The Tyranny of Extroversion

The Tyranny of Extroversion May 22, 2012

William Pannapacker has an exceptional piece in The Chronicle on recent studies on introversion, but it his opening experience that tells perhaps the whole of the story. As the piece rolls along he sketches some studies, one of which makes this significant observation: “According to Cain, the 19th century valued personal character based on seriousness, discipline, and honor, but the 20th century emphasized personality: selling oneself and being a “mighty likeable fellow.”

What do you see in this narrative? What does it tell us about introversion and extroversion?

Some years ago I joined my students in taking the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, a test to determine personality type. It was an assignment in a course I was teaching on vocational exploration.

Assuming there would be an average distribution of results among the 20 students, I planned a series of small-group assignments in which they would discuss their own results for each of the test’s personality dichotomies (e.g., thinking versus feeling). But a problem turned up immediately: Not one student had received an “I” for introversion. Everyone, it seemed, was an extrovert (Myers-Briggs spells it with an “a,” like “extra”). Everyone but me.

Extroverts—if you accept such categories—are oriented outward, toward other people and toward action over reflection. They draw energy from social interaction, and they tend to be outspoken and gregarious. Introverts, on the other hand, are oriented toward the inner life of thought; they tend to be reserved and cautious. They find social interactions draining, and they need solitude to recharge. It’s not that introverts are antisocial so much as that they appreciate fewer, more intimate friendships. They don’t like small talk but appreciate deeper discussions.

I knew my students well enough to suspect that I was not the only one with that tendency. A third of them barely spoke in class unless called upon. A few hardly spoke to anyone. Perhaps the introverted choices on the test were too stigmatizing to consider (e.g., “Would you rather go to a party or stay home reading a book?”). The students had used the test to confirm that they had the right, “healthy” qualities.

Given that introversion is frowned upon almost everywhere in U.S. culture, the test might as well have asked, “Would you prefer to be cool, popular, and successful or weird, isolated, and a failure?” In the discussion that followed, a few students observed—with general agreement—that introversion was a kind of mental illness (and, one student noted, a sign of spiritual brokenness). “We are made to be social with each other” was a refrain in the conversation.

A few sympathetic students tried to persuade me that my introvert result was a mistake. How could I stand in front of that room, leading that very conversation, smiling at them, without being an extrovert? The answer: careful planning, acting, and rationing my public appearances. Also, my introversion fades when I become comfortable with unfamiliar people (the first weeks of classes are a strain).

 

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