn anything. Loren Frank, a professor at the University of California, San Francisco, explained conclusions of research conducted there: “Almost certainly, downtime lets the brain go over experiences it’s had, solidify them and turn them into permanent long-term memories.” Loren said he believed that when the brain was constantly stimulated, “you prevent this learning process.”
This research reminded me of the poetic platform advanced by Wordsworth and Coleridge in the famous preface to their “Lyrical Ballads,” 1798. (Well, famous among English majors and poets, at least.) Therein, Wordsworth said poetry “takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.” That poetry should be devoted to feeling, to exploration of the inner self, was a radical idea at the time. But when I discovered it, the concept that tranquility was necessary to process experience was the crucial information. It explained me to myself.
We did the Myers-Briggs—big on extrovert/introvert assessment—at my arts school years ago. Writing and visual arts people tended to be introverts. Performance arts people tended to be extroverts. Makes sense. Writers and painters by and large work alone. Performance requires teamwork. Results weren’t black and white, of course. Human nature constitutes a complicated spectrum. Actors, for example, may be introverts in life, extroverts only on stage.
Carl Jung popularized these terms, so they’ve been with us since the 1920s. Myers-Briggs put them in the workplace. A recent book by Susan Cain, Quiet: the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking, raises relatively new issues. You can get a nutshell of her ideas from her 2014 TED talk, available online. (Go figure: an introvert doing TED talks.)
Cain says open office floor plans don’t work for introverts. We’re distracted by ambient noise. That explains why I find few restaurants I enjoy these days. Maintaining a conversation is impossible for me in the midst of loud voices or music. When I taught, I used those educational favorites, class participation and group projects. Everyone did. I never thought to question it, but they can be painful for introverts. Our tendency to go with the flow is strong, and this extrovert current’s been running the river for years. In her TED talk, Susan Cain exclaims, “stop the madness for constant group work.”
The “madness” exists because of our unexamined bias that “plays well with others” is superior to figuring out solutions independently, that action is better than stillness. We’ve forgotten how transformative silence can be, routinely force people into extroverted behavior without really thinking about it. Given a bit of tranquility, really thinking about it is something a good introvert can easily do.