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Dear America, Stop Trying to Change Us! Love, an Introvert

Reading Alone by Alex Hung

“If you could chose three adjectives to describe yourself, which ones would you chose and why?”

Ah, a tired, clichéd question and standard favorite among job interviewers the world over.  How many of you have been asked that question before?  And what did you say in response?

Well, if you’ve ever been to a job interview in the United States, then you’ve probably, at one time or another, answered something along the lines of:  “friendly, outgoing and a team-player”.  Whether these adjectives are accurate descriptions of you or not, is irrelevant.  American employers favor candidates who are outgoing. Some companies even go as far as to screen applicants for this trait, using a personality test that measures levels of extroversion. This application process, in effect, renders anyone on the quieter, more introspective side of the spectrum out of the running for a job that he or she may be well-suited for. Therefore, anyone applying for a job in America would be smart to pretend to be the life of the party, even if the truth is that they’d far prefer to read a book about a party than ever attend one.

Burning Red by Nam Nguyen

According to the Psychology Today article “Revenge of the Introvert”, this cultural bias towards extroversion is due to the fact that the U.S. is a “verbal culture”. Americans place high value on those who possess a gift for gab and who are good at thinking on their feet.

Or as researchers  Anio Sallinen-Kuparinen, James McCroskey, and Virginia Richmond explained, “In verbal cultures, remaining silent presents a problem.”  Someone who takes a few minutes to absorb what was said before she offers her opinion is often seen as a “bad communicator” or worse, slow and incompetent.

Solo Monk by Jason Tabarias

But this bias doesn’t exist in many other cultures. As the article points out, the Finnish hold a high regard for those who value silence and in Asian cultures “privacy and restraint” are qualities that are favored over more extroverted communication styles like small-talk or being overly direct or chatty.

So why does the U.S. favor talkative-types over deep-thinkers? Is it because extroverts make up a larger portion of the American population?  Surprisingly, no. According to Psychology Today, the ratio of extroverts to introverts in the U.S. is an even 50-50. It would therefore stand to reason that, given the fact that every other person in America is an introvert, there would be more of an awareness for the gifts an introvert has to offer. But reality is quite the opposite. The trend in American culture is to label those who prefer to converse with a few close friends rather than a room full of strangers as “shy”. People mistakenly assume that a person who would rather focus inward for solutions to problems instead of brainstorming with a group is a “bad team-player”.

This gross misunderstanding of the introvert personality type (by extroverts and introverts alike) is doing society a real disservice.  Psychology Today claims that it’s what accounts for why many introverts in the U.S. suffer from depression. They feel ashamed and alienated; like outsiders in their own culture.

The fact is that introversion isn’t a curse, it’s a gift. Or as introvert-life coach Beth Buelow put it, “We hate people telling us how we can be more extroverted, as if that’s the desired state.” Introversion isn’t any better or worse than extroversion, it’s just different.  And although introverts may not naturally excel at small talk or may shy away from impromptu speeches, they have skills that extroverts don’t. They are natural-born listeners and problem solvers for one, and are excellent choices for any job that requires a great deal of concentration or thought.

Perhaps some day, the time will come when an introvert can attend a job interview and proudly describe herself as “quiet” or answer honestly when asked whether or not she “prefers to work with others or alone”, without worrying that the interviewer will think she’s antisocial. But until then, introverts will continue to hide among the masses, suffering in silence.

For more information on what it means to be an introvert, read Sophia Dembling’s column, ‘The Introvert’s Corner’, on Psychology Today’s website or my post about being an introverted traveler.

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6 thoughts on “Dear America, Stop Trying to Change Us! Love, an Introvert

  1. You are correct that introverts are misunderstood and looked down upon in the USA. I don’t think it was always that way. There was a time that being ‘reserved’ was a virtue.

    Perhaps the movement toward a simpler life and increased attention on meditation will help introverts recover some respect.

  2. Yes, I definitely think there is a bias in favor of extroverts in the US. As I mentioned, I usually get an E for extrovert on the Myers Briggs, but I is not far behind. I need and value that quiet time as much as I enjoy being around people. Maybe it’s because I can be really outgoing in groups, I’ve noticed that a lot of people don’t understand when I take time away from a group for some alone time. Working in education, I often see staff gravitating towards and praising the extroverted students, but the quieter students who tend to sit back and observe often have really interesting or insightful things to say when you are able to engage them in conversation. There’s kind of this idea that if you are quiet, you need to break out of your shell, when some people are just quiet and that’s that!

  3. “There’s kind of this idea that if you are quiet, you need to break out of your shell, when some people are just quiet and that’s that!”

    That’s so TRUE. I hate when parents and teachers try to encourage the quiet kids to speak up more and join-in. I think that if they’re shy, then encouraging them to be brave and participate is a good idea, but being introverted and being shy are two different things. Adults would be good to remember that just because a kid isn’t talking, doesn’t mean he’s scared to, he could just be happy observing and listening.

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