Introversion and extroversion are one of the most thoroughly researched topics in personality psychology. There is no agreed upon definition for what tendencies an introvert embodies compared to an extrovert. There are, however, generalizations that have come out of this field of research that most psychologists can accept as the norm. These characteristics should be viewed as a spectrum in which individuals have differing degrees of behaviors present. They should not be seen as a black and white, one-size-fits-all truth.
Extroverts are most often considered assertive, dominant and bold. They tend to think aloud and prefer speaking over listening. They prefer being in the company of others and are drawn to the external world of people and activities. They are gregarious and enjoy being in environments where there is high stimulation. They don’t mind being the center of attention and are quick to think on their feet. They express themselves best through conversation and easily engage in small talk.
Introverts, on the other hand, are quiet and cerebral. They are highly introspective and drawn to the inner world of thoughts and feelings. They listen more than they speak and tend to think carefully before they talk. They process information about their environment unusually deeply, observe subtleties others overlook and are able to concentrate and persist for long periods of time. They express themselves best through writing and prefer deep discussions over small talk.
Extroverts are talkers who get their energy by being around other people. Introverts are thinkers who create their energy by being alone or in small groups.
Depending on which researcher you consult, introverts account for one-third to one-half of all humans. This would mean that one-third to one-half of our students are introverts, and one-third to one-half of our colleagues are introverts. Due to introverts being the minority in society (and in schools), the perception of them and their contributions can often be affected by the dominant, extroverted majority.
Susan Cain, author of the book “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking,” makes the claim that society aggrandizes and values one type of archetypal personality: that of the extrovert. She coins this belief, the “Extrovert Ideal,” and suggests that it is an oppressive standard of conformity most humans (both introverts and extroverts) strive to achieve. Cain examines a shift that took place in the 20th century where society changed from valuing a culture of character (citizenship, duty, honor, reputation, morals, manners, integrity) to a culture of personality (magnetic, fascinating, attractive, dominant, forceful, energetic). This shift, which precipitated the Extrovert Ideal, manifested out of the increasing career-driven, business world (where presenting ideas to a board and being charismatic were more important than the ideas you were selling). Later, the increased presence of this archetypal extrovert figure took root in popular media, where enigmatic characters and strong personalities began to leak into our subconscious. Due to this cultural value shift, many Western societies have come to emphasize and praise this Extrovert Ideal. This has had an interesting effect on how Western cultures in particular, perceive certain behavioral traits.
Cain outlines several studies that show how talkative people are considered smarter, better looking, more desirable and more interesting. This would then likely affect how likable, trustworthy and influential a person is.
But should it? Why is it that those who talk the most in groups are considered smarter? There is no correlation between the quantity of speech and the quality of ideas. How is being talkative an indicator of trust or influence? Is there something inherently suspicious about quietude and solitude?
Introverts are not oblivious to these societal opinions. We didn’t need data to confirm what we have been experiencing and feeling for most of our lives. Societal messages, those coming both consciously and unconsciously, have been communicating that there is something wrong with us. We are often told that we are too quiet, we think too much and we are too serious. We are told that we are no fun, we don’t know how to enjoy ourselves and we are too sensitive. We are told that we are not happy unless we are sociable and we must be outgoing in both our personal and professional worlds.
We might be called arrogant and standoffish because we don’t like to be around others as much. We might be called boring and told we have no personality because we don’t want to be the center of attention. We might be called weird or gay because we are not the aggressive archetype of our gender. We might be asked: why are you such a party-pooper? what’s wrong with you? why are you so unhappy? do you think you are too good for us? (I’ve been described and asked the above on multiple occasions throughout my personal and professional life.)
As a result of these false perceptions, Susan Cain goes onto say, many introverts have had to pretend they are more extroverted than they actually are in order to fit in and become the social norm.
Why is it that students and teachers should feel like they need to be disingenuously extroverted in order to be accepted for who they are? How might societal, cultural or community bias towards extroversion affect how students and teachers are perceived, contribute and participate in a learning environment?
Through an evolutionary lens, introverts would have had to maintain their survival through some sort of contribution to their species. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be here. Likewise, introverts in education must have something to contribute to the survival (or recreation) of education…but, only if the environmental conditions allow them to survive.
Are introverts becoming an endangered species in school communities? Or, do they have a healthy population in modern educational institutions?
Introverts can be found all throughout the educational community: from students to teachers, administrators to policy makers, and support staff to parents. Considering this, what can we do in order to ensure that introverts are valued for who they are in the community they belong to?
What follows are a mix of light-hearted suggestions and honest insights that may help educational institutions honor introverted tendencies, reconsider current practices and promote a healthy introversion population.
Introverts have a hard time with small talk. You know that uncomfortable silence that often puts you at unease? Small talk is sometimes like that for us. If you see us standing by a plant at whole school events or sitting in an empty row at staff meetings, this is probably why. It’s not that we don’t care about how your day was or don’t want to hear what you did on vacation, it can just be difficult to warm up in conversation. For us, engaging in small talk throughout the day is akin to what it would feel like for you to remain silent for a day. Sounds pretty discomforting, doesn’t it? Instead of asking us typical chit-chat questions, ask us about deep pedagogical topics, like where the future of education is heading or something we are struggling with in our classroom.
Introverts often like to eat alone in our rooms or with a small group of people with whom we feel comfortable. This isn’t because we don’t like you or think you are unworthy of a conversation. We introverts create their own energy. We don’t get it from others–we give it to them. Constantly engaging and talking with students and colleagues all day is extremely exhausting for us. We go back to our room to avoid the staff lounge and cafeteria not because we think poorly of you; it’s because we wouldn’t make it through the day if we didn’t. Another reason we might avoid these common areas is because we would have to put on a false sense of extroversion while there in order to keep up with your conversational energy.
Asking introverts to be falsely enthusiastic at meetings, such as standing up and dancing, doing school spirit cheers or high-fiving everyone in order to leave, is sure to be met by inner annoyance. By all means, if that external enthusiasm is how you feel you need to express yourself, we are all for it and completely support your actions. But don’t make it an expectation that we have to be like you and then tell us we are no fun when we begrudgingly comply with intentionally less enthusiasm than we actually have.
That would be like us asking you to sit and reflect in silence on your teaching practice for a few hours straight. How’s your enthusiasm now?
Introverts might not be as talkative in the hallways as you would like. Again, this is not to be taken personally and goes back to our aversion for small talk with a limited external energy supply. Saying hello to everyone we pass by and engaging in constant discourse only appeals to the Extrovert Ideal (and benefits only extroverts). We don’t necessarily see the connection between staff morale and chit-chat (as it only helps the morale of those who are extroverts). It doesn’t mean that we are not friendly, as most introverts have high degrees of empathy and compassion, but it does mean that we can’t always give to you. We need to take care of ourselves first. If we didn’t take care of ourselves first, we wouldn’t be able to give so much of our energy out to those we care for. The next time you see us walking across campus, forgive us if we prefer a quiet hello, a head nod or a smile and bashfully get back to our classroom to continue with our latest obsession.
What is a model employee nowadays? When administrators are looking for skills in candidates, what percentage of those skills are naturally dominant in extroverts?
When institutions seek out team players who can work in a collaborative environment, why type of person might they be envisioning? How many of them are picturing someone who is lively, talkative and brings a lot of energy to the community? How many of them are picturing someone who quieter, more reflective and thinking deeply?
I would posit that in evaluating applicants, you will find people skills valued over thinking skills, and rightfully so. Communication is at the heart of teaching students, collaborating with colleagues and meeting with parents. But it’s important to remember that thinking is equally at the heart of the teaching profession. You can just as easily have communication without thought as you can have thought without communication. Despite both needing to be present, I question whether introverted skills are taking a back seat to extroverted skills in teacher recruitment?
How often are schools looking for teachers to be outgoing, full of energy, exciting, enthusiastic and communicative? How many are actively looking to add teachers who are pensive, insightful, observant, persistent and thoughtful?
When teachers attends job fairs as candidates, they are encouraged to go to the social functions so administrators can see how they interact with potential colleagues. They are placed in a room full of strangers, some of whom they are competing against to get the same coveted position, and are then supposed to make small talk and see who can come across as the most charismatic in front of their potential employers. It’s as though some administrators see socializing and the ability to chit-chat as a precursor to being an effective teacher or positive presence within an institution. Why is this? Small talk and working in a collaborative environment are two entirely different objectives.
Collaboration is hugely beneficial to education as a whole, whether it be through team meetings, staff professional development, or an online PLN. Collaboration and connection to others is paramount for introverts and extroverts alike to share, refine and recreate ideas. However, a healthy balance must be achieved, as too much collaboration has the potential to hold introverts back.
Introverts aren’t opposed to team meetings and committees, as they can often be a place of exposure to new perspectives and a source of idea extraction. They can capitalize on their listening skills, make observations and focus intently throughout. For introverts, this can become a great opportunity for social brainstorming, with others’ thoughts sparking their own. However, the real value does not come from the meetings themselves–it comes afterwards. This is when introverts can go off and be thinkers, reflectors, synthesizers, ideators and insightful proposers. It is important for administrators to remember this when gathering feedback from their staff. Extroverts will give you feedback right away and be done with it, often at the meetings themselves. However, introverts will digest and process bits of information they gleaned from the meeting for days after. Administrators should try to give them more space and time to make observations, provide insight and propose improvements that everyone else might have immediately overlooked. One way to do this is to keep a digital form available so introverts can contribute feedback when they are ready and have thoroughly come to a thought conclusion. It also gives them an opportunity to articulate their thoughts in a non-public venue.
Collaboration is hugely effective, but so is independent thought. Introvert and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, who is a proponent of working independently, once said, “I don’t believe anything really revolutionary has been invented by a committee.” In a collaborative environment, we must find balance between meeting times and isolative creation. Let introverts wander off alone into the depths of thought and bring ideas back to committees and groups, rather than collective ideation in real-time. Solitude can be a catalyst for innovation.
While reading Cain’s book, I came to the realization that I was being an enormous hypocrite towards my introverted students. I had unknowingly succumbed to the Extrovert Ideal and was pushing my quieter students to be more talkative, participate more in whole class discussions and work in a highly collaborative and stimulating environment. Thinking back, I had the best of intentions and wanted them to grow up to be not like me (an introvert). I wanted to provide the nurture that perhaps I had missed as a child so they could have all of those extroverted qualities that many introverts wish they had. However, I erroneously thought that introversion and extroversion were more dependent on nurture, when in fact, it mostly comes down to nature.
As a teacher, that doesn’t mean I believe we should move back to an era of isolation and individualized learning and completely do away with collaborative learning environments. However, I think we all could consider riding the pendulum back a bit towards the center when it comes to collaboration over-kill in a classroom.
We consider the learning needs of EAL students, Learning Support students, Exceptional Learners and everyone in between. But how often do we consider what an introverted student might need, or be feeling, in a modern classroom? I don’t think they are going to need pull-out support, but I might give them a little more freedom if they decide to pull themselves out of an overstimulating and talkative group.
Introverts are not better or worse than extroverts; they are just different. There are many biological factors that play into how introverts and extroverts respond in certain situations. Although emotions and thoughts can be nurtured and re-learned to a certain degree, introverts are the way they are due to reasons beyond their control. In 21st century schools, it’s not only unrealistic, but also unfair that introverts are expected to be more like extroverts. Educational institutions should strive to be a little more understanding of our quirky personas, and perhaps even consider ways in which introverts can be more effective colleagues and learners.
And if that happens, instead of the social majority wondering what’s wrong with us, maybe we can begin to teach them what’s right with us…
The primary source for the blog post above was Susan Cain’s, “The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.” Instead of constantly sourcing and quoting her, I will defer much of the information in the background section to her book. If you are an introvert, are in a relationship with one or work closely with one, I highly recommend reading her book. She also has a wonderful TED talk that gives a much-less detailed overview of her research.